The Sunday Leader

Sri Lanka’s No.1 Ranking Hard To Live Up To

Only three from champion side for April 14-22 Div.1 A5N scrap in Manila
BY virtue of being ranked no.1 in Division One of the Asian Five Nations rugby competition, Sri Lanka has to be tagged the favourites – a burden to bear even at the best of times. But for a team that can hardly be described as the country’s best; the favourite’s tag is a bit of a misnomer, and a millstone around the neck.
The 24-member national squad named last week is a radical departure from the selection practice of recent years: it includes only three players from the champion club. After all, it is recorded history that, since the beginning of Kandy SC’s dominance more than a decade ago, its representatives in the national team far outnumbered those of other clubs. In 2010 for instance, when Sri Lanka won promotion to the top tier of A5N, the national team had fourteen from the champion side.
Kandy SC are champions yet, so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be allotted its deserved quota for the 2012 A5N campaign, April 14-22 in the Philippines. But blame it not on the selectors for the shortfall … a good many of its players didn’t want to be a part of the selections, period. Personal reasons of varied sorts had been advanced for their non availability: from overseas training and injuries to work/family commitments.
Not known to ever concur with the SLRFU on any issue, Union administrators don’t need any prompting to accuse officials of the champion club of manipulating a “boycott” of its key players. The club’s riposte: it’s the players’ right to choose if they will be available or not, and dismiss claims of “boycott’’ by citing that three of its four players who attended national pool training are in the touring squad and will be performing national duty anyway.
Whether Kandy SC’s story is superficial or not, unsurprisingly a majority of its membership is in sympathy of the players’ decision to opt out of the 2012 A5N event. “Who would captain was an open secret even before the preparations began, and as to why some of our players with greater seniority were not mentioned as candidates caused some frustration. The players couldn’t quite comprehend why a national player of just two years should be given the job and not one of the many other seniors,’’ said an official on condition of anonymity. “Fazil (Marija) has done national duty for eight years, while the service of some others isn’t much less. Captaining your country is not an honour you want to miss out on if you feel it is within grasp – and some of them believed that this year it was in their reach. So it’s understandable why some of our senior players opted out. ”
This is not to subscribe to the theory that the senior-most player a good leader maketh. Young Yoshita Rajapaksa might well do as a good or better job of it than a senior, and his leadership of the Navy over the past two seasons, finishing second-best to Kandy SC, merits some recognition. But if another player with similar credentials but without the Temple Trees address would’ve been handed the appointment is, well, let’s just say a matter for debate.
The squad might not represent a full-strength national outfit, but to say it’s a team of no-hopers is to be recklessly subjective. The preparations, frankly, have been far more comprehensive than it had been for campaigns of recent years, all of which, it has to be said, were ad-hoc arrangements with the tournament looming. As example, suffice it is to say, Sri Lanka rugby had been without a permanent national coach since New Zealander George Simpkin’s departure some five years ago. Instead, different club-level coaches did the job, piece meal.
This time round however, an initial pool of some 40-odd players went into training in January under assistant coach Sanath Martis. And from March on, the squad was put in charge of English coach Phil Greening, signed on by the Union for two years. The former coach of top English club Bath, Greening comes bearing impressive testimonials as a player: 37 internationals for England including five World Cup appearances in 1996.
So it’s a reasonable assumption that the impact of the Greening-authored high-quality preparation on the squad might well help negate the deficiency brought about by the absence of some of Kandy SC’s senior players – which rather explains the Union’s apparent “we can do without you’’ response to their absence. That wasn’t the case when Kandy SC players previously opted out of national duty – then there were nasty outpourings from the SLRFU accusing the absent players of being traitors.
There was promise of a more cordial relationship between the SLRFU and the champion side under the new Asanga Seneviratne administration. After all, Senevirtatne and Kandy SC honcho, Malik Samarawickrema, had been on the same side not long ago, challenging controversial actions of previous regimes. Whatever might have caused the apparent estrangement between the two will, of course, never be brought to public domain, but this much is certain: the political cloud hanging long over rugby is not going to blow away.
That being the case, it is easy to conclude that the absence of Kandy SC’s senior players is not without political connotations. Which is sad, as ambitions of reclaiming our place in the top tier of Asian rugby seems to have been relegated to secondary importance. Were it otherwise, then some sort of resolution ought to have been worked out between the differing parties so that a full-strength national outfit could’ve been dispatched to Manila.
Sri Lanka might be ranked no.1 in next week’s four-nation competition, but it’s no reason to take anything for granted. That our best outfit will not be on duty aside, the opposition is going to be lot tougher than in 2010, when the Kandy SC-crowded national team won the Div.1 championship and qualified for 2011 top tier contest (alongside the likes of Japan and Hong Kong)– only to drop back to Div.1 (read: second tier) this year.
In many ways next week’s Div.1 competition will be different to ones of the past. The Philippines tournament format is round-robin, replacing the knockout system of old. In practical terms the change means each team will play three matches, not the two of old (semifinal and relegation playoff). As well, it’s not the usual crop of second-tier countries that make up the field: Chinese-Taipei, Singapore and The Philippines will be the opponents – and not the Thais, Malaysians or Chinese traditionally encountered.
Customarily, Chinese-Taipei and Sri Lanka battled for Asia’s fifth/sixth slot, behind Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan/ Arabian Gulf. That close rivalry with Chinese-Taipei continues. Singapore’s inclusion of overseas players is why it is now a serious contender for second-tier honours and The Philippines… well, that’s a surprise package. A Div. 3 competitor not many moons ago, it’s a tribute to the nation of islands’ resolve and commitment that it now enjoys Div.1 status. Of course, it was foreign players who had put the zoom into The Philippines’ rise, and given home advantage, you take the “upstarts” lightly at your peril.
It is also intriguing why all of Sri Lanka’s three matches have been slotted for 5 p.m. starts; two of the host nation’s matches kick-off at 7 p.m. The Philippines’ climate between March and May is, in Google’s description, hot and dusty – not quite the most pleasant time to be playing rugby. Not that those sultry conditions are alien to us, but it says just how far the host nation will go to make life difficult for the no.1 ranked nation. A protest by the SLRFU would not have been inappropriate, but, unfortunately, our officials either didn’t detect the anomaly or, detecting it, let it pass for reasons only they know.
The odds are many, but this is not to suggest that the championship is beyond the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lankans. Prospects for top-tier promotion, however, would’ve been a lot rosier were the best on duty.

