A sevens story of joy and regret
Lankan’s outsmarted the Arabian
Gulf, action from Nittawela last weekend
|samat on sunday
THERE’S more than one reason why the eighth Singer/Srilankan Airlines International Sevens, concluded Sunday last, might’ve evoked some sadness.
Of course, the obvious reason is that another two years would have to elapse before the increasingly popular event returns to its spiritual home at Nittawela, the place where the tournament was born and nurtured through eight difficult years. The plan now, though, is to transpose the next event to Colombo , which means Kandy surrenders its assumed propriety. So, the
realisation that next year Nittawela is going to be Sevens-less must surely have left more than a few misty eyes among the citizenry of Kandy .
Then there was also the sadness born of regret for what might’ve been. Sri Lanka finished fourth, its best ever achievement in the event’s history and probably in any international Sevens. Even so, disappointment was hard to disguise, albeit the feat’s historic dimension.
The fourth-place finish could so easily have been no. 2; given the irresistible form the Sri Lankans were in, neither was the Cup championship a chimera.
Sri Lanka ’s performance was quite extraordinary, the best ever in terms of consistency, each performance hitting new peaks. Pakistan , of course, was always going to be a pushover, but, ironically, it was the least impressive of our performances. A 50-plus tally was there for the taking, but Sri Lanka had to settle for 39/0. But against Arabian Gulf and Thailand , no pushovers both, the home
side was brilliant, imaginative and daring, showing it can raise its performance level if the opposition so compels it. Both oppositions were of superior physique, the expats-filled Gulf outfit more than the Thais. Sri Lanka normally collapse in the face of size and weight. Not this time. The nifty, little Lankans showed the game isn’t about force of strength. Imagine a lumbering animal coping with a swarm of wasps – the picture was pretty much that
as the Sri Lankans darted, dodged and stung the Gulf, 40/7, and the Thais, 35/19.
Those three straight wins, however, earned us a meeting with Korea , the top seed, the unquestionable favourites and the eventual winners. One of the other two semifinalists, China or Chinese-Taipei, might’ve been preferred – and placed the team’s pre-match buoyancy at a higher level. Korea was the toughest call, and frankly, pre-match calculations were about minimising the margin of an inevitable
As things turned out though, the game was anything but on a one-way street. Amazingly the Sri Lankans matched the Koreans move for move; tackle for tackle… and the game was anybody’s until the end. Eventually, each side had scored two tries, and Korea had its nose in front only because they made good both their conversions and the home side, one. On reflection, Sri Lanka might’ve had a third try, but a
kick ahead rather than a pass to the wing, with the Korean defence stretched to breaking, cost a place in the Cup final.
It is, however, unfair to chastise that momentary aberration, expensive though it was. After all, the Sri Lankans would gladly have taken a pre-match offer of a two-point defeat – so overwhelming were odds stacked in favour of the sleek and powerful Koreans.
That moment of aberration came fairly late in the second half, by which time the furious battle had taken its toll on the players. The Koreans had deployed as replacements their full bench-strength of three players, but Sri Lanka persisted with their starting lineup till the finish, bar substituting the injured Kumara with Weerakody. Whether changes might’ve had impacted positively or otherwise remains
hypothetical, though many believe a few fresher legs and bodies might’ve tilted things in our favour. But let’s not nitpick and smudge the glory of what has been an exceptional performance, one that well surpassed everybody’s expectation. The bottom line is that Sri Lanka managed to make it to the Cup championship, a feat unachieved before, here or abroad.
And that’s quite some doing, given that the run up months to the event was anything but encouraging. Firstly, there was the sudden and unfortunate departure of the National coach of many years. Kiwi George Simpkin had fashioned a marvelous recovery of our rugby – a recovery that, after successes over Thailand , Singapore and Kazakhstan , all but got us into the top tier of Asian fifteens rugby. Then,
following the historic win over the USA at the Hong Kong Seven this year, there was hope that our standing in the Singer/Srilankan Airlines Sevens would improve, from three-time Plate winners to Cup semifinalist. But for reasons well-publicised, Simpkin left the country last June and the national pool was left in limbo.
Then a fortnight before the event, players from the champion club threatened to pullout of the national squad in protest of a six-month suspension on team mate, Nalaka Weerakody. The boycott was averted but the issue itself is far from closed, with the player and the SLRFU now locked in litigation.
