The Sunday Leader

Thrashings Not A Reflection Of Our Talent, But…

WITH the outcome of the final gameagainst Philippines yesterday reduced to irrelevance even before kick-off, anevaluation of our 2014A5N campaignbefore its ending wouldn’t be premature.

Before the evaluation, however, a few remarks on the relegation of yesterday’s game to nothingness would not be out of place.The meeting, of the dwarfs if you like, was not supposed to be of inconsequential value. Admittedly, the incapability of either the Sri Lankans or the Filipinos to overcome Asia’s Big Three was a given, but that didn’t mean the contest between the two was to be something out of aragbag.Determining as it doeswhichof the two remains at Asia’s highest level in the ensuing season, and that goal being the Sri Lankans and Filipinos most passionate yearning, the encounter engendered an interest all its own.

Their meeting of yesterday, however, was sadly bereft of that interest, a consequence of, as you know, ARFU’s decision to restrict the top division, as from 2015, to teams finishing nos. 1, 2 and three in the ongoing A5N – and not the top four and division one’s no.1,  as had been the casesince the birth of A5N in 2008.

With Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea already guaranteed of remaining in the newly formatted top tier in 2015, the inevitability of Sri Lanka and Philippines reverting back to second-tier competition, whether going through the motions of yesterday’s pointless exercise was necessary becomes a subject for debate .

Against that backdrop, the SLRFU’s reported determination to include a Fijian or two for yesterday’s game was strange to say the least, especially with the parlous state of Union’s financesrequiring prudent spending.  If at all enlistment of the Fijians was to be considered,a case for their inclusion might’ve been justifiable were it for games against the Big Three, as prospects of our finishing in the top three hinged on winning against at least one of the three. Indeed an attempt was made to include three Fijiansagainst Hong Kong – but was aborted at the eleventh hour after it was pointed out that the required “formalities and procedure’’ were not adhered to.

Whether these “formalities and procedure’’ to include non-resident expatriates could’ve been overcome in the fortnight following the aborted bid is a moot point. If the Fijians did appear in Sri Lanka national jerseys yesterday, one hopes the Union had made certain their enlistment is not in breach of conditions laid down by the IRB for the inclusion of non-nationals – a clear explanation of which hasn’t been forthcoming yet.Having to answer to accusations of issuance of passports of convenience to foreign players or that their inclusions are a violation of IRB’s three-year residential rule is not likely to do SLRFU’s good name or its President’s position as ARFU Secretary-General any good.

At the time of this writing, the Union’s bid to field a few Fijians yesterday (Saturday)  remains unknown, but this much is certain: if our future ambition is to be one among the select band of three countries at the highest level of Asian rugby, then, the inclusion of foreigners in the national side, as a policy, will have to be pursuedwith a meticulousness that makes it a serious bid;  the recent attempt, it has to said,came out of the blue and seemed to have been initiated at the whim and fancy of a few. Its abandonment a day before the Hong Kong game tells its own story.

Clearly, there’s a huge chasm between us and the top three, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, whose 132/10, 41/10 and 59/3 thrashings of us by them, respectively, so eloquently bear out.As well, collectively, we conceded 35 tries and scored just two against the Big Three. In a word, we were out of our depth. So, the bottom line: without foreign muscle and strength, Sri Lanka’s ambition of joining Asia’s big league is delusional.

It has to be said, though, even the inclusion of foreigners for our games against the Big Three would’ve made little difference – the margins of defeat were just too wide for two-three foreigners to bridge. Let’s get realistic: inserting a few foreigners into the national team is no magic formula for success, which presumably was the supposition of those initiating moves to enlist them against Hong Kong.

Opening the national team doors to overseas players isn’t a quick fix job, if it is to have the meaningful impact desired. In the host of foreigners who figure in the four-month domestic inter-club tournaments, we have a reservoir of players who, with time, will qualify to represent Sri Lanka, under IRB’s eligibility rules.

That being the scenario, it is necessary that the SLRFU and the clubs jointly work out a plan for enlisting foreigners in our future national teams – you don’t want too many overseas no. 8s, locks and centre three quarters and too few hookers, props and no. 10s, which currently is the order of  clubs’ preferences. The first hurdle to clear, however, is to fulfil the condition laid down by IRB for non-national players to represent another country: the three-year residential rule. Presently, the foreign players reside here for only the duration of the domestic season, which runs roughly five months. You can’t expect clubs to extend their contracts to one year so they may serve out IRB’s three-year residential requirement.

