Former Sri Lanka fly half Asanga Seneviratne is set to play a pivotal role in Asia rugby’s governing body by proposing structural changes to regional competitions in a bid to whip up spectator interest and attract sponsors. Shunned by Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) when he was nominated as a vice-president of Asia Rugby (AR), Seneviratne [...]


Lanka’s lost try

Kicked to touch by SLR, Asia Rugby grabs Seneviratne’s expertise

Sri Lanka hosted Madagascar and Poland in a Tri-Nation Series in Colombo

Former Sri Lanka fly half Asanga Seneviratne is set to play a pivotal role in Asia rugby’s governing body by proposing structural changes to regional competitions in a bid to whip up spectator interest and attract sponsors.

Shunned by Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) when he was nominated as a vice-president of Asia Rugby (AR), Seneviratne is back in the driving seat of the regional body as chairman of High Performance and the Competitions Committee once again.

The new president of Asia Rugby Qais Al Dhalai (UAE), Terence Khoo (World Rugby Council member) president of Singapore Rugby and Vela Tan (vice president) from Malaysia, have been working closely with me him over the last five years and are in the process of formulating a 10-year plan for Asia Rugby. Their knowledge and mutual respect for each other has now brought together one of the strongest possible teams in Asia rugby to lead the continent in to a new decade.

“Asia Rugby wanted me to be part of the team and invited me to head of Competitions and High Performance because when I was chairman in 2015 and 2016, the plans we proposed were all shelved,” said Seneviratne who was instrumental in introducing Sevens in junior age groups such as under 17 and 19 during his previous stint in the committee.

“I have proposed changes to how we are doing things now. They are keen to look at the structural changes and ideas because we think Asia Rugby is at a crossroad. Other than for Japan, no one else is able to make it to the top league. We have to find a way to support aspiring nations and find a way to create interest in the lower divisions.  The majority of unions competing here are doing everything possible to develop their players and we can’t ignore them any longer,” said Seneviratne, a former honