Bowled Over By A Bowl
SRI LANKA won the Bowl competitionat last week’s 2012 Borneo Rugby Sevens, which is no big deal really, given that likesuccess was achieved last year as well. So, to accord the returning team, Tuesday night at the KIA, something of a heroes’ welcome was a tad too rich on the part of the SLRFU.
The drummers and dancers were present, as were pretty girls bearing garlands for players; only the red carpet had apparently been forgotten, but not so invitations to the media to come see the show, cameras and all.
The airport show was stuff ofgrandeur, and it was perfectly possible that some visiting tourist bedazzled by the scenes of celebration, might’ve gone looking for an Olympic medal or two on the chests of the athletes, in the mistaken belief they were returning Olympians.The welcome reception, Tuesday night, was of a scale befitting such lofty deeds– but to accord it to winners of what really is a consolation prize is, well, to put it politely,overkill.
The intention of the razzmatazz is patently clear:to beat up the Borneo Bowl success into an achievement of a far greater magnitude.
The Bowl, as aforesaid, is no big deal. It is a competition,to say it bluntly, designed to give teamsfinishing last in each of the four groups something to do on day 2, whilst the more successful teams of day 1 contest for the more precious pieces of silver.
The other teams relegated to the Bowl competition in Borneo: Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, like Sri Lanka, had lost all of their group matches on day 1.
Without a Bowl to play for, the four teams would’ve been reduced to redundancy on day 2. Hence a Bowl was placed on the prize table, and its’ only point of interest, as a competition, was to discover the best of day 1’s bad lot.Sri Lanka finished best among the last four, not quite the sort of achievement to shout about from rooftops and bring in dancers and drummers, and flowers, in celebration.
Back in 1984 Hisham Abdeen’s team won the first ever Bowl competition of the 36-year old, world-renowned Hong Kong International Sevens, and given the historical significance of that achievement, an airport reception of the sort accorded the team Tuesday night might’ve been, if not exactlyjustifiable, at least excusable.
There were other reasons why 1984 was more momentous. It was achieved in a 24-nation competition as opposed to the 12-nation Borneoevent. In other words, the opposition encountered in Hong Kong was worldwide and hence, the competition much stiffer – unlike in Borneo, where the participation was confined to only Asian countries.
As well, the Borneo Bowl competition, with a field of just four teams was an easier take – in comparison to the eight-team race for the Hong Kong Bowl. Sri Lanka beat Thailand in the 1984 final, 16/10, after enduring a ferocious challenge from the rumbustious Papua New Guineans, the favourities, to win the semifinal, 10/4, and swamping Brunei, 26/0, in the quarterfinal.
So what sort of airport reception did the SLRFU lay out for Abdeen’s 1984 team? “Theteam arrived to a deserted airport around midnight; there were no Union officials to receive them, nor were we expecting them– after all it wasn’t the Cup we had won,” said a member of the 1984 squad. “If we had arrived to a hero’s welcome, well, we might’ve thought it was meant for a visiting dignitary.”
So what did the 2012 team do to deserve better? Let’s first spread out Sri Lanka’sBorneo result sheet: lost to Japan, 34/7, and Chinese-Taipei, 17/14 in the Group C; defeated Thailand 22/10 and Malaysia, 19/12. The upshot: Sri Lanka’s standing in the Asian Sevens ranking, ninth on embarkation to Borneo, was the same on disembarkation in Colombo, though you wouldn’t have suspectedstagnation for all the brouhaha on arrival.
Being the first of ARFU’s four ranking tournaments, climaxing with the Asian World Cup qualifier in Singapore in November, Sri Lanka’s Borneo ambition had been about securing fifth/sixth place in the rankings – i.e. by qualifying for the Plate final against the likes of Philippines,Chinese-Taipei and Kazakhstan,no mission impossible as we had overcome these countries in the past.
Had the Borneo mission succeeded, we would’ve been in the hunt for one of three places the IRB has set aside for Asia in next year’s World Cup Sevens in Moscow. And to help our cause, the highest Sevens’ try-scorer in world, Ben Gollings, was hired as coach.
The failure to qualify for the Plate competition,so, has to be regarded as a disappointment. But to be fair, there are reasons that mitigate the failure, none better than inadequate time for preparation – a deficiency that the Union could do little to prevent. Ideally, the preparation ought to have been at least a month long, but with the domestic inter-club league tournament in progress, potential selectees were never going to join the national pool for training. When they did, which was roughly a week before the Sept.1-2 Borneo Sevens, only three days of national squad training, under Golling, was possible. Three months of league matches might’ve left the Borneo-bound squad supremely fit, but Sevens require quite a different set of skills to the fifteens game.
The problem of inadequate preparation for our international Sevens engagements is not a new one, given that it is locked into our domestic competitions – which is why the Asanga Seneviratne committee had planned to move the domestic season from the present May-October to December-March, and so make space for better preparation for Asian Sevens series in Sept.-Oct. The plan was to take effect this season but was put on hold for next year due to clubs’ commitments to their respective sponsors in the 2012 season.
Fortunately, the preparation time for the Shanghai Sevens, second in the four-tournament Asian Sevens series, ismore generous as it isn’t entwined to theClifford Cup knockout tournament, scheduled to kickoff after the Sept. 22-23 Shanghai competition. So, there’s reason for greater optimism in Shanghai given that the preparation would be far more comprehensive.
Winning the Borneo Bowl might be no reason to go gaga, but our performances overall presents hope for Plate qualification in Shanghai. Arguably, of the four groupings (each consisting of three teams) inthe Borneotournament, Sri Lanka was drawn into the toughest lot: Japan, the eventual Cup champions, and Chinese-Taipei, the Plate winners.
Sri Lanka did, of course, succumb to both its Group C opponents, but despite deficient preparation, wewere anything but lambs led to slaughter. To have restricted Japan to 12/7 in the first half provides an insight to what we might be capable of achieving later in the series. If nothing else, it showed the Bowl is not what we should be competing for, as testified in our Group C meeting with eventual Plate winners, Chinese Taipei: the difference between loser and winner was a solitary try. Had the slender difference been in our favour, it’s fair to assume that we might’ve taken the Plate.
It is, thus, easy to get the sense that the Plate is winnable in Shanghai – in which case Union officials responsible for Tuesday night’s airport shindig will have to think up something better. Surely, it can’t be drummers and dancers and flowers again. How about a street carnival, Katunayake to Colombo, as a cavalcade of horn-blaring cars escort the team into the city? – or any flight of fancy that’ll make it look as if the World Cup is being brought home.