A well governed schools rugby system and an equally impressive club set-up at home might give a very wrong impression to the outside world about how committed Sri Lanka is towards pursuing this sport. No, Sri Lanka is not very organized when it comes to national rugby assignments. The heart of rugby union at home lies within the domestic club scene. The truth is that anyone wanting to change this focus from clubs to the national rugby has had to experience an undercurrent akin to those who swim in the sea.
At the time of writing, Sri Lanka’s hurriedly compiled national team is preparing to salvage any of the pride that’s left in them after the thrashing they received at the hands of Malaysia. By the time this edition rolls off the press, Sri Lanka would have met its final opponent in the Division I segment of the Asia Rugby Championship, Philippines. The time right now permits this writer to reflect on how we prepare national teams for international tournaments, but doesn’t suffice to feed Nation readers with how the islanders fared against the Volcanoes.
To begin with, Sri Lanka never really had much plans to defend their title as reigning champs in the Division I segment of the tournament which also features Singapore. The Sri Lankan authorities were more interested in conducting the domestic tournament for clubs, which unfortunately have the power to influence the players as to where they should channel their time and energies. The national team had a few sessions under coach Johan Taylor and the 25-member squad was probably told they were ready for the task. The joy of beating Singapore 33-17 was short-lived given that a huge lesson in how to prepare for international rugby was presented to them in the form of a challenge from a Malaysian outfit studded with players of Fijian origin.
The Malaysians, according to Malaysia Rugby Union authorities, had two goals firmly etched in their minds. One was to remain in Division I and the other was to pull off one win in the group. They have achieved the latter, but remaining in the group is a challenge now, given that the tournament is now thrown open with Malaysia losing to the Philippines and Singapore edging out Philippines 28-24.
The Malaysian rugby authorities have acknowledged the fact that they were focusing on improving stamina and physical strength. The meticulously planned gym sessions would have helped in this endeavour, but what really lifted their rugby several notches was the decision taken some years ago to field expatriates in the side. The Malaysian authorities decided to work with Fijians and made them eligible for selection following IRB regulations.
If Sri Lanka wants to get serious about their participation at international tournaments they need to obtain sports ministry clearance to field expatriates. This topic has been taken up for serious discussion in the past, but there seems to be individuals in the SLRFU who shoot down this idea for selfish reasons.
Sri Lanka also created a major blunder this year when the majority of club representatives during a meeting with the SLRFU voted against fielding expatriates at the domestic club tournament. Didn’t they know that the national team was contesting the Asian Five Nations in 2016 and the Sri Lankan players needed that experience in tackling heavier made opponents? This is a blunder that’s unforgivable.
Sport helps citizens of a nation to be selfless. “County before self” is the motto of a popular school in Colombo which produced one of its finest batsmen in Test and ODI cricket. That’s in cricket. But sadly the rugby structure in the island doesn’t permit this ideology. It begs an answer from the SLRFU as to why only five players from the 2016 champion Kandy SC team could be included in the national team to Malaysia? Aren’t the other players from the Nittawela club good enough to represent Sri Lanka?