The Sunday Leader

Champs, Union In Sevens Tug-Of-War

THE question begs to be asked: is Sri Lanka rugby working at cross-purposes?

The SLRFU never fails to claim the country’s future is in the Sevens game, and over recent years has invested liberally in pursuing international success. The investments were not in vain; since 2012 Sri Lanka has consistently ranked no. 3-4 in Asia, rising from the 6-9 of before, and last year hit no. 2, a ranking that earned it the right to compete in the World Series Qualifier in Hong Kong last April.

In light of such rapid advancement, you’d expect the country’s premier domestic sevens competition, the annual inter-club, to be one which the public might be attracted to in droves. Factually though, the attendance at last weekend’s inter-club sevens fell well short of resembling a crowd.  As one wit put it: “Bar the players and officials, there weren’t many other heads to count – the (spacious) old Colombo Race Course stadium as far as human habitation was concerned, was as bare as the Gobi.’’

To be fair it has to be said that last weekend the inter-club Sevens had to compete with other attractions, not least the ongoing inter-schools knockout competition, as well, public interest in the evening television coverage of the Champions Trophy cricket tournament in England, peaked after Sri Lanka’s stunning triumph over India, the night before the inter-club Sevens.

Given the rival fare, you could argue the poor attendance at the Sevens last week does not quite represent a vote against the SLRFU’s campaign to push Sevens to the forefront – and international prominence. The conspicuous absence of defending champions, Kandy SC, last week, though, says a vastly different story; a kick in the teeth of the Union’s campaign, really.

The champion club says its players, especially those in the national ranks, need a period of rest and recuperation before it begins, in October, to ready itself for the November to February domestic inter-club fifteens season. It is a fair reason, from Kandy SC’s perspective, that is. Given the champion club’s players numerical domination of national teams, Sevens and Fifteens, no club experiences the effects of wear and tear as the champion side does.

Consider: The last four-month long domestic season concluded at the end of February; since then Kandy SC’s key players haven’t had any respite from their toils, preparing for and playing in the April Sevens World Series Qualifier (our 12-man for which included seven Kandy SC personnel), after which a dozen or more of its players was pressed into doing duty at the four-nation Asian Fifteens Rugby Championship Div.1 in May in Malaysia. In other words, it’s been six months of non-stop rugby for a dozen or so key players of Kandy SC. That is taxing, physically and mentally, to say the least.

So although their stated reason for opting out of last weekend’s premier competition is understandable, Kandy SC’s adherence to the principle involving the issue is questionable. As the champion club, participation must surely be considered a moral obligation it has to fulfil. After all, there’s no denying that the defending champion’s presence gives the tournament its deserved esteem; enhances the quality of fare and contributes to the overall wellbeing of Sevens rugby, apart from aiding SLRFU quest for international fame through the Sevens game. If non-participation by the champion club can be translated to political language, ‘unpatriotic’ might be the word used to describe Kandy SC’s absence.

One thinks the SLRFU might’ve reminded the hill capital club of its responsibilities to the game, being the champion club, and persuaded its participation. After all, a weekend of Sevens rugby can’t do any serious harm to their preparations for the domestic season, which is a distant five months away anyway. Obviously there was no effort by the SLRFU to get Kandy SC to change its mind. Rather, one assumes the SLRFU hierarchy sympathised with Kandy SC’s reason for giving the event a miss – otherwise the controlling body might surely have publicly expressed its disappointment, accusing the champion side of acting on its own whims and fancies rather than in ways conforming to the Union’s aims and goal.

There have been previous issues in which Kandy SC has disobeyed SLRFU decisions. But past administrators responded bitterly, publicly airing what they thought about Kandy SC “arrogance’’: a law on to themselves; the tail that wags the dog. The incumbent administration, apparently, took it all lying down – for a reason that isn’t difficult to discern: fear that Kandy SC might wield its political clout.

The champion club’s absence from the inter-club Sevens hints of graver concerns ahead for the SLRFU. Their stated reason for opting out last weekend being what it is (the need to rest and recuperate players before preparations for the domestic season in October), raise questions about their players’ availability for international tournaments scheduled between now and October. Next on SLRFU’s schedule is the popular Super Sevens series next month, a two-tournament event featuring franchise teams made up of a mix of local and foreign players. The importance of the Super Sevens to Sri Lanka rugby can’t be overstated; under its original name, Carlton Super Sevens, the experience players gained from this competition was what triggered our dramatic rise in the Asian Sevens rankings.

Come Sept-Oct and Sri Lanka rugby will face its most crucial challenges – the three-tournament Asian Sevens Series, in Hong Kong, South Korea and Colombo, performances at which go to determine our standing in Asia. There’s a lot riding on this year’s series, being an Olympic qualifier, according to SLRFU’s Director of High Performance, Inthi Marikar. This means Japan’s would be represented by its strongest outfit; previously they used it as an opportunity to experiment with their emerging players. The presence of a full-strength Japanese outfit this year can only intensify preparations of Hong Kong and South Korea – which makes Sri Lanka’s challenge even tougher this time round

.         So, it is imperative that Sri Lanka, apart from undertaking a comprehensive program of preparation will also need the services of all their top players, the majority of who represent Kandy SC.

Any hopes that Sri Lanka might earn Asia’s solitary Olympic spot can of course be found in only the hallucinations of a congenital optimist. SLRFU’s High Performance Director. Inthi Marikar disassociates himself with such Olympian ambitions. “Being an Olympic qualifier Japan’s strongest will be in the fray and that virtually shuts us out of the race, ‘’ said Marikar – inferring that our chances against Hong Kong and South Korea outfits are hopeful.

From a Sri Lankan perspective, the more important goal in the upcoming Asian series would be to finish second and qualify for the Hong Kong World Series Qualifier (WSQ), like we did last year. In pursuing this goal, a full-strength Japan outfit won’t be an impediment to our WSQ chances, as the Japanese are one of the select few core teams in the World Series line up – and thus won’t be a candidate for the two slots set aside for top performers at the Asian Sevens Series. Those two slots, in essence, is a race between Hong Kong, South Korea and Sri Lanka. A full-strength Japan this year can only mean that Hong Kong and South Korea won’t likely stint anything on their preparations so as to present teams stronger than last year. Duly, Sri Lanka’s preparations too will have to put out a stronger outfit than they did last year, if it is to qualify for next year’s WSQ in Hong Kong – something that wouldn’t be possible without the services of players from the champion side.

So the question is: will Kandy SC choose to opt out of the two remaining Sevens tournaments, as they did the inter-club event. The coming events, after all, fall in the period which the club claims it needs for its players to rest and recuperate before their girding loins for the domestic fifteens season – which, as said before, was the reason advanced for their withdrawal from last week’s competition.

The Super Sevens offer players their best payday and Kandy SC’s key players are not likely to miss out on that – even if it contradicts their stated reason for last week’s pullout. The Asian Seven series, however, is far less profitable – and so, their availability might be less certain. The champion club has already made it known it accords Sevens secondary importance, behind Fifteens; for instance, when the union asked the 12-man World Sevens Series Qualifier squad to skip the Asian Fifteens Championship, in May, so that their focus remains solely on the Sevens game, five Kandy SC as good as said, “no way’’ – and went ahead and played in the Fifteens championship.

The moral of the story: SLRFU can have its own idea on what’s good for the game; Kandy SC has its own thoughts on what is good for them.

PIX: There was a very poor turnout of spectators for the Clubs Sevens last week

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