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The champion Kandy team celebrate one of their coveted trophies | (Pics by Sassanda Linayarachchi)

Defending Champions hit back at critics and accuses Colombo clubs of
partying instead of nurturing players

Kandy Sports Club, once the poor cousins of rugby in the country, has now become the most hated team in Colombo for their domination of the game and it seems the national custodians of the sport the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union (SLRFU) may have a place of comfort without the upcountry side at the new season which kicked off on Friday.

For more than a decade and a half Kandy’s players have called the shots thanks to their Colombo godfather businessman Malik Samarawickrema, now a prominent government minister. But Kandy’s trophy-winning frolics are being grudged by opponents who claim that it has had an adverse effect on the progress of the game whereby every other rival team has been left behind unable to match their feared reputation.

Kandy not only stands accused of grabbing most of the spoils and buying-off the best players thereby ripping off other clubs, but also the villain or scapegoat for a continuous deterioration of spectators at matches where some venues attract fewer than a hundred fans as match results become predictable and irrelevant.

Noting the slide in match attendance, the SLRFU may have a hard time assuring fans that Kandy will not be able to rock the scrum this time at the 2016 season.

“That (Kandy winning) won’t be the case this time. There are other teams in the fray and they are backed by good coaches, so this year promises an exciting season,” SLRFU head Asanga Seneviratne boldly said at the tournament’s launch.

Kandy’s most charismatic player Fazil Marija runs with the ball
Kandy’s most charismatic player Fazil Marija runs with the ball

But neither will Kandy accept any blame for a drop in spectator attendance at matches in Colombo nor will they subscribe to the way rugby is sustained in the big city.

“We are a professional team and it’s not right to say that just because we win most of the time, rugby fans don’t patronize matches in Colombo,” pleaded Kandy captain Roshan Weeraratne.

“If other clubs cannot attract crowd support it is not because of us but because they give up on their own players and don’t care for them even when they are injured. Also I am sad to say that some clubs in Colombo don’t cater to rugby, they are only interested in parties and not the players.”

Kandy will sport another prized catch this season in Sri Lanka centre Dhanushka Ranjan who has quit Havelocks.

It was not the first time that Kandy has been scorned at ahead of a new season but will be able to find some admirers among their detractors with one of them being former Sri Lanka flanker Hisham Abdeen to whom on-field action speaks louder than words.

“If you want the crowds back, then play better rugby or do something extraordinary. Without spectators there is no good rugby and without good rugby there are no spectators,” exclaimed Abdeen who drew crowds by the bus loads during the crackerjack 1980s.

Unlike when Abdeen graced a cult-like following, club rugby in Sri Lanka now has a benefactor in the country’s premier mobile phone service provider Dialog who has chosen to be diplomatic in their dealings with the SLRFU but harbour hopes for a rise in spectator following.

“It’s a competition anyway and I don’t think one team dominating can be taken as negative for the progress of rugby or to say that it causes a decline in spectator interest. We too are looking at a growth. It is not a huge decline in spectator participation but we are working on it. We just got to create more hype,” said Harsha Samaranayake, Dialog’s second in command in Brand and Media.

That hype, according to Tournament Director Lasitha Gunaratne, may depend on the individual mindsets of players, fans and administrators coming together.

“One team dominating may be just one of the reasons (for the drop in spectator interest),” said Gunaratne a former Sri Lanka pack leader.

“But with players changing clubs every season there is no loyalty and spectators are confused unlike schools rugby. Press coverage is also not the way it used to be and today there is so much of international rugby on television and these are challenges for all of us.”