The Sunday Leader

2014 A5N: A Sad Lesson Learnt

SRI LANKA’S 2014 A5N campaign could not have come to a more disappointing end. Not that a win in the inconsequentialfinal scrap would’ve made it much better, but at least we might’ve recorded our first and only win at the top level of the A5N were the Philippines overcome last week.

And the Philippines, lagging behind 19/25, was pretty much in the throes of death, when on the stroke injury time the visitors snatched a last-gasp try and added the decisive points on a second attempt at conversion, after the first went adrift of the woodwork – the referee ruling the home players’charge-down was illegitimate in the first instance.

To lose by a point, 25/26, in the final second, and the circumstance in which the outcome was determined, Sri Lanka are entitled to feel hard done-by, not so much by the referee as by fate. The A5N format becomes antiquated next year, and so it is sad that a chance to record a solitary win in the eight-year history of the five-nation competition slipped betwixt cup and lip.

Sri Lanka was unfortunate not to record a win in its debut yearat the top level, in 2011, too,being held to a 13/all draw by UAE in Colombo. The 2011 event may belong to the dusty drawers of history, but comparing the score sheets of three years ago with those of2014 makes for an interesting debate. South Korea, incidentally, was relegated to Div 1 in 2011, which meant the five-team line-up included three borderline teams, i.e. teams on the threshold of demotion to div.1: UAE, Kazakhstan, div.1 teams this year, and Sri Lanka. So, it’sa fair, albeit contestable,to assume that the 2014 team had to cope with a quality of opposition that was a tad superior to what the 2011 outfit encountered.

On that supposition, there’s a case for awarding a few more marks to our 2014 performance, notwithstanding four straight defeats, as opposed to 2011’s three losses and a draw. But apart from the fact that the 2014 team faced the challenges of Asia’s three traditional giants (Japan, HK and South Korea),unlike in 2011 when the Koreans were absent via relegation, it has to be noted that the IRB’s designation of the competition as qualifier for the 2015 World Cup meant that the opposition encountered this year, especially the Big Three, was better honed, sharper and sterner than the opposition of 2011, when the Asian qualifierfor the 2011 World Cup had been done and dusted the year before, and 2011 A5N focus was about  regeneration for the 2015 World Cup. So, to put our 132/90 pounding by Japana fortnight ago on the same weighing scale as the 90/13 beating in 2011 would be unfair – which, applying the same reasoning makes the 31-point deficit against Hong Kong this year vs.2011’s 35-point margin a notable endeavour.

The regrets evoked by the 2014 failure is, however, harder to bear. With the dispensing of the five-team format next year, the chance to achieve our first ever victory at Asia’s highest level in the foreseeable future, if not forever, has been lost. That wasn’t the case in 2011. With no hint of the dismantling of the five-team format, redeeming the lost chance of a historic first win in the not too distant future was possible. And sure enough three years later we were back at the top level – and cruising last week to our first victory as a member of Asia’s big league,but alas, to be brought to grief as the final curtain was falling.
Fate might have dealt Namal Rajapakse’s team an unkind blow, but if you brushaside regret’s sad emotions, there’s little to gripe about the defeat – after all, the Philippines’ victory doesn’t earn them a place in the top division next year, either. The victors too fall into the four-team div.1 lot next year, which can only mean that the opposition we encounter next year is going to be stiff.

It is still very early days to be discussing next year’s competition, but, given the deficiencies in the preparation for this year’s campaign, some awareness of what awaits us in 2015 is desirable so thatnext time round we might prepare better.First, let’s make ourselves aware of just who our 2015 opponents are. They are: Philippines,Kazakhstan, both in the top-five group at one time, and Singapore.

The format of the div.1 competition is to be yet confirmed. Since the inauguration of the A5N scheme in 2008, the div.1 competition, under around-robin format, was played at one venue, with one of the contesting nations playing host. This year marked a departure: a knockout format was introduced and the venues so were varied.

Apparently, the knockout format this year was an experiment as the ARFU hasn’t yet firmly decided to consign the old round-robin format to the bins. The ARFU, the Sunday Leader understands, is considering reinstating the round-robin format, but conduct the event at a neutral venue, not in the backyard of one the participants, as was the traditional custom.
With the event bereft of HSBC sponsorship as from next year, the staging of the event at a neutral venue is, apparently,a cost-cutting exercise, and it appears the venue ARFU has in mind is Hong Kong, as it is in close proximity to all but one of the four competing countries. The exception: Kazakhstan, some nine flying hours away. The others range from two to five hours journeys.