All of which meant the job of new coach, Willie Hetaraka, was not going to be a straight-forward one. The technical aspects of the Kiwi’s job wasn’t going to be as big a problem as coping with the fractiousness that has long blighted our rugby – and he walked into one on the eve of the event. His choice of the playing-ten, from the squad of 12, was rejected by the selectors, who instead insisted
on playing the 10 of their choice. There had been, I understand, a fierce standoff between the coach and selectors, not excluding threats of resignation by the coach. Anyway, the selectors had their way: Lewke and Eranga Weerakody were included instead of Hetaraka’s preferences, Sajith Mallikarachchi and Lalindra Rodrigo.
It has to be said though that it is within the ambit of the selectors’ power to name the playing-10. So, technically, the selectors had the right to insist that the 10 of their choice do duty. But the practiced custom is for the selectors to pick the squad and leave it to the team management to decide who actually plays. The custom was based on the good sense that the team management, being responsible for
preparing the squad, knows best players’ suitability and competence. It would’ve been nice had the selectors and team management worked in tandem, which, of course, would’ve required the former to follow all of the squad’s practices and matches. Had that happened, the unwelcome spat between coach and selectors, and the angst caused to players, might have been spared. The standoff, so, wasn’t surprising, as were the resultant accusations of
All that is now water under the bridge. The Asiad isn’t many moons away and one hopes lessons would’ve been learnt. Hetaraka, hopefully, is now wiser of local sensitivities – after all, he did contest the selectors’ powers, though it has to be said, his stand was in the interest of the team. Our third-place playoff against Chinese-Taipei arguably vindicated Hetaraka’s stand – Lewke and Weerakody,
the selectors’ preferences, filled in for the injured Kumara and Vidanage, and we lost, 7/31.
That theory, of course, is contestable, but the suitability of the national coach is indisputable. This was Hetaraka’s first examination, and only the biased will challenge that it was an unqualified success. Given that he assumed duties barely six weeks before, makes it even more a remarkable job – and clearly undeserving of the selectors’ lack of faith in his judgement. But now, hopefully, the two
parties are lesser strangers and the distance between them closer. After all, the task of both is common: to build a better national team.
Caltex fuels historic inter province tourney
The Caltex Inter Provincial tournament opens a new chapter in local rugby – opening up new frontiers for competitive rugby, which traditionally has been restricted to inter-club tournaments.
The historic four-team event kicks off today with the Southern Province versus Western Province match at Havelock Park .
"It’s now over a decade since provincial unions were set up and the SLRFU administration broad based. The goal was to develop provincial rugby to a level where an inter-provincial competition will play a more relevant role in national rugby than inter-club tournaments,’’ said CEO, SLRFU Dilroy Fernando. "The inaugural event might’ve taken a long time in coming, but a start has at least been
made this year, which we are confident would inspire greater efforts to bring provincial rugby on par with Colombo and Kandy.
Caltex, one of local rugby’s loyal backers, has invested Rs.750, 000 in the inaugural tournament. "The Union has decided to disburse Rs.100, 000 to each of the four competing unions for the preparation of their teams for the tournament. As well we’ve decided to hire foreign coaches to oversee the training of all teams. The purpose of deploying foreign coaches is to give local provincial coaches the
opportunity to learn from them,’’ said CEO Fernando. "The idea is invest all of the sponsor’s money into the event’’ – adding Caltex’s sponsorship of the new tournament is another illustration of the company’s commitment to rugby development.
National coach Willie Hetaraka is to oversee the local coaches of Southern Province (Tony Amith) and Defence Services (Col. Ranasinghe and Hafeel). Samoan Panenari will watch over Western Province while Kandy SC ’s Tavlesi Tavita will coach Central Province .
The September 24-October 8 tournament is to be a trial to pick the Sri Lanka national training squad for the Asiad Championship in Colombo in November. The selectors are expected to name the training squad soon after the final game, leaving five weeks to prepare the squad for the 15-nation Asiad.
Conducted on a league basis, the tournament’s other games are:
Sept 26, Defence v Central P. at Kandy, Sept 30, Southern v Defence,at Galle Oct 1, Central v. Western,at Kandy ; Oct 8 Central v. Southern,at Radella and Defence v. Western, at Colombo .