Thank heavens I didn’t wake up with a tattoo etched on my face or a tiger in my bathroom. Yet, the hangover was a pretty sore one to handle as 2014 was ushered in the company of Mr. Johnnie Walker. While my more robust friends were up a couple of hours later and going to [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka faces an excess of a Hong Kong hangover


Thank heavens I didn’t wake up with a tattoo etched on my face or a tiger in my bathroom. Yet, the hangover was a pretty sore one to handle as 2014 was ushered in the company of Mr. Johnnie Walker.

While my more robust friends were up a couple of hours later and going to work – we take pride in working on the first day of the year but the rest of the year is a holiday – I spent the first day of the new year tenderly nursing my wicked legacy and thinking of having to return to Hong Kong soon.

That prospect was cheered by the thought that my return ticket will be booked soon with Hong Kong flying down to Sri Lanka to play the tie in the Asian Five Nations in Colombo. This game has been slated for the first weekend in May.

By playing against and along with foreign super stars at events like the Carlton Super 7s, Sri Lankan 7s players gained much needed exposure on their way to the Hong Kong event. - File pic

It will be an important year all round for rugby in Sri Lanka. The return to the top flight in Asia must be cemented by staying in the A5N Top Five for as long as possible. It is only being playing regularly against the region’s top guns – and now with encounters against teams from outside Asia too (Serendib Cup) that we will improve our game.

But while the national focus must be on the 15s programme, there was the welcome news that Sri Lanka will return to the Hong Kong Sevens after a 10-year absence.

I bumped into Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union’s president Asanga Seneviratne at a dinner hosted by a mutual friend last week – Maliq Deane and his wife Angie were celebrating another happy year of marriage- and he pulled out his smart phone to show me an email received hot-hot from the IRB.

I couldn’t believe what I read: a brief message confirming that Sri Lanka would make up the 16th team in the core team tournament. Asanga was over the moon for he had pitched Sri Lanka’s case for inclusion strongly, and was successful.His argument had been that since the Hong Kong Sevens was held in Asia – its original raison d’etre was to promote the game in Asia – that last place available should be given to Sri Lanka. And it wasn’t just a sop, for Fazil Marija and his men deserved it by virtue of finishing third in the Asian Sevens Series.

The IRB who was pleased by the strides Sri Lanka rugby has made in recent years – the inaugural four-nation Serendib Cup initiative was to their liking – apparently had no second thoughts and conceded to the request from Asanga whose position had also been strengthened by is recent elevation to the post of secretary-general of the Asian Rugby Football Union.

It goes to show that who-you-know matters in this game today. Asanga’s rise to prominence has been noted by people in the corridors of power both in Asia and the rest of the world. Trevor Gregory, ARFU president, would have added his weight to Sri Lanka making up the last piece in the 28-team jigsaw at the Hong Kong Sevens.

Unlike in 2004, the last time Sri Lanka played at the Hong Kong Sevens, the tournament is now a two-tiered event. The top tier is for 16 teams – the 15 core teams who play in all legs of the IRB World Series plus one more invited at the discretion of the world governing body.

Every leg of the World Series is a 16-team event barring Hong Kong, the jewel-in-the-crown which is normally a 24-team tournament. This year, however, 28 teams will turn up, the top-tier 16 teams plus a second-tier 12-team event. This latter competition will be the qualifying event to unearth one team who will win promotion (the last team this season will be relegated) to core-team status next season in the World Series.

The 12 teams who will take part in the Hong Kong qualifiers are the top two from Asia (Japan and Hong Kong), Europe, Africa, North America and the Caribbean (Nacra), America (South) and Oceania. The winner of this competition will earn the right to play all year around with the big guns next season.

The irony is that Sri Lanka, despite finishing third behind Japan and Hong Kong in Asia, will be playing against the likes of New Zealand and Fiji in the main event. But we are only making up numbers. There had to be a 16th team to make for an equitable four-pool preliminary round draw.

That place would have gone to Hong Kong if it had failed to finish in the top two in Asia. It would have been strange if the host nation was absent from its own event. But with Hong Kong qualifying by merit, one vacancy was available and Sri Lanka got it thanks to Asanga’s initiative.

So while we will be playing in the top-tier event – there is no mix between the two competitions – it is Japan and Hong Kong from Asia who will be fighting tooth and nail for the real thing which is a place at the top table next season.Sri Lanka will face a mission impossible. But they should make the most of it and enjoy the occasion of playing in front of 40,000 fans and against opponents from the top drawer.

Lessons learned in defeat are the ones that stick in your mind and while it would be remarkable if we can pull off a victory, we should not be demoralized by losing. The best approach is to go out, stick to your game plan and try to learn from the experience.

We have come a long way at sevens. The Carlton Sevens has given the players the feel for what it takes to play against top-rated opposition. The Hong Kong Sevens will be several steps higher. No one is expecting Sri Lanka to return with a Bowl trophy. What they must return with is an improved knowledge of what it takes to win at this version. This will give us a boost looking ahead to next season’s Asian Sevens Series.

And in the meantime, let’s not forget what our main focus should be this year – the 15s game and retaining our place at the top table.

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