Asanga Steers Clear Of Rugby’s Under Currents
ALMOST imperceptibly, the Asanga Seneviratne rugby committee completes the first half of its first term this month. Elected in early January, the domestic season was on holiday for much of the new committee’s first six months anyway, and so a period of quietness was to be expected.
That is how it had been from days of yore, with only the opening week’s matches heralding the arrival of a new season. More recently, though, it were eruptions of controversies that reminded us of the approaching new season – meaning the SLRFU committee’s first six months since election hadn’t gone by serenely unnoticed. The controversies blighting recent administrations even before the tournaments kicked-off, inevitably, set the tone for troubled seasons ahead.
The two previous regimes particularly, i.e. the 2009-10 interim committee of Dr Maiya Gunasekera and the 2010-11 elected committee of the then Air Force chief Roshan Goonetilleke, had this uncanny knack of triggering controversies yearlong over a myriad of issues. Under Dr Gunasekera’s stewardship trouble was inevitable: he dared to write into the constitution new amendments that controversially transferred the voting strength of the Provincial Unions to the A division clubs, thereby reducing to redundancy the Provincial Unions.
The amended constitution caused all sorts of confusion and divisiveness among members, especially in the election of office bearers at AGMs. The 2011 AGM, in fact, was suspended over issues stemming from these amendments. Basically, a majority of the members opposed the method of voting prescribed by the new amendment, but the incumbent regime wouldn’t relent; it insisted the clubs can vote, apparently as that was its only course to retaining power.
With the suspended 2011 AGM unable to elect a committee, the IRB, no less, stepped in. It straight away suspended SLRFU’s membership and asked the local body to resolve its internal conflicts if the suspension is to be rescinded. That it meant business, the world body set a deadline for the 2011 elections and warned the consequence of failure to do so would be SLRFU’s expulsion from the IRB. The Sport Ministry, keen to give Roshan Goonetilleke another term as president, initiated a power-sharing deal between the incumbent regime and its challengers – so ending the impasse.
The power-sharing deal, apart from preventing the SLRFU from being ostracized internationally, one hoped would end the divisiveness that had long dogged the game, with squabbling officials deciding to work in a spirit of unity for the game’s advancement. Not by a long shot. One of the conditions of the power-sharing deal was to have Dilroy Fernando, one-time CEO, back in his old job, a demand made by the challengers’ camp. But the Goonetilleke group resisted Fernando’s appointment, thereby retaining the balance of power in their favour.
The upshot: the incumbent group might’ve “shared” power with the challengers, but there was no stopping the former doing what they want – or, more precisely, to bend the rules to accommodate favours of teams with political clout, like the Navy and the Air Force. Complaints and protests by clubs against the two service teams’ unlawful acquisition of players from other clubs were ignored by the SLRFU, as was the call for an inquiry into the notorious case in which an Air Force player fired a T-56 in the Nittawela playing field during a league match. The Union deflected an inquiry, saying it was a matter for the Police to handle. Then there was also the complaint over the abduction of an ex-Navy player who had joined Kandy SC being swept under the carpet.
The SLRFU’s partiality in favour of the two service teams angered the clubs so badly that it provoked 1/ Kandy SC to publicly accuse the 2010/11 regime of applying two sets of rules – one favouring the service teams and the other discriminating against club teams and 2/ a serious contemplation by clubs to withdraw from SLRFU-conducted tournaments and play ‘friendlies’ among themselves. The Union’s honour and independence too took a hammering when the job of the national selectors was handed to the Sport Ministry so that the son of VIP was appointed national captain, an appointment the selectors were unwilling to make. “The rules governing of the game became something of a plaything of a few politically powerful individuals – when the rules impeded their ambitions, laws were ignored or changed. There was more order in a fish market than in the union,” said an official. There were other controversies too but the aforementioned were the more spectacular ones; the regimes will be remembered as being serial blunderers.
Happily, the Asanga Seneviratne committee’s first six months of its first term has been, in comparison, pretty much the calm after the storm. This doesn’t mean that attempts were not made to light firecrackers under his chair. The first was the old, familiar attempt by a politically-backed club to acquire a player on contract with another club. The rule is clear: if a club wants the services of a player of another club, it is free to do so, providing compensation is paid to the club the concerned player wishes to leave. The player concerned is Sajit Saranga of Kandy SC and the club wanting his services: newcomers Up Country Lions, in Nawalapitiya, the electorate of Sport Minister, Mahindananda Aluthgamage.
Given that political connection, the move by the Nawalapitya club to acquire Saranga was apparently made in the belief the Union would wink at the flagrant contravention of the rules of player-transfer. After all, the SLRFU under stewardship of the Dr Gunasekera and Goonetilleke committees, it had been, at least for two favored clubs, a case of “if you like what you see, take it – no problem.” That is, they could raid the dressing rooms of other clubs and not fear punishment for breaking the rules.
Kandy SC duly protested to the SLRFU, but the politically-powerful Up Country Lions was not going to get the wink and nod from the union this time round. The Seneviratne committee instead applied the player-transfer law – which is: pay Kandy SC first and then take Saranga. The Up Country Lions have already figured in two league matches and Saranga has yet to appear in the colours of the new club. Nor has Kandy SC been inclined to include him in its team. So Saranga is likely to find himself marooned, with no club to play for.
Then there was the case of a top player being sent back home in the middle of Sri Lanka’s Asian 5-Nations campaign in Manila recently – which reminds us of the case a season or two ago when a Navy player was caught red-handed shop lifting in Bangkok. Was he sent back? Not on your life. He continued to stay on tour, thanks to a Presidential pardon, a pardon which also freed him to play in the domestic tournament. No such luck, though, for the miscreant of the Manila tour. He is to face the disciplinary committee inquiry and, given the Seneviratne committee’s determination to run the game by laws laid down, the concerned player is destined to face some sort of penalty.
The controversies of the past, you’ll agree, have their roots in the willy-nilly application of the rules. Seneviratne, clearly, wants to restore the rule of law – something he hinted he would do on assuming office. Though he was vice president in the Goonetilleke committee, he didn’t fight shy of saying that “there was a complete breakdown” during that term.
The bigger challenges to Seneviratne’s push to clean up the administration, however, are yet to come. After all, there are officials in his committee who were politically maneuvered into positions – and so obviously would do the politically-backed clubs’ bidding. His plans to set up an administration on corporate lines are well and good, but the tentacles of political influence find its way to even inner sanctums. So, as Seneviratne, clearly, wants to give leadership to clean governance, he’ll need the support of others in the committee – lest the game becomes something of private playground for a favoured few.