The Sunday Leader

Why Win Over China Is Needed

A comment made in last week’s column elicited more than a few responses, albeit informally. The referred to column’s final conclusion was that Sri Lanka’s meeting with China next Saturday, in the Colombo-leg of the Asian Sevens Series, is “the host’s most important match of the year’’. The remark might, perhaps, appear to be a touch tall, but, as will be explained a little later, is not without justification. Incidentally, the responses came primarily from former players, old friends of mine.

The burden of their song was why a game without the scope to change Sri Lanka’s no.5 standing in the final 2017 Asian rankings should be billed the country’s “most important match of the year’’. In other words: whatever the outcome of our Group B game against China next weekend is, it won’t change a thing: win over China, and we’ll still remain no.5; lose to China and we’ll still stay no.5 – or worse.

No argument there. Sri Lanka is four points adrift of fourth-placed China. Technically though, there’s a possibility that Sri Lanka could secure no.4 slot in the final rankings, displacing China – but thatpossibility is more the imagining of a congenital optimist afflicted by lunacy, conditional as it is to Sri Lanka earning the maximum five points by finishing champions in the third and final leg, and China ending Bowl losers and point-less: There’s a better chance of seeing polka-dot crows fly over the old Colombo Race Course than those possible scenarios transpiring on the field.

Be sure, dear friends, why I billed the match v. China they way I did was notborn out of a moment of lunacy. Okay, strictly from the perspective of 2017 final ranking, the outcome of our match against China can’t be the “most important of the year’’ for reason stated above, but in terms of our Sevens future beyond 2017, the billing is not without justification. Perhaps, those who disapprove of the billing are influenced by the outstanding successes of Sri Lanka in the Asian series over the past three-four seasons, during which we finished no.3/or four.

“That we’re now no.5 is fixed,and the story ends there’’ says one ex-player, “so, how you see a match v. China, or for that matter any country (in the final leg) as our most important for the year is… well, (unprintable)” – let’s just say he said my brain resides a few feet below at the rear than from where it should be – no offense intended though; it’s the language of converse when ex-players gather to banter and joke over a few beers.

The trouble, my friends, is that you’ve got a short memory and don’t remember where our Sevens rugby stood prior to the rise to nos.3/or four some three-four seasons ago. The Asian Sevens series was launched in 2009, and in the early years Sri Lanka never made it to the Cup event, meaning we finished either last or one-but-the-last in theround-robin Group competition. That relegated us to the Plate or Bowl competition– neither of which we managed to win ever.

The reasons for the failure were many, but primarily it was because the timeframe of the old domestic season, May to September, obstructed the executionof a proper program ofpreparation for the Asian Sevens Series, August/Sept-October.

However, with Asanga Seneviratne assuming office of President, SLRFU in 2012, the way was paved for our advancement in the Asian Sevens Series. He made somefar-reaching changes. He shifted the traditional May- Sept domestic season to Nov-Feb, creating space for a new Sevens season, May to Sept/Oct. The showpiece of the new Sevens season was no doubt the now-defunct international Carlton Super Sevens, a tournament that presented local players with their first opportunity to play with and against some big names in world Sevens rugby.The exposure had a marvellous influence on our players’ confidence for the Asian Sevens series, as reflected in our rapid rise in the Asian rankings. As well, the SLRFU invested in a foreign national coach and were able to adhere to a planned program of preparation for the Asian series.

It was these changes that saw Sri Lanka win the Plate event for the first time in the series and then go on tobecome a regular qualifier for the Cup competition, finishing no.3/ or four over the past few seasons. Qualification last season for the World Series Qualifier and the right to compete in next year’s Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia,were undoubtedly significant achievements in international Sevens. It boosted confidence and self-belief and provided the inspiration to aimfor higher peaks, not excluding entry to the World Sevens Series proper. The more immediate goal, however, was to establish a durable presence in Asia’s top-three bracket – no pipe dream given that over the past three-four years we’ve finished no.3/or four.

Now, though, we’ve dropped to no.5 and surely that must have implications on SLRFU’s grand ambitions in international Sevens. After all, no 3 or four is a far better platform to reach for loftier heights than it is from no.5. As chief selector Michael Jayasekera told this column last week: “My fear is that by finishing fifth twice (in the ongoing series) there’s a danger of (the team) losing self-belief and the reputation (it has built up internationally)’’.

Jayasekera’s point is valid. Let’s face it; our no.3/4 standing over the past three-four years might be laudable, yet tenuous. After all, a three-four-year period at the higher echelons isn’t gilt-edge security for longevity at the top-three level. Whether the descent to no.5 in two successive legs of the series is sign of a return to life in the Plate/Bowl segment is premature to confirm. The truth, however, is that in the two previous legs of the series we were relegated to the Plate segment – and if in Colombo next week we’re subjected to a third relegation, then, the omens for next year and beyond can’t be too good.

And this, my friends is why the Group B match v. China next Saturday is our “most important match of the year’’. Sure a win over China won’t get us up to no.4 in the final rankings. But should we overcome China and then defeat Malaysia/or Philippines in Cup quarter finals – which is a given anyway – it would earn us a fourth-place finish in the Colombo-leg; morale and self-belief would be restored – which is important with the Asian Games looming next year. After finishing no.3 in last year’s Asian Series, the SLRFU’s declared that its chief goal in 2018 would be an Asian Games bronze at least, which, if achieved, would be the country’sfirst medal-success in a team sport.

Finishing fourth in the series’ final leg next week is a realistic proposition. Although Sri Lanka conceded a 12/36 defeat to China in the first leg, Muthuthanthri’s men all but avenged that defeat in the second-leg. With less than a minute left on the clock and Sri Lanka 26/19 ahead, the islanders conceded a penalty for a high tackle. Off the ensuing short-tap, the Chinese scored the equalizer. Given home advantage, Colombo’s heat and humidity particularly advantageous, there’s good reason to believe that China can be beaten. As well, except for the present series, Sri Lanka has consistently overcome China, with much to spare. For that matter, Sri Lanka has also won over no.2 South Korea more than once in the past two-three years. So, Muthuthanthri’s team won’t think ambushing the Koreans in Colombo isbeyond them.

Whether a meeting with the Koreans is possiblewill depend on the outcome of our “most important match of the year’’. A round of drinks to wish Muthu’s men success against the Chinese next Saturday!

1 Comment for “Why Win Over China Is Needed”

  1. Dilshan UK

    On point as always. Cheers

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