A knockout format will mean Sri Lanka, bottom seed by virtue of its fifth-place finish in the 2014 A5N, would meet Kazakhstan in the semi-final. When they last met in 2013, the Sri Lankansthrashed the Kazaks, 49/18. Kazakhstan of 2015, however, is unlikely to be a duplicate of their 2013 outfit, given their pedigree. In their five years at the top level, the Kazaks finished second to Japan in 2009 and ’10; so one assumes they have a reservoir of talent to rebuild and re-emerge to the top.As well, their 2013 meeting with Sri Lanka was in Colombo, which means the 2015 meeting would be in Almaty, a venue at which we’ve never won, conceding all of our three previous matches there to the home team.  Assuming, we overcome Kazaks, the next opponent is likely to be the Philippines, an away game again. And with the Filipinos’ 2/0 record vs. us, our prospects in Match 3 in Manila would be anything but sunny.

The 2015 prospects under a reinstated round-robin format won’t be any easier – the Kazaks and Filipinos will have to be overcome, wherever. This much is certain: wherever, the conditions won’tbe anything like the 3 p.m. April heat in Colombo, which was the starting time of the 2013 event – and the undoing of the Kazaks. There’s no taking for granted Singapore, either. They beat Thailand in div.1 this year, and have long been reliant on expatriate players employed in the city state. If Sri Lanka somehow ends champions of div.1, promotion to the top level isn’t a guarantee – we’ll have to defeat the team finishing third in the three-team top division competition, and, on current rankings, that would likely be South Korea.

All of this is said to remind the SLRFU that the realization of our aspiration to be in the same division as Asia’s giants is going to be lot tougher than in 2013, when we finished div.1 champions and qualified to be in the company of Asia’s top guns. With the top league now restricted to the top three (Japan, Hong Kong and S. Korea), what it means is that we would have to dislodge one of them to be in top three bracket – that is, after the likes of the Philippines and Kazakhstan are overcome in div.1.

It’s a tough old road to the top.  So, it makes sense to look at the 2015 campaign, not as going into fray against tier-two countries, but doing battle against the best of Asia – and prepare accordingly. And that means, an overhaul of the 2014 team management, including the recruitment of a professional foreign coach as head, a national squad in year-round training and a series of international matches – all of which were absent in preparations for the concluded campaign. The consequence of that neglect, the results show.

The only good that might be taken from the 2014 campaign is the lesson on how not to prepare for the country’s singularly most important international competition.

1 Comment for “2014 A5N: A Sad Lesson Learnt”

  1. K Prasad

    Dear Mr. Samat & Readers,

    Thank you for insightful analysis on the SL A5N 2014 campaign.

    As far as you’re really good recommendations go:
    1. An overhaul of the 2014 team management, including the recruitment of a professional foreign coach as head;
    2. A national squad in year-round training and a series of international matches.
    Does anyone know what the SL RFU has planned? I went to their website and it is down. If the SL RFU announce anything in the next few months please report it. Thanks!

    In addition to the recommendations above may I suggest:
    3. Any new changes in the way the National Team prepares vis-à-vis: training, style of play, tactics, etc; permeates down to the most junior levels of the game (schools, colleges, clubs for both men & women). This will ensure a continuous pipeline of talent.
    4. Resist including ‘foreign muscle’ into the National Team. Expats should be confined to: teaching, coaching and management. This would include mentoring locals so that may assume these types of roles in due course. Let’s not forget Referees and Lines Men in all of this.
    For the continued development and expansion of the game, ‘Sustainability Management’ has to be addressed. This will ensure that good ideas/plans put in place, particularly by expats, remain in place once they inevitably depart.

    Finally there is a lesson learned from India. Recently American Football was introduced via the Elite Football League of India. Please refer to the Times of India website by searching for Rugby & EFLI. The EFLI have been masterful in the marketing of the game. Rugby Players have left Rugby and signed up with the EFLI in droves due to the EFLI’s ‘financial muscle’. These Rugby Players sign a contract that forbids them from playing another sport – so bye-bye Rugby! The EFLI has been successful so far (let’s see if their success lasts though) because of their marketing. Just look at their website; it has merchandise for sale and it creates a buzz about the game. Rugby, in Cricket dominated South Asia, needs to do the same thing: market the game and create a BUZZ & EXCITEMENT; sell merchandise – all to attract new players and fans. One advantage Rugby has over American Football is the fact Rugby has National Teams that appeal to a sense of identity and patriotism. This needs to be exploited, especially in India.

    Your humble servant.

    Kamal Prasad

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