The Sunday Leader

No Excuse For Failure This Time!

SRI LANKA has hosted the Asian Rugby tournament thrice before, but none had quite managed to generate the sort of optimism today’sfourth hosting has.More than one reason inspires this goodishfeeling; the national team’s superior state of battle-readiness not the least of them.

After all,no preparation for the premier Asian competition over the past decade and a half has been as exhaustive and as expensive as the one Yoshita Rajapaksa’s men have been put through.

A 53-member pool went into training as early as in January, albeit working individually on fitness regimens specially crafted to suit the needs of each player.The pool was trimmed to 33 players in mid-February and placed in charge of foreign coaches Ravin du Plesis, a South African, and Sri Lanka National Seven coach, Ben Gollings, an Englishman, both expensively contracted specifically for the campaign.

That the final squad of 25 was announced, Monday, barely a week before the openingmatch kicks-off todayat Havelock Park, suggests the chosen were the tried-and-tested best.

Since the turn of the century, it is difficult to recall a more comprehensive program of preparation as this one,for what is singly Sri Lanka rugby’s most crucial international competition, being, as it is, the gateway to transit from the Asian to the World stage.

If at all, any recollection of past preparations only bring to mind the many ill-prepared campaigns– so haphazard and ad hoc-ish that champion club, Kandy SC,  in 2009,declined to be a part of what it thought bore signs of a “suicidal’’ campaign. In another year, the champion club loaned its foreign coach to help cash-strapped SLRFU prepare the national squad.

All that may be water under the bridge, but it does leave a message of hope. That is:if Sri Lanka, despite its past preparations’ inadequacies,was able to retain its second-tier standing(and not dip to third-tier as once-recognised tier-two nations Thailand and Malaysia didnow and then), and was even able to enjoy a one-night stand at the top level, in 2011, then, three months of constructive training, logically, ought to make the host country a safe bet for championship honoursthis time.

Why expectations are higher this year is best answered by the outcome of our campaign last year. The Asanga Seneviratne administration has assumed power just about two months prior to the 2012 Asian Five Nations (successor to the Asian Championship) in Manila – and after, Phil Greening,one-time British Lions hooker, had been contracted as national coach, there was just a shade over a monthleft to prepare the national squad for battle.

Scepticism about our chances was excusable, albeit that, as the demoted team from the 2011 top-tier list, we were the appointed top seed. But then, sport’s history is replete of stories of ill-planned and inadequate preparations causing giants’ downfall. As well, two of our challengers in Manila, Chinese-Taipei and Singapore, themselves were considered at one time or another Asia’s top-five bracket teams.

Our preparation for Manila campaign might’ve been insufficient for a four-nation tournament, but not so,though, our skills and talent, the qualities of which helped us more than hold our own: we thrashed Chinese-Taipei and Singapore, 36/8 and 35/10 respectively. But the Philippines, babes of the second-tier,was, potentially, capable of presentinga quality of challenge beyond what you’d expect of a fledgling – thanks to the presence in their ranks of a host expat Filipinos residing in Australia and turning out for professional clubs in Japan and Down Under.

In the first half, in fact, they might’ve been mistaken for one of the Australian professional clubs they represent, as they as good as sealed the match, leading 23/3. But their first-half flourish wasn’t quite the highlight of the match – rather,the more enduring memory was Sri Lanka’senthralling second-half comeback, reducing a 20-point first-half deficit to just five, 18/23.

All that was required was one converted try to overhaul the home team in the final ten minutes. But it was the Filipinos who, against the tide, scored the closing try to win, 28/18, and earn promotion to the top division.

But all certainly was not lost for the Sri Lankans. There was a dawning of realization: the preparations wasn’t the best in 2012 but yet it proved good enough to finish second; so if more time and effort are invested in the 2013 preparations, then, finishingno.1 is pretty much assured, an eventuality that will earn us the right to compete, in 2014, alongside Asian giants like Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea – a position which brings into our horizon the possibility of World Cup participation.

Efforts put into the 2013 preparation, so, was just as good asit gets, a no-stone-left-unturned endeavour.So now all that remains before Yoshita Rajapaska’s team is to get on the playing field and justify the investments put in these past three months. “In the event of failure, a lack of planning and preparation won’t be the reason,’’ said one former SLRFU official. “After this long and expensive a preparation, there’s no excuse for not winning and qualifying to join Asia’s top league of nationsnext year.’’

There’s also the not too inconsiderable matter of home advantage, which has been, let’s be frank, ruthlessly taken advantage of – may be unfairly but not illegally. Scheduling the times for each of the six matches to be played over three days (March 31, April 3 and 6), with two matches scheduled for each day was the host union’s prerogative. And they appointed kick-off times thus: Game 1: 2.30 p.m. Game 2: 4.30 p.m. No prize for saying which of the two start-times is more comfortable for playing rugby.

So, as host country, Sri Lanka helped themselves to 4.30-starts to all of her three matches, which meansall three of her opponents kick off their matches, bar the game v. the home team, at 2.30 p.m., ending close to 4 p.m. – the time of day in April when the shade of a tree is a healthier place to be in than to be tearing up and down a bakingrugby field.And in the case of rivals, Kazakhstan and Chinese-Taipei, where rugby is a winter sport, the change to playing in Colombo’s April afternoon heat would surely be as heartening as being transferred from icy Iceland to the hot sands of the Gobi. Kazakhstan’s last exposure to such drastic climatic change, in 2007 in Colombo, wasn’t a happy experience, losing comprehensively to Sri Lanka.

Critics might shout “unfair’’ at Sri Lanka taking all of the more comfortable start-times, but old-timers are likely to view this “help yourself’’ as mere misdemeanour in comparison to the “felony of 1974. As host, the responsibility of the eight-team 1974 tournament draw was left in the hands of the SLRFU. The presence of an independent ARFU official was not a requirement. So, local officials put the names of the eight teams into the venerable Clifford Cup – and just how the then top four teams (Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand) were all drawn into one group and the four weaker ones (Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and Laos) fell into the other group was… well, let’s just say the work of the hand of God – which might well be the explanation to offer, should Sri Lanka let slip this heaven-sent opportunity to be one of Asian rugby’s top five guns.

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