The Sri Lanka rugby sevens squad would do well to do a crash course on the Art of War by Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general and philosopher who lived six centuries before the birth of Christ, if they want to take one step more and challenge the big guns in the Asian Sevens Series. [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Good defence a must if Sri Lanka is to challenge for sevens supremacy


The Sri Lanka rugby sevens squad would do well to do a crash course on the Art of War by Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general and philosopher who lived six centuries before the birth of Christ, if they want to take one step more and challenge the big guns in the Asian Sevens Series.

Sun Tzu was a firm adherent of the tactic that attack is the best form of defence, something which is second nature to the way we Sri Lankans play rugby.

But attack without a proper defence would have been unthinkable to the famous Chinese military strategist. One without the other is useless, almost like eating string hoppers without pol sambol and kiri hodi.

Srinath Sooriyabandara (with ball) was a notable player of the tournament.- File pic

Fazil Marija and his men deserve praise for reaching the last four in the first leg of the Asian Sevens Series last weekend in Malaysia. It was the first time since the series came into existence three years ago that Sri Lanka has advanced to the Cup semi-finals and it says a lot for our progress.

But a pat on the back is not enough, especially if we have ambitions of returning to play at the Hong Kong Sevens next March, something which only the top two or three teams in this series will qualify for.

Let’s first take a look at the results which were achieved at the Petaling Jaya Stadium in Kuala Lumpur. Sri Lanka defeated Kazakhstan 21-0 on the opening day before slipping to a 29-14 loss to Japan in their remaining pool game.

That win over Kazakhstan was enough to book a place in the Cup quarterfinals where we came up against hosts Malaysia boasting a couple of Fijians domiciled in that country. We beat Malaysia 29-10 after leading 12-5 at the break. Nigel Ratwatte scored the first of five tries when he latched on to a loose ball which the opponents failed to secure from the kick-off and showed a fine turn of pace to beat a defender. That was followed by a try from Sandun Herath for a slender halftime lead.

In the second half Sri Lanka cut loose with feisty scrumhalf Srinath Sooriyabandara leading the way with two more tries by Mithun Hapugoda and Saliya Kumara.

Sooriyabandara was the player of the tournament as far as I was concerned. His adventurous straight running, an ability to spot and take the gap plus some fine stepping made him a clear cut danger. Following closely on his heels in performance was playmaker Marija.
Up next was Hong Kong in the semi-finals. They were a different kettle of fish. Hong Kong takes pride in being a solid defensive unit. They try and emulate teams like New Zealand whose cornerstone of their game is defence.

Ask World Cup-winning captain DJ Forbes what is the key to their success and he will say “our D”. D standing for defence. This is drilled into every new recruit for the All Black Sevens by the world’s best sevens coach Gordon Tietjens.

If your defence is porous like a tea strainer, then you are always likely to leak tries. And no matter how many tries you score yourself, this will always put you under pressure and the cracks will then start to appear.

As it did for Sri Lanka who despite only trailing 14-12 at the break – kick-and chase tries from Marija and Sooriyabandara – succumbed to Hong Kong who ran in three second-half tries to win 29-12.

Next up was South Korea in the third place play-off, a match which Sri Lanka should have sealed in regulation time. But the Koreans won it in sudden death extra-time 15-10.

So on the decisive second day of play, during the knockout phases, Sri Lanka conceded a total of 10 tries – two against Malaysia, five against Hong Kong and three against Korea.

The brace Malaysia scored didn’t matter in the final account as there defence was worse than ours. The Malaysians missed first-up tackles and their homegrown players seemed to lack the fitness to last the pace.

It was a different story against teams with a better organised structure like Hong Kong. It was Sri Lanka’s turn to struggle and resemble the Malaysians. The inability to shut down Hong Kong quickly led to holes in our defence. The overlaps started to appear out wide and Hong Kong made the most of it.

Reaching the last four was a sound start but if Sri Lanka has eyes on bigger things – stand-in coach Nilufer Ibrahim believes the team can enter a final – then we have to sort out the defence.

The first step is to take measures to increase our fitness. A high work-rate is required in sevens, especially if you are up against teams like Japan and Hong Kong. You cannot make a tackle and then take a breather for that would put pressure on your defensive system.
We need to be in the face of our opponents. On too many occasions we stood away allowing them to run at us. Once you gain momentum it is harder to stop an attacking threat – nipping it in the bud is best.

The fact that injuries took a heavy toll on the squad speaks volumes for the fitness of the players. Two players had to be flown in for the second day during which we lost a couple more key players before the play-off match began among the Ratwatte and Chula Susantha.
When injuries happen, it changes a team’s dynamics hugely and this is what happened to Sri Lanka. In sevens today, it is not just about the starting sevens but also about your bench strength which apparently Sri Lanka did not have as proven at the latter stages of the tournament.

All these issues have to be faced before the next three legs of the series in Thailand (later this month), India and Singapore (next month) get underway.

Yes, it is creditable that we reached the last four but at the end of the day it counts for nothing. We have to aim higher.

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