It is easy to get caught up in all the hype and hoopla following Sri Lanka’s ‘best-ever’ performance in the HSBC Asian Sevens Series and forget the fact that we will once again fail in our bid to reach the promised land for one more year. But first it has to be acknowledged that our [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Marija and his men must believe in being the best in Asia


It is easy to get caught up in all the hype and hoopla following Sri Lanka’s ‘best-ever’ performance in the HSBC Asian Sevens Series and forget the fact that we will once again fail in our bid to reach the promised land for one more year.

But first it has to be acknowledged that our national sevens squad has made tremendous strides by finishing third at last weekend’s second leg of the Asian Seven Series in Thailand.

The Fazil Marija-led team has performed creditably, first by finishing fourth in the opening leg earlier this month in Malaysia and following it up by going one better defeating South Korea 29-7 in the third place play-off in Chonburi, Thailand.

Defeating the Koreans is a massive result and it would be churlish not to give credit to Marija and his men. And standing out once again was feisty scrumhalf Srinath Sooriyabandara with his superb side-stepping runs, hard-working forward Sajith Saranga and the skipper Marija himself.

Sri Lanka finished the opening day’s pool competition unbeaten with a convincing 26-5 win over Kazakhstan before scraping past Chinese-Taipei (15-12) to top their pool. Suriyabandara was the star in the opener running in a hat-trick with his pace, power and stepping too hot for the opponents to handle.

It was harder against Taipei, but what stood out was a better defensive effort from Sri Lanka. Saranga who had missed the opening leg, made his presence felt in this match when he stood strong in a tackle before off-loading the ball for the first try. Then with Sri Lanka trailing 10-12 and the minutes ticking, he scored the match-winning try rolling over after being tackled short of the line.

On day two, Sri Lanka met hosts Thailand in the Cup quarter-finals and was too strong easing to a 26-0 victory. Sandun Herath and Saliya Kumara book-ended the effort with 70-metre sprints for tries but once again it was Suriyabandara who scored the try-of-the-match with a lovely jinxing run.

The Fazil Marija-led Sri Lanka 7s team has performed creditably in the Asian Series so far. - Pic courtesy Dennis Muthuthantri /SLRFU

Until this moment, everything had been going according to the script but then we reverted to our old self coming up against Japan in the semi-finals. The result – a 52-5 hammering – told the story. It seemed as if Sri Lanka went into the match having already decided it was a lost cause.

Yes, Japan might be all-powerful and all-mighty on the Asian scene, but surely we shouldn’t have resigned ourselves to defeat even before the ball was kicked?

The intention of saving ourselves for the third place play-off was clear when playmaker Marija was rested. It might have paid off dividends when we defeated Korea afterwards, but the whole point of taking part in this series was lost.

What matters most is that this four-legged series – Mumbai, India next month followed by Singapore in November being the last two legs – will decide which two Asian teams qualify for the Hong Kong Sevens.

Take note it is TWO and not three as happened last season. This is because the International Rugby Board has decided that the Hong Kong Sevens next March will be used as a qualification tournament to decide teams for core team status on the IRB World Series.
At present there are 15 core teams which play in all nine legs of the World Series, the likes of New Zealand, England, Fiji etc. At the end of this season – starting on October 12-13 with the Gold Coast Sevens – the bottom-placed team will be relegated and the winners of the qualifying tournament in Hong Kong will earn promotion to become a core team.

The top two countries from each if the six IRB regions will play in the 12-team qualifiers in Hong Kong and Asia’s representatives will be the top two from the Asian Sevens Series.

So basically to win back our place at the Hong Kong Sevens – and remember that Sri Lanka was one of the countries to play at the first Hong Kong Sevens in 1976 – we have to finish top two in Asia.

How can we do that if we don’t even make an attempt to challenge the likes of Japan and Hong Kong who are leading the standings after the first two legs with 24 and 22 points respectively. Sri Lanka is third on the standings with 19 points – nine for finishing fourth in Malaysia and 10 for finishing third in Thailand.

Our hopes of playing in the Hong Kong Sevens are all but over for it is hardly likely that second-placed Hong Kong will slip up in the remaining two legs.

There is still a back door route to the Hong Kong Sevens. Remember there are only 15 core teams and to round it off and make it a 16-team tournament. The IRB has one wild card which they will give to whichever team they think deserves. This is also an insurance policy in case Hong Kong fails to finish in the top two in Asia, as it would be unfair if the home team misses out on their own party. But Hong Kong wants to play in the qualifying tournament for IRB core team status and as it stands, are all but certain of finishing in the top two.

So that wild card will go to the country which impresses the IRB the most. Sri Lanka has done well so far this season, but they have to do more if they are to catch the eye of the world governing body.

They most certainly will not do that by conceding 50 points against Japan for the IRB will think if this is the case, what will happen when they come up against the All Black Sevens.

The Japan game was a disgrace. We failed to contest the ball at the kick-off and subsequent re-starts leading to a Japanese procession of five tries in the first half. This is one of the most crucial areas in sevens, winning possession at the outset. We failed.

Our players seemed in awe of the Japanese standing away from contact. Going out with the idea of saving yourself for the next game was a huge mistake. It might have seen us fresher against Korea – who was injury-ridden having lost three key players – but it was a ludicrous decision, especially resting your key player and captain.

Yes, at first glance, a third-place finish was praiseworthy. But it seems this was the limits of our ambitions. We must get over that inferiority complex and believe we can challenge the best, as we must in the remaining two legs.

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