The Sunday Leader

Sevens vs 15s: SLRFU Make First Move To Separate The Players

SIGNING up New Zealander Peter Woods as National Sevens coach for a two-year period and SLRFU’s request to selectors to name a “permanent’’ national Sevens squad suggests that the first move towards segregating specialist Sevens players from the Fifteens lot might have been made.

Sri Lanka’s Sevens Squad for the Borneo 7s

Said Michael Jayasekera, chief of selectors: “Yes, I can confirm that the Union requested us to choose a squad of players suitable solely for national Sevens duty.’’  Duly 38 players were picked last week, 20 of whom were named as the squad’s core; the other 18 members, Jayasekera added, will be retained in the training squad as standbys for national duty if required, as replacements for the injured or for strategic reasons. “The Union’s thinking is to have a pool of fit and ready players at all times, ensuring that we aren’t left stranded without suitably prepared players. In the past, without a properly organized pool in function, we’ve had to recall players who we initially discarded from the pool on grounds of unsuitability,’’ the chief selector explained.

“I don’t know if this new Sevens squad will be a permanent and separate entity, but with the foreign coach granted a two-year contract, you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that the Union wants to establish a separate set of Sevens players for national duty as opposed to choosing from the lot of Fifteens players (which has long been the practise).’’

But that ideal situation won’t be achieved unless and until the SLRFU succeeds in striking a deal with clubs the players are contracted to. It all comes down to arithmetic – how much the clubs would want as compensation and how much the Union is willing to pay; the players after all are on the clubs’ payroll and would naturally want to be financially compensated for releasing them. Said simply, a pool exclusively for the Sevens game will solely depend on the two parties arriving at a mutually acceptable figure, a process where a happy ending is hardly a guarantee. There’s a lot of nitty-gritty to sort out.

Be that as it may, the choice of Peter Woods as National Sevens coach leaves little to be desired, given his impressive credentials. He’s been an All Blacks Sevens player for seven years, 1991-97. In 2005-06, he secured the second most prestigious job in New Zealand Sevens rugby: assistant coach of the All Blacks Sevens team – gained on the strength of the experience he garnered as assistant coach of Fiji’s 2003 Rugby World Cup team as well as national coach of Japan. He comes to Sri Lanka not exactly as an alien; he was coach of one the teams that competed in the now defunct Carlton International Sevens. Woods replaces Englishman Mathew Turner; and that he has been handed a long term contract whereas his predecessor services were for the period of just the last Asian Sevens Series, is evidence of the Seneviratne administration’s determination to  overhaul the structures of our Sevens rugby so as to enhance the country’s fortunes in international rugby.

It is been a long held belief of the Asanga Seneviratne committee that our future in international rugby lies in the Sevens game. Reasons are many, but none more obvious than the fact that our physical attributes are better suited for the Sevens version than the Fifteens. Speed and flexibility are Sevens’ winning virtues – as are physical strength and power in the Fifteens version. It is a no-brainer as to which version we ought to be pursuing more earnestly.

Our record of performances too supports emphasis on the Sevens game. Sri Lanka wrote a piece of Hong Kong Sevens history back in 1984 when it became the first ever winner of the Bowl event. The more memorable achievement by Sri Lanka at the Hong Kong Sevens, however, was about a decade ago under the stewardship of the then president Priyantha Ekanayake, when the team shocked a packed stadium by sensationally defeating USA – a win that’s unlikely to be obtained in Fifteens, given the Americans’ physical superiority. As well, in a Hong Kong event of the early 90s, Sri Lanka, coached by present president Seneviratne, all but overcame Scotland, who scored the winning points in the final move of the match.

Sri Lanka over the past five-six years has consistently finished no.4 in Asia, behind Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. Three years ago, we ranked Asia’s third-best in Sevens, displacing South Korea, a team Sri Lanka has beaten more than once in recent Asian Sevens series encounters. On the other hand in Fifteens, we’ve never managed to overcome the Koreans ever, nor the Japanese or Hong Kong in the 47-year history of the Asian Rugby Championship; presently we are classed as a second-tier team in Asian Fifteens. The conclusion: even in Asian Fifteens competition we lack the strength and physique to challenge the continent’s giants: Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

So it’s pretty obvious that in international Fifteens we keep hitting a brick wall; so plainly, Sri Lanka needs to look to the Sevens game to earn international recognition – and that can be achieved by competing in such high profile events as the annual ten-tournament IRB World Series, the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. Those events, though presently in a realm beyond our reaching, remain our ultimate ambitions. Qualifying for those world renowned events won’t come anytime soon, if it comes at all.

The next year presents a chance to take our first small steps to reaching those ultimate goals. The aforementioned moves, to establish a “permanent’’ Sevens pool under an overseas coach contracted for two years, is clearly a plan of preparations for two major competitions slated for next year : 1/ the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, April 4-15, 2018 and 2/ Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug.8-Sep.2 next year. These two campaigns no doubt is what influenced the Seneviratne committee to sign Woods on for two years.

The Commonwealth Games would, of course, be an experience-gathering exercise rather than a quest for medals – not with European rugby giants England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, not to speak of New Zealand, Australia and Fiji all in fray for medals. “Our prospects in the Asian Games (which follows the Commonwealth Games) look a lot better, and there’s a chance of making history here. No team-sport has won a medal at the Asian Games – and there’s a realistic chance that rugby can next year,’’ said Imthi Marikar, SLRFU’s High Performance Director. “We finished third in the Asian Sevens Series a few years ago – and preparation for that achievement wasn’t half as comprehensive as what’s planned for the 2018 Asian Games. Having Woods for two years will surely have a meaningful influence on the national team. The set-goal for next year has to be on winning the country’s first Asian Games team-medal – that’ll provide the spur to take our Sevens game to another level internationally.’’

But all of those dreams of Marikar will remain just that if at a domestic level Sevens rugby continues to live in the fallowness of old. There have been just two annual local Sevens competitions since god knows when: the inter-club and mercantile tournaments, more social events than serious competition. The popular International Carlton Sevens, a creation of Namal Rajapaksa during the last regime, dramatically lifted the profile of the shorter game, thanks to the presence of some big names in World Sevens rugby. But with the ousting of the Rajapaksa government, the Carlton Sevens inevitably went out of the window. Its replacement by rugby enthusiasts in the present government hasn’t generated the sort of buzz its predecessor did. The fact that the replacement isn’t a declared annual event lends an uncertainly to its future; the Carlton Sevens, as long as it lasted, was permanent fixture in the SLRFU’s calendar of events, meaning that sponsors had already signed up or pledged support at each year’s beginning.

So, whilst investment to improve our international Sevens standing is well and good, not much good will accrue unless the domestic Sevens are revamped. Head in the clouds but feet in the mud is, well… like Bombay-looking, Calcutta-going; a journey to nowhere.


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