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Life At The Top Is A Lot Harder

  • Being Asia’s Division 1 Champs Is Great, But Not The Greatest

AT long last Sri Lanka rugby has something about which to feel proud. Claiming the Asian Five-Nations Division One Championship, last week in Singapore, was indeed an admirable achievement – admirable not so much for the team’s splendid triumphs as the overcoming of administration-imposed odds.

The national squad’s preparation for what is Asia’s premier rugby joust had been pathetic: Whereas other participant-countries’ preparations had been months-long, ours’ began only in the final week prior to departure, thanks to the protracted legal wrangle between then Sport Minister, Gamini Lokuge, and the 15 national players he banned last year (for pulling out from the 2009 Asian Nations in protest over the appointment of Pavithra Fernando as captain).

The ban, it will be remembered, was lifted by as good as a Presidential order just about a fortnight before the tournament; a National Coach, on loan from Kandy SC, was appointed a few days later and the touring squad chosen only days before the event.

So preparations for our singly most important tournament had been what you might call, at best, patchy, and so any prediction of championship glory out of this mishmash would have to be brushed aside as wishful thinking. This is not to cast aspersions on our players’ talents and capabilities, qualities they’re blessed abundantly with – but, as commonsense say, qualities that will count for pretty much nothing if not honed in the weeks approaching competition.

Handicap of insufficient preparation apart, it should not also be forgotten that the domestic game hadn’t awoken from its off-season slumber since last September – which in theory means our players would not have had a feel of competitive rugby for some six months. And in that state of un-preparedness, to take on oppositions primed for battle is, well, better stay at home.

And the stay-at-home option might’ve been given serious consideration but for the fact that the Presidential repeal of the two-year ban on the 15 national players (without whom participation in Singapore would really have been an exercise in futility) had fortuitously coincided with Kandy SC’s near-two-week tour to South Africa and Dubai, which ended a week before the Singapore tournament kick-off.

In preparation for the three-match tour of two countries, the champion club had undergone a rigorous programme of training since last January under their South African coach, Johan Taylor. By any measure the preparations had been thorough, and given the absence of any plan of readiness by the SLRFU Interim Committee, a suggestion that Kandy SC ought to represent the country at the Asian Five-Nations would not have been exactly an improper proposition.

Effectively, though, that was the case in all but name: Kandy SC players’ made-up half the 24-man touring squad. And that dozen became 13 even before the first kick-off with a Kandy SC player flown out as replacement for the one sent back home for shop-lifting in Singapore, a slur the squad could have done without, awaiting the first kick-off.
By any definition Kandy SC’s majority in the national side was massive, a scale of dependence on a single entity that isn’t quite the best thing for the game. But few can quarrel on the hill country club’s domination of the national side given that no club’s commitment to professionalism has been as long and as earnest as theirs’.

To say that Sri Lanka rugby is Kandy SC would, in nationalistic terms, be impolite, but as far as the 2010 Five-Nation campaign is concerned, it is justifiable to conclude that, but for the champion club’s contributions, Sri Lanka’s no.1 standing among Asia’s First Division countries (and the consequent elevation to Asian rugby’s highest plateau) would not have been possible. Any one contesting that claim need only to be told to go refer records of last year’s Five-Nation in Dubai. Fifteen Kandy SC players made themselves unavailable for the Dubai event over the aforementioned captaincy dispute – a protest action that earned them a two-year ban. A National team went anyway, without Kandy SC players – and was beaten to third place last year.

This year the champion club players were available for national duty and it is no coincident that Sri Lanka finished on top. Statistics provide telling evidence of Kandy SC’s winning hand in the campaign. Of the 13 in the squad, no less than eleven figured in the triumphant 26/16 Final – in which Sri Lanka’s entire tally was made up of the contributions of three Kandy SC players, Saliya Kumara, Chamara Vithange, and Roshan Weeraratne.

After last year’s dismal performance (third in a field of four), elation over finishing no.1 is understandable. But to give the success historical significance (as some IC officials are doing) is to suffer from a bout of amnesia. It is forgivable that much is made of our no.1 standing in Division One of Asian rugby. But to overdo the boast to the point that it creates the impression we’re no.1 in Asia would be unwise.

All you have to do is look at the lineup to realize that the Division One classification can be misleading. The rival teams were Chinese-Taipei, Singapore and Malaysia. Bar Chinese-Taipei, the other two countries for long were not considered serious challengers, and indeed we whipped them often enough to be in a league above theirs’, 70s through to the mid-90s. Of late, Singapore and Malaysia are a different kettle of fish only because they’ve conscripted into their national teams expatriate players.

As for Chinese-Taipei, till lately they sat at Asian rugby’s high table alongside the likes of Japan, S. Korea and Hong Kong. And its decline to the mid-levels is believed to be the outcome of an overall decline in the popularity of, and hence investments in, the sport.

Against that background, it would be prudent to not bask too much in the glory of Division One champions, but get feet back to ground and prepare for the tough life at the top. Relatively, division 1 competition is picnic ground and the super division, battle field. To qualify to sit at the same table with Asian giants, Japan, S.Korea, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan is fine, but to stay in such exalted company next year, however, is quite another matter.

Realistically, the opponents from Far East are, for the time being, beyond our coping. Not so Kazakhstan, a team we defeated in 2005, during the Priyantha Ekanayake regime, an administration far removed from the trouble-torn ones of now. That is another story. Anyway, it’s fair to say that our chances of staying among Asia’s top five will hinge on the match against the Kazaks – defeat would mean a return ticket to division one; a win, one more year among the exalted.

What can be said with certainty at this point of time is that there’s no room for the sort of haphazard management that made a joke of our last two Five-Nation preparations. A virtual Second XV represented the country last year; this year, as you know, we were represented by the best players, but no thanks to the incumbent administration.

Even in triumph, the administration has to contend with controversy, the one surrounding the withdrawal of Yoshitha Rajapaksa midway during the tournament – a withdrawal, the IC explained away as pretty much unavoidable as the flanker had to attend a Naval training course in Moscow. It didn’t do the IC’s credibility any good when the flanker figured in the Fox Hill Motor Cross on the day Sri Lanka played the final. Given the importance of flanker Rajapaksa, the IC obviously wouldn’t hear of initiating an inquiry into what is after all a dereliction of national duty – no matter how detrimental it might be to the sport. But ah well, that’s the way it goes in old Lanka.

3 Comments for “Life At The Top Is A Lot Harder”

  1. correctpath12

    http://www.salafipublications.com/sps/

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  2. Psycho

    Do you guys think that this is a missionary publication?

    Dont try cheap free shots of propagation OK

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