… And Sadly, A Bronze Medal Was Lost

THERE was a time when the business of conducting inter-schools rugby was under the purview of the Sri Lanka RFU, the parent body. That was in the spacious days when barely a dozen schools were involved in the game, and appointing dates and venues for schools’ games didn’t place any great constraint on the CRFU, re-baptized SLRFU in the early 70s, performing its chief responsibility: managing the inter-club Clifford Cup tournament and the country’s solitary annual “international’’, the All-India tournament.

But with increasing number of schools coming into the game, not to speak of the Union’s new international ventures, things were getting too inconvenient for the SLRFU to cope with its gathering responsibilities. So, inevitably the SLRFU asked its affiliated schools body to relieve it of conducting inter-school games – and the Union plays more a parental role overseeing the Schools Association’s activities, especially in matters beyond the schools programme, meaning national representation at junior international competitions.

It was a sensibly pragmatic arrangement. But with time, true to Sri Lankan trait, the two parties found reasons to bicker and soon were at each other’s throats. Over the past decade or so, the Schools Association, by all appearances, has acted  pretty much as if it is independent of the parent body and not an affiliated member – assured that its’ presumed “independence’’ would bring no reprisal, thanks to its cloak of protection in the form of the Education Ministry. There have been more than a few occasions the two have had acrimonious exchanges – the most memorable being the Schools Association’s description of SLRFU’s offer to secure better sponsors for its tournaments as disguised altruism aimed at “laying hands on our money.’’

The upshot: the Schools body earlier this year turned down a Rs.85m. sponsorship offer in favour of a Rs. 35m. package from a sponsor of its choosing.  It is hard to explain why the Schools body should forego nearly Rs.50m, but the rejection illustrates just how deeply Schools’ officials suspect the parent body’s intentions towards the cause of schools rugby. That mistrust might be more than a mite exaggerated, but is not without foundation, nonetheless.

It has all to do with popularity. And it’s a fact that attendance at schools game outstrips the turnout at club matches by thousands; that being so, the potential for attracting sponsors for schools’ rugby is far rosier than it is for club rugby. The Union obviously believes that it has the marketing skills and corporate clout (that the schools don’t) to sell rugby more profitably. And as proof the Union lays before the schools body a can’t-be-refused offer of a staggering Rs.85m. – and why in heaven’s name it was refused is… well, let’s just say, for reasons more than what the eye can see.

All of the above is said to make you aware that the SLRFU and the Schools Association aren’t working with the sort of oneness that is pre-requisite if the country is to prosper internationally at the youth level and by extension at the senior level. The Sri Lankan under-18 team’s performance at the recent Commonwealth Youth Games in far-away Bahamas and the Under-20 Asian Championships in Hong Kong provokes further questioning of the working relationship between the Union and the Schools body. Both of these were Sevens competitions.

Firstly, it must be stated our performances both in Bahamas and Hong Kong were anything but shameful. Our very participation in the Commonwealth Youth Games is by itself a historic achievement, a feat unattained in all of our five previous attempts. Of the six countries that qualified for this year’s sixth Games, Sri Lanka was the solitary Asian nation – an honour bestowed upon it by virtue of its standing as the reigning under-18 Asian Champions.

Given rugby’s rich pedigree among Commonwealth countries, the competition at Bahamas was never going to be easy. And to finish fifth out of six countries (England, Canada, Fiji, Samoa and Bahamas, the other five) you might think isn’t a deed worthy of trumpeting – but that’s only a surface reading of our performance. “Fifth in a field of six might seem poor, but Sri Lanka deserves more credit than what bare statistics give it,’ said Imthi Marikar, SLRFU’s High Performance Director, who was in the management team in Bahamas “We were not very far from the bronze medal – and in saying that, I am not seeking sympathy.’’

Fiji it was who won the bronze, finishing behind England and Samoa – and Sri Lanka lost to Fiji by just one score, 12/17. The game, and the no.4 place, was sadly conceded to Canada in the final seconds, also by one score. “The outcome of these games (v. Fiji and Canada) could so easily have turned in our favour. Had we been at full-strength and our preparation more thorough, the bronze could so easily have been ours,’’ said Marikar. “Yes, there’s genuine cause for regret at missing a medal.’’

Marikar’s lamentation is not tears shed over spilt milk. The touring squad was after all picked amidst the inter-school season, which meant not all of the better players were available for the selection trial, their respective schools insisting that players’ first loyalty is to school. “The trial was a farce – (champion school) Royal didn’t attend it, and that meant Royal’s players were out of the running for selection,’’ said Michael Jayasekera, chief of selectors. “Other schools might’ve shown up at the trial, but not with many of their top players, choosing to preserve them for the ongoing schools season. So, you can’t say the final squad to Bahamas was the country’s best.’’

You don’t have to delve too deep to check the authenticity of Jayasekera’s claim that the squad wasn’t as strong as it should be, especially for Games competition. After all, a squad without a single player from the champion school team of 2017 is… well, Hamlet without the Prince. That apart, when the final squad was eventually chosen there was time for just three or four practice sessions as a unit. “Sending out a team after just three-four practice sessions suggests an appalling disregard for an event as prestigious as the Commonwealth Games. Honestly, the whole exercise became one of a desperate cobbling together of a dozen players to avoid a breach of the organizers’ deadline, which if breached would’ve meant disqualification by default,’’ said Jayasekera. “Ideally, a pool should’ve been in training for at least three months, remembering that the players were in the midst of the domestic Fifteens season and in Bahamas competition was to be Sevens. The shift from the long to the short game isn’t made in a day or two – it takes weeks and weeks. To have overcome that deficiency and be able to get within striking distance of bronze is a considerable achievement.’’

Sri Lanka’s participation in the Commonwealth Youth Games had become an official fact when the country won Under 18 Asian Championships in late 2016. The SLRFU had duly notified the Schools body of our qualification for the Bahamas Games at the beginning of this year – so there was no need for 1/ meaningless trials and the resultant late scramble to put a squad together; 2/ selecting a team less than the best and 3/ limiting the final preparations to just three-four practice sessions. All these negatives because the working relationship between the parent body and the schools is not what it should be.

“If communications between the two (Union and Schools) had been better, then, we would’ve saved ourselves the hassles experienced, and the team might’ve been better prepared for Bahamas,’’ said chief selector, Jayasekera. “The problem is that, just like any old enmity isn’t resolved in a hurry, so is the one between the Schools and Union; and sadly, in this instance the price paid was probably a Commonwealth Games bronze medal.’’

The Sri Lanka squad for the under-20 Asian Championships, a fortnight ago in Hong Kong, was relatively better prepared than the squad to Bahamas. “We had about ten practice sessions prior to leaving for Hong Kong. It was adequate, but not ideal. You should remember that getting accustomed to Sevens after nearly five months of Fifteens takes time,’’ said Jayasekera. “But I think more than practice, the importance of defending our title wasn’t stressed enough. The Union for its part were keen about bringing back home the title – but as far the Schools body is concerned, I am not so sure they were as eager, immersed at it was in the domestic season.’’

As things turned out, Sri Lanka surrendered the Under 20 Asian title to Hong Kong, swamped 0/36 in the final. For how long more must rugby be a victim of the “old enmity’’.

 

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