The Sunday Leader

Shanghai Plate Shows Up Flaws In Borneo Bowl

The winning Sri Lankan team with the Plate

SRI LANKA’S triumph in the Shanghai Sevens Plate competitionlast week is a significant improvement on its Bowl success three weeks before in Borneo.The Shanghai conquest was over Asian rugby’s second- tier nations, as against success over level-three opposition in Borneo. And the upshot: we finished fifth-best in last week’s competition, from a lowly ninth three weeks ago.
The rise, on face value, is commendable andgives the SLRFU bragging rights at least until the third and final leg of the HSBC Asian Sevens Series, October 13-14 in Mumbai – at the end of which the IRB’s final Asian rankings for 2012/13 will be known. These rankings have added importance since it determines the seedings for IRB’s Asian World Cup qualifier in November in Singapore.
The IRB has allotted Asia three slots in the 24-nation lineup for the Sevens World Cup in June2013 in Moscow. It is nice to think that Sri Lanka can stake claimsfor one of the three World Cup slots, but the more realisticgoal in the ongoing Asian Sevens series would be to improve our standingin Asia.
Last year Sri Lanka finished ninth; so last week’s success mustinspire hopes of a rise in our rank to a level that might help usqualify to compete in prestigious IRB Sevens tournaments in Hong Kong and Dubai, tournaments in which we once were a regular participant, but over the past five or so years have beenconsidered unworthy of inclusion.
Finishing fifth-best in Shanghai is reason for greater optimism in the Mumbai leg next month, but lest more is made of the Plate achievement than deserved, a tempering of such optimism with a dash of caution is advisable. Let’s first come off from behind rose-tinted glasses and see last week’s achievement in the cold light of day. A misnomer has to be cleared here and now:  finishing fifth in Shanghai doesn’t mean we’re presently fifth in the Asian ranking, as is the popular impression. The latest official IRB ranking has Sri Lanka at no.7 with 20 points – behind,top downward, Hong Kong (31), defending champions Japan (16), China (29), Korea (26), Chinese-Taipei (26) and thePhilippines (21).
(Japan’s no.2 position notwithstanding its tally of 16 points needs to be explained. The defending champion went pointless last week as they stayed away owing to a politically charged dispute between the two countries’governments over ownership of a scattering of islets in waters between the countries. China RFU might’ve protested Japan’s no.2 positioning, whereas, strictly speaking, its 16 points should’ve placed it tenth, above Malaysia, Singapore and Kazakhstan, the other Shanghai absentee.
Placing the defending champions and no.1 in Borneo among the minnows, however,would’ve been absurd, and thankfullyJapan’s no.2 rank went undisputed.  China RFU, as a tit-for-tat for Japan’s absence [officials’ polite term for boycott, really]might well have pressed for Japan’s demotion – and justifiably so. But it didn’t – and you can only applaud China’s contribution to the cause of separating politics from sport, especially in times when the lines of separation is being increasingly obliterated).
Back to Shanghai: It should also be noted that the absence of Japan and Kazakhstan had reduced the competing field to ten, two less than in Borneo.Hypothetically, should Japan have participated in Shanghai, our Plate success – and seventh rank – could not have been denied given the fact that Japan has perennially competed in the Cup event. But what the Kazaks’ presence in Shanghai might have done to our Plate chances is less certain.  It shouldn’t be forgotten that Kazakhstan qualified for the Plate competition in Borneo – and we didn’t.  Sri Lanka, in comparison to Borneo, however, proved quite another team in Shanghai, but it is fair to say that the Kazaks’presence would certainly have raised the competitiveness of the Plate event a notch or two – and so might’ve made our Plate success that much more difficult to achieve.
All of the above, however, are only ifs and butts. The reality is we won the Plate, was fifth-best team in Shanghai and are ranked no.7 in Asia. Some would like to say the caterpillar of Borneo had metamorphosed into a butterfly in Shanghai, but frankly, it has been more a case of Sri Lanka returning to where it belonged:among the second-tier nations of Asian rugby.
The descent to the Bowl was more our own doing, anyway. The neglect shown by the past administrations to our international sevens campaigns has been exhaustively dealt with in previous columns. Suffice it is to recall here that the squad to do duty in our last appearance at the Hong Kong Sevens (some five years ago) was confirmed only on the night before the morning the team boarded flight.  As well, a proposal to shift the domestic fifteens season to the backend of the calendar so as to keep open the August-October period  for comprehensive Asian Sevens series preparations was left unattended – but, happily, the proposal is to be implemented by the Asanga Seneviratne administration next year.