3 Comments for “Sri Lanka’s No.1 Ranking Hard To Live Up To”

  1. tompachaya

    wonder what Yo Shitter can achieve…

  2. Ian D.S

    If anyone has the guts to say that the best suited has been named Captain of this team they should be sent to the nearest mental asylum to have their heads examined. Having played this game for over two decades and having regularly watched club rugby matches in Sri lanka I say with absolutely no doubt that the two Rajapaksha brothers are not even up to Sri lankan “A” division club standard. The played “A” division club rugby only because they played for the Navy and this club only performed well this season ONLY because the managed to grab a few good players from other clubs who was in NO way connected to the Navy.
    Both these players cannot tackle for a toffee, both do not have the speed to run the ball, both cannot even catch the high ball properly and both these cowards are scared of getting tackled.
    The present Rugby head is a political goonda with absolutely no scruples and integrity both in business and in sports. With a helpless “Kade yana” sports minister, with political patronage that have taken a Vice like grip into this one time “Gentleman’s Game’ the ROT has well and truly started. Rest assured ALL matches played by Sri lanka in this tournament will be lost with Cricket scores.

    • For truth and against thuggery

      Ian D.S:
      You have stated the FACTS. Well done!

      The SLRFU, as an appendage of the Rajapakshas and their acolytes who do their bidding has been in seriously trouble for a long time and accusations WITHOUT FOUNDATION that the Kandy Sports Club is boycotting the national team are simply excuses for the incompetence of the SLRFU administration and a bunch of useless “wannabe “national” players.

      They are going to fail overseas because, unlike in Sri Lanka where they ordered the referee what to do at the last Clifford Cup Final, they can’t push foreign officials around. Surprise of surprises, they are not going to be able to predetermine the results of games in which the Royal Family are represented!

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