So a pursuance of a policy to include overseas players in the national side will require the union to find ways to reside them here during the off season – through employment. Only the services have the resources to do that, and given the government patronage rugby enjoys these days, thanks to involvement of the Rajapakse siblings, there’s reason to be hopeful that the services will support what really is a national cause.

To call for the inclusion of foreigners in our rugby team a national cause might seem an overreaction to three successive thrashings. But then it has to be remembered that inclusion of overseas players is common among other countries – three of the five top-tier teams do it. The exceptions: South Korea and Sri Lanka, certainly till yesterday, that is. In the lower divisions just about every country has expat players, with the exception of Chinese-Taipei and Kazakhstan. Such widespread enlistment of foreigners is admission that without them rugby in Asia would be a dodo. So, in hindsight, it wouldn’t be wrong to conclude that our ambitions to advance to the top tier, and stay there, went unrealized because we weren’t fortified by foreign muscle and strength – and many of our opponents were.

If foreigners’ inclusion is accepted as government policy and duly legislated, the temptation to include them in numbers that will discourage of local talent will have to be resisted. The lure of success and glory, after all, does sometimes breed irrationality.

This A5N campaign flagrantly exposed our inability to win possession, simply because our forwards weren’t as big and as tall as our opponents, conceding, thus, hundred weights in poundage and feet in height. Thus it’s clear we need foreigners who can compete on equal terms with our opponents in the battle for possession.

But it has to be said that the absence of foreign players isn’t the only reason for the recent annihilations, the ignominy of which, somemight try to paper over were Philippines overcome last night. The truth behind the huge defeats was that our preparation wasn’t as thorough as encounters against Asia’s best demand – and that’s inexcusable given that there was a year to plan out a programme.

If union officials weren’t inclined to tax their time and minds on working out a plan, all they needed to do was to refer to the playbook of our 1990 campaign. The Priyantha Ekanayake led team of ‘90 lost to South Korea 26/16 and to Hong Kong, 21/15 – the difference of just two tries and one respectively.The difference in the margins of 1990 and 2014 are staggering – and the difference precisely lay in the preparations of then and now.

Then, preparation was more than yearlong and, crucially, featured a series of international matches, including Tests against Hong Kong, Chinese-Taipei and Papua New Guinea and an encounter against Fiji’s champion club of that year. The chief coach was New Zealander, Jeff Matheson, with Anton Benedict contributing local expertise. The 2014 preparation had none of what the 1990 team was provided. So, it is fair to say that, were the Namal Rajapakse outfit provided the sort of 1990 planning and preparation, we may not have turned the tables on the big guns, but there would’ve been dignity in our defeats.

The thrashings, however, aren’t a reflection of our quality of talent; the brilliance of our last year’s A5N div.1 campaign showed we had the potential to be competitive against Asia’s powerhouses – providing we duly prepared in the way a team long in the second tier should before taking on the continent’s established giants. We didn’t, period.

1 Comment for “Thrashings Not A Reflection Of Our Talent, But…”

  1. Kamal Prasad

    Dear Mr. Samat & Readers,

    Thank you for insightful article ‘Thrashings not a reflection of our talent…”. You are certainly the best Rugby commentator in Asia and also world class!

    The new format for the A5N top division ‘is what it is’; fait accompli let’s move on and work with it. The large scores run up by the Big 3 does seem to justify such a move by the ARFU.

    You article seemed to offer options:
    a) the addition of ‘foreign muscle’
    b) better preparation à la 1990

    I would recommend the latter option, better preparation as was the case in 1990. I don’t know the depth of the 1990 campaign; but now if similar measures were to be taken they should reach down to the most junior level of the game: schools, youth and not forgetting women’s Rugby.

    I ask myself is it possible for Asians to develop local muscle by looking for players who are naturally tall/muscular and developing them. Shenal Dias is an example of this. This would be the preferred route as to hiring in foreign muscle which seems such a short to mid-term fix. You did point out in your article that having, for example Fijians, in the squad would not have made much difference to the score lines against the Big 3; so why continue to contemplate this course of action?

    Spending money on developing local talent, instead of foreign players would be the way to go. An exception to this would be Coaches and Managers, but even here it is important to develop local Coaches and Managers too.

    Sri Lanka face the same problems as all countries developing their game – trying to close the gap against the top tier nations. You have made fantastic strides forward so please take time to congratulate yourselves. The recent large score deficits (preferable term to thrashing :) ) is not a reflection of your talent! God bless SL Rugby!

    Your humble servant.

    Kamal Prasad

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