Clearly, the Shanghai Plate success was because the preparations were better than it had been for Borneo event, for which event collective squad training was possible only after the closure of the league seasona week before the first leg of the Asian Seven series. Just three days of squad training was all that was possible. For the Shanghai campaign, English coach Ben Gollings had the full squad for well over two weeks – and it showed on the playing field.
Some changes too were made for the Shanghai Sevens – none more crucial than the change in captaincy, Kandy SC’s Fazil Marij replacing Upcountry Lions’ Sooriyabandara. Marij, by far the most senior national player, should’ve been appointed leader for the entire series anyway. It is fair to say that Marji’s leadership qualities played an influential role in the Plate success. The inclusion of Havelock’s’ Shenal Dias and Mohammed Sheriff too obviously added the squad’s strength, contributing to an enhancement of fortunes in Shanghai.
So now, on to Mumbai. After winning the Bowl in Borneo and the Plate in Shanghai, taking the Cup in Mumbai would give the story a lovely fairytale finish. That sort of ending, though, is more fiction than fact. But if we qualify to be one of the four Cup teams that would be as good as winning the Cup itself.   Japan and Hong Kong are in quite another realm, and you’d have to ink them as nos. 1 and two in Mumbai – which means we’ll have to compete with China, Korea and Chinese-Taipei, presently ranked 3,4 and 5 respectively,  for the other two places in the Cup event.
Whilst historical records show we’ve had no success over Korea, there have been wins over China and  Chinese-Taipei – so confrontations against the latter teams contain no mental baggage. As well, Chinese-Taipei’s record in the ongoing series’ offer hopeful reading. In Borneo, we conceded the match to Chinese-Taipei, 14/17, after holding lead at one time. In Shanghai, Chinese Taipei was held to 7/7 tie against Thailand, a team we thrashed 22/7  in the Plate final. Chinese-Taipei then goes and upset Korea, 26/7, in playoff for third and fourth places. We lost to the Koreans, 12/17 in Shanghai – all of which make our prospect of qualifying for  the Mumbai Cup competition no fantasy.
China, of course, had home advantage last week, a reason, together with the absence of Japan, which  helped them enlarge their lead over Korea by three points for the no.3 rank, after being ahead  by only a point in Borneo. Hot and humid Mumbai might prove to be less helpful to China.
Whilst our chances for Cup qualification – and a rank in the top four – are realistic,  much will be dependent on the preparations and selections. The ongoing inter-club  knockout tournament ends a week before the Oct. 13-14 Mumbai Sevens. With World Cup seedings at stake, you can be certain there’ll be no no-shows and hence the competition in Mumbai is going to be of far greater intensity.
That being the prospect, a week with Gollings is going to be inadequate to prepare the squad for the challenges. Clubs naturally will be unwilling to release its players for national squad training, an unwillingness thathad cost the country dear in the past. But the clubs’ right to have the first call on its players is legitimate given that they are the paymasters. But that shouldn’t discourage the Union from trying to come to some sort of arrangement with clubs. Given that a club practices five days a week, to release a few players for squad training, say twice a week, isn’t an unreasonable request, given that the release is for a national cause.
The matter of selection is of no less importance, especially that of the leader. With two different captains for two tournaments in the space of a month, you can’t rule out a new one being named for Mumbai, on grounds of precedence  and adherence to a policy of allowing more players the chance to gain leadership experience – or some such addle-headed theory so that  the preferred choice of a politically-influential figure might be given the job.
Why Marij, national team player for some eight years successively, wasn’t appointed leader in the first instance, and his junior of some six years, Sooriyabandara was, had, apparently,to do with the latter’s allegiance to Upcountry Lions, a club based in Sport Minister, Aluthgamagme’s Nawalapitiya electorate. One hopes the selectors don’t succumb to any such political shenanigans – lest a Cup campaign lowers to aBowl scrap.

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