Rugby chief Asanga Seneviratne (left) reacts during a conversation with Sports Minister Navin Dissanayake as the team was being felicitated | (Picture by Chandana Wijesinghe)

Under-siege Sri Lanka rugby administrators have been over the moon the past week basking after the national team qualified once again to play in what is called the Top Asian Five Nations tournament and hoping a government lifeline could save them.

What has been most hair-raising is that the Qualification is being portrayed as a coveted championship by rugby officials thanks largely to a commercial partner that is willing to throw in lavish advertisements as well as an eulogistic felicitation of the team in the presence of new sports minister Navin Dissanayake who himself is under pressure to clean up a gigantic sporting mess in one of the world’s smallest countries.

But falsehoods apart, Sri Lanka skipper Fazil Marija perhaps made the wisest use of the team’s felicitation to highlight an area that he has the closest insight into.

“We can go further than this”, Marija declared, as a fascinated audience looked on. “In the past we use to depend on a few players but now we have enough to choose from and I can only appeal to the Minister (Dissanayake) to help us go further”.

He recalled how they almost killed themselves at intense training to prepare for the Qualification round that took place in the Philippines last week where Sri Lanka beat Kazakhstan and the host country.

Marija is touted as the best fly-half produced by Sri Lanka who hit the saddle as a 17-year old boy from Kingswood College in Kandy.

But time may also be running out for the 31-year old fleet-footed Marija to whom praise had always come with a price.

Minister Dissanayake though had no hesitation in acknowledging that Marija’s charges had the potential to take their wares to another level but stopped short of making pledges other than assure State patronage of the players.

“We have the talent for rugby in Sri Lanka. The government will do its maximum for the future and the game must go to the villages”, said Dissanayake.

For Sri Lankan rugby keepers the occasion was the perfect foil to impress Minister Dissanayake who two months ago sacked cricket officials over financial irregularities, political squabbles and conflict of interests.

In the case of rugby, its administration stands accused of causing the dismantling of the country’s oldest team CH and FC, enlisting foreign coaches who quit prematurely, failing to show any major development work and playing into the hands of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s family that led to the shady conversion of two Fijians to wear the Sri Lanka jersey.

Rugby chief Asanga Seneviratne legally cannot function for another term unless Dissanayake decides to shift the goal posts and allow him and his band to continue.

But Seneviratne while paying a wholehearted tribute to the team and congratulating the players several of whom made their maiden international appearance, claimed that it was the absence of a state-of-the-art apparatus, only possible through government funding, and not bungling by his administration that has failed to put Sri Lanka on par with Asian giants Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

“To challenge teams like Hong Kong and South Korea we need government support. Sri Lanka has no facilities like scientific training. I have tried my best to take rugby to this level”, Seneviratne said.

He has re-enlisted Johan Taylor, a South African, as coach for a new four-year term.
Two years ago Sri Lanka qualified to meet Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong but stood very little chance to be in the elite league.

At last year’s Asian Top Five Nations tournament Sri Lanka were thrashed by a monumental 132-10 by Japan, 41-10 by Hong Kong and 59-3 by South Korea to be dumped into the 2015 Asian Five Nations Division One tournament along with Singapore, Kazakhstan and the Philippines.

By beating the Philippines and Kazakhstan last week, Sri Lanka only earned a place once again into the Top Five Asian Nations category to face Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong in 2016, the winner of which will be the real Asian champions.

Fazil Marija
Fazil Marija