Sri Lanka under-20 rugby Sevens coach Sudath Sampath | (Pic by Ravi Nagahawatte)

Sri Lanka under-20 Rugby Sevens coach Sudath Sampath reminisces how his players raised their game to a ‘professional’ level to beat some of the fancied teams at the Asian Championships

Sri Lanka junior rugby coach Sudath Sampath believes that the huge experience players gained by playing club rugby and the exposure they obtained by playing in the Mercantile Sevens helped the national team they represented annex the Cup Championship at the Asian Under-20 Rugby Sevens in Malaysia.

The majority of the national players in the under-20 side are virtual club players and have left school, but were eligible to represent Sri Lanka at this Sevens tournament keeping with IRB rules. Coach Sampath reflecting on Sri Lanka’s feat of beating South Korea 38-0 in the final said, “It is an achievement that has created history in Sri Lanka rugby.” Sri Lanka had never in the annals of its rugby history won a Cup Championship at an international tournament till this achievement.

Sri Lanka had the good fortune of fielding eight players who represented the island nation at the 2015 edition of this tournament where its players fluttered in the first leg, but flopped in the second. “I studied the playing patterns other teams adopted by watching video footage of matches played at the Asian rugby tournament last year. The players were fully ready for the challenge of locking horns with Asian rugby giants like Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. We were able to break that mental barrier that Sri Lanka can’t beat Asia’s rugby giants,” he affirmed. However, Sri Lanka suffered its only defeat at the tournament which came against Japan (19-14), a team which remained unbeaten in the group stage of the tournament, but lost in the semis.

Sampath acknowledged the contributions made by SLRFU’s High Performance Director Imthi Marikar who accompanied the players along with Rajiv Perera (Manager) and Harsha (Physiotherapist) as an official. He said that the players were ready for the second leg of the tournament which is scheduled to be held in Hong Kong on August 12 and 13.
Sampath said that the team comprised players from different schools, but what was inspiring was that there was great unity among players. “Another factor that worked in favour of us was that the players were not under pressure and enjoyed every moment of playing in the tournament,” he said.

The members of the Sri Lanka junior rugby team unlike in past years were bigger and stronger. Does this give any indication that the players can see their chances of impressing in the longer version of rugby union enhance ? “Not at all. I believe that Sri Lanka’s future is in Sevens rugby and we should cannel all our energies in developing this form of the sport. Fifteen-a-side rugby is now a lot faster, has more rucks and a lot more phases during play and is still a huge challenge for us,” he said.

The Sri Lanka youth rugby coach said that the authorities should ensure that these players are nurtured and nourished when planning their futures, so that they will be available to turn out for the senior national team in upcoming Sevens Tournaments. He added that these under-20 players should now get exposure at tournaments abroad and take their focus on Sevens rugby beyond the boundaries of Asia.

He acknowledged the fact that the government officials had afforded them with a red-carpet welcome at the airport on their return. “I take this opportunity to thank the SLRFU headed by Asanga Seneviratne for the opportunities given to us and the recognition given to the team by Minister Harin Fernando who was there at the airport to welcome us.”

Sampath underscored the fact that this rugby achievement would certainly inspire other sportsmen and women to believe that Sri Lankans can dazzle in sports in the international scene.

The former Sri Lanka scrum half said that he enjoyed the tour more than his past assignments with national teams because this time he was dealing with youth players.
Sampath added that he fancied a second leg of the tournament, a feature he said allows teams that struggled in the ‘opener’ to improve and make a comeback.

He knows that other teams like Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Chinese Taipei, South Korea, Thailand, the UAE and the Philippines which will continue to take up the challenge in the second stage of the tournament are studying how Sri Lanka emerged as a surprise package. “It is easy to win a tournament, but it is difficult to remain at the top,” he said.