Sri Lanka’s Finest Hour In Sevens, But No Jig Of Joy
IT’S been a long and oft-repeated theory: Sevens rugby, more than fifteens, is propitious ground for Sri Lanka to make its presence felt on the international stage. The premise isbased on life’s fundamentalfacts: our players aren’t endowed with the physique and strength thatplayers of other countries possess,and hence, are unable to withstand eighty minutes of themauling and colliding that is ‘fifteens’; weare blessed instead with litheness and nimbleness, which are what the fifteen-minute Sevens’ game is about.
The theory isn’t too complex to adopt, and indeed was practiced from a long time ago. Butfor reasons, which we’ll leave for later, it wasn’t until a season or two ago that this commonsense theory began to bear fruit.And the full flowering of its truth came last weekend in Thailand: Sri Lanka achieved its highest ever ranking in international Sevens, finishing third in the second of the four-leg HSBC Asian Seven Series, behind only powerhouses Japan and Hong Kong.
On the heels of last month’s no. 4 rating in Malaysia, the historic success in Thailand leaves Sri Lanka poised to qualify for the IRB World Series in Hong Kong next March. All that Marija’s men have to do in the series’ remaining two legs (Oct.12-13 in Mumbai and Nov.9-10 in Singapore) is to finish fourth-best in each – and so earn its first appearance in Hong Kong since 2006; the seven years that followed found Sri Lanka splashing in the shallows of Asian rugby, with ambitions limited to securing Bowl honours. From that lowly position of not long ago to the current no.3 in Asia must surely go down as the series’ success story of the year.
Theachievementdeserves a special place in the Sevens history of the country, eclipsing as it does what had long been our proudest boast: winning the first Bowl competition of the world-class International Hong Kong Sevens in 1984. So, it is only right to first and foremost offer congratulations to Fazil Marija’s team for providing what unarguably is the country’s finest hour in international Sevens.
But you’d never have guessed a feat of such historic magnitude had been achieved, given the absence of any sort of welcome reception to the returning gladiators. Last year, dancers, drummers, pretty girls bearing flowers and Union dignitaries waited at the arrival lounge to welcome the Sri Lanka teamreturning, from Malaysia, with the Bowl. Last Tuesday night, there was no such Union-inspired reception at the airport – the players emerged and then disappeared into the dark and quiet night outside, forsaken and forgotten. They might’ve been taken for some bedraggled local kabaddi team returning empty-handed from a tournamentin Inner Mongolia, perhaps–was this Asia’s third-best rugby team returning home? Theydidn’t look the part, flying, as they did, into desolation where,deservedly, there ought to have been scenes of champagne-induced merriment.
Probably, in the Union’sbook of wisdom there’s less merit finishing third in Asia,and no silverware to show, than bringing back any oldBowl or Spoon.
Such superficiality, however, won’t detract from what has truly been a remarkable feat. Even if the team had been prepared by a renowned foreign coach, as was the case last year, finishing no.3 in Asia would’ve been hailed as commendable success. Last year, under the hand of top English coach, Phil Greening, Sri Lanka finished sixth in the series – which makes last week’slocally-manufactured gloryall the more astonishing.
This is not to undermine Greening’s reputation as coach. It shouldn’t be forgotten the Englishman inherited a team unworthy of even the Bowl (ending a lowly tenth in the 2011 series) and transformed it in the next year into an outfit that won Bowl and three Plate competitions in the 2012 four-leg series. But the records will show local coach Nilfer Ibrahim was the more successful – even if his pedigree isn’t quite as awesome as the English coach’s.
So, what is it that Ibrahim gave the team that Greening could not? The most significant advantage favouring Ibrahim was, unlike last year,preparations for this year’s campaign wasn’t impededthe slightest by the domestic fifteens tournaments. You’ll recall that last year, and indeed since the beginning of inter-club tournaments in the early 1950s, the inter-club league and knockout competitions were conducted May through to September – with nary a grouse from any quarter.
But with the inauguration, in 1976, of the Hong Kong Sevens, its rising popularity, the birth of the IRB World Series in 1997 and the launch of a separate Sevens competition for Asia, the traditional fifteens domestic season was to become a hindrance as far as our preparationsfor international Sevens were concerned. Basically, the old June-Sept domestic season didn’t sit conveniently with the Aug-Nov Asian Sevens Series looming.
With clubs reluctant to release its players for national sevens training, preparations for last year’s Sevens series wasn’t quite as comprehensive as it should’ve been. But with the shifting this year of the domestic inter-club competition to the new November-January time frame meant the players werefree to give unhindered commitment to preparations for this year’s Asian Sevens Series.
The two-leg Carlton International Sevens in July, too, contributed in no small measure to achieving the historic success. Apart from the obvious benefits accruing to our players from playing against and with a host of world-class overseas players, the Sri Lankan national players also gained immensely from the teachings of reputed foreign coaches who were in charge of each of the teams. As well, there wasn’t a lack of Sevens tournaments, with the inter-club and Mercantile Sevens conducted in weeks before the Asian series.
Whilst the practical aspects of the preparation lacked little, a less obvious, but no less significant,advantage was the leadership of Fazil Marija. You can’t describe his captaincy as assertive and commanding; unassuming by nature;his ways are more introverted than extroverted. But for whatever arrogance his leadership might lack, he countervails with his own skills, efficiency and tactical intelligence; and with the brilliant scrum-half Suriyabandara to combine with, Marjia is in a position to control things on the field like a good captain should. And control he did splendidly. In other words, he set the tone of play – and the team flourished.
It is not difficult to perceive that Marija’s inoffensive nature has bred in the team a sense of togetherness. That coach and skipper are cousins probably also helped the bonding, top- down. But that is of less importance than the relieving absence of ministerial interference which had long plagued national selections during regimes preceding the incumbent Asanga Senevirante administration.
One remembers well the infamous tussle for national captaincy between the selectors’ nominee and the preferred choice of the Sport Ministry. The upshot: two captains were appointed for the tour, one captaining one game and the other, the next and so on.
Then there was the time the Sport Ministry was insistent that the son of a top NOC official should be captain – a choice the selectors wouldn’t hear of. The then Sport Minister, so, smoked out the selectors, asked the NOC selectors to do the rugby selectors’job – and cut a path for the powerful NOC official’s son to the national captaincy. It was also wrangling over selections that once delayed the announcement of the national touring squad until the morning before the afternoon departure.
The above aren’t ancient history – it happened in two-three regimes before Seneviratne’s assumption of office in 2012. His closeness to the ruling class is no doubt a reason why rugby is insulated from the sort of crippling political influence seen previously. Even so, without clear-headed organization, there can’t be improvement. Seneviratne provides that clarity of thought into the game’s management, as well as financial investments. So, to be no.3 in Asia is just reward, and cause for celebration –but alas, where were the drummers, dancers and garlands that night?