The Sunday Leader

Beware Of The Filipinos; Let The Giants Be

IT was perhaps more formorale’s sake andlove of country that some rugby officials, in the afterglow of Sri Lanka’s promotion to the top tier of Asian rugby last year, proclaimed lofty new goals for our rugby: to get to the top of the Asian heap and qualify for the 2015 World Cup.

The claims, to say the least, are more than a touch over the top, yetpardonable, given the SLRFU officials’ euphoric state of mind at the time these new goals were declared. After all, Sri Lanka had just conquered all of Asia’s Division 1 teams so convincingly that officials’ optimism tended to spill over the brim. But it has to be said that our performance last year was so inspiring that conjuring dreams of tallerachievements at Asian rugby’s highest level too was unavoidable.

Sri Lanka’s performance left little doubt our rugby was a cut above the rest. The 2013 outfit established the sort of authority and dominance over rivals only a few of its predecessors have managed since the country debuted on the Asian stage way back in 1970.  The performance was compelling, memory-making stuff, and revisiting it never ceases to give pleasure.So let’s rewind to last year about this time. In the fray for top tier promotion in 2014 were four teams: Kazakhstan, Chinese-Taipei, Thailand and host Sri Lanka.

Kazakhstan by virtue of its status as a top-tier team for five successive years, 2008 to 2012, and twice runner-up to Japan, in 2009/10, were the favourites. And sure enough host Sri Lanka (after routing Chinese-Taipei, 39/8 and Thailand, 45/7) and Kazakhstan were eventually the only tworemaining in the race for promotion. So their meeting on the last day of the competition was, effectively, the A5N’s Div.1 final.

Being a winner-takes-all contest, a close game was expected – in reality, though,it was anything but that. Clinical and ruthless, Sri Lanka ran the Kazaks ragged to win 49/18, a victory margin thought to be the largest ever in a div.1 decider.Few would have argued against assertionsthat Sri Lanka was just too good for Div.1 – and so was deserving of a place alongside the continent’s traditional powerhouses, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, for the 2014 competition.  The disparity between class and quality of Sri Lanka’s rugby and the rest of the field was plainly obvious.
By any standard Sri Lanka’s rise to no.5 was commendable, remembering that it wasn’t many seasons ago that Sri Lanka had fallen to Div.2, floundering among the below-10 slots.It isn’t accidental that our rapid rise coincided with Asanga Seneviratne assuming the presidency of the SLRFU in 2012.

Apart from introducing measures to raise the game’s level of professionalism, the union invested generously on high profile foreigncoaches for the national sevens and fifteens teams, and so it is only right to apportion some of the credit to South African coach, du Plessis, forour deeds in the 2013div.1 A5N – which in turn aroused high ambitions.

Although it was easy to pooh-pooh those far-fetched ambitions of being no. 1 in Asia and 2015 World Cup participation, you didn’t, in the belief that a Sri Lankan team placed in the hands of a professional foreign coach can be transformed into quite a formidable unit, as the 2013 team under du Plessis showed. Even so, to achieve the declared goals in 2015 was being more than a tad too lofty– and werea deadline for achieving them was set for a decade so later that might’ve been more in the realms of the practical.

If ambitions of 2015 World Cup qualification were to come to pass, then we would have to finish on top of the 2014 A5N, as the Asian World Cup slot is reserved for the team finishing no.1 this year. The runner-up gets a second bite of the cherry via a qualifier featuring the no.2s of the other continents, the winner here too qualifying. What this means, in the context of our achieving the declared goals, is that we would have to, at the least, finish no.2 at the end of this ongoing five-nation tournament – or to put it more precisely beat at least two of the three Asian giants: Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

It doesn’t help that of our three meetings with the giants, two will be away, the first of which, against South Korea, was played yesterday in Incheon. Our other away-game is against Japan on May 10 at Nagoya. No newly promoted team has overcome Japan or South Korea in their first year of playing in the top tier – and should Sri Lanka do it then… well,let’s just say, according the returning team a ticker-tape parade will be in order.

Relatively, the prospects against Hong Kong look a glimmer brighter, if only because Colombo’s heat and humidity might cause the visitors discomfiture and, hopefully, render them weary of body and mind during the game. And, just as they didwhen hosting the div.1 event last year, the SLRFU is expected to kick-off the game in the searing April heat of 3 p.m. or earlier.

But here’s the hard fact: history stands against Sri Lanka – we’ve never overcome Japan, South Korea or Hong Kong in the 44-year history of Asian rugby championship.

So it makes sense to tamp down those tall ambitions and set sights on the more modest goalof extending life in the top tier for another year, which if accomplished, will itself be a historic milestone. It will be recalled that Sri Lanka won top tier promotion once before, in 2010 – only to be demoted the next year, thanks to the haphazard planning of the then administration. A repeat of that one-night stand this year, and critics will need no second invitation to paint the incumbent administration with the same brush run over the 2011 administration, ignoring  the present administration’s outstanding gains since 2012. Critics are critics – they’ll pounce on any perceived lapse to lay the blame at the administrators’ door

So that the embarrassment of a repeat of the 2011 one-night stand is warded off,it would be nice to wake up today to the news that we have triumphed in South Korea and so confirmed our place in the top tier in 2015 as well. Realistically, though, chances of retaining our top level status come down to our meeting with the Philippines, on May 17 in Colombo, at the Race Course.Memories of our last encounter against the Filipinos aren’t pleasant – beaten in the div. 1 competition two years ago. The Philippines finished on top in 2012 and graduated to the top tier, where, last year, it finished ahead of Kazakhstan to retain its place among Asia’s top five. That is a feat we must now emulate at the expense of the Philippines.

The Philippines’ rugby history is deceptive in the context of its present standing in Asian rugby. Its rugby union was founded in only 1998 and played its first international match in 2006, defeating Guam. A majority of its team members were British, Australina and New Zealand expatriates living in the country. Having debuted in the A5N competition in 2008, its rise to the top tier in four short years might’ve been termed a fairytale come true – except that much of their players weren’t locals but Australians who play for professional clubs in Australia and Japan. They are all Australian nationals,but qualify to represent the S E Asian country by virtue of Philippines genealogy – or, as their rugby union call them: heritage players.

You underestimate the Philippines at your peril. Our defeat at their hands two years ago aside, the successful retention last year of their place in the top-tier give the Philippines reasons to be confident of success on May 17 in Colombo. They obviously are skilful, and being nurtured in the professional environment of Japanese and Australian rugby, they no doubt will present a formidable challenge.

So, there’s no taking for granted the Filipinos despite home advantage. If anything preparations for the May 17 meeting will have to be on a scale befitting a final. One suspects the omission of crack fly half Fazil Marija from the squad for the South Korean game is to keep him under wraps for the two home games – which is a sensible thing to do.

The absence of a foreign coach, however, jars. If local coach, Leonard de Zilwa, will do as good a job as du Plessis did last year is left to be seen. But it strikes as odd that the Union should contract a foreign coach for the div. 1 competition last year, but prefers to hand the job to a local for a competition that pits us against Asia’s best – it begs the question: is the union broke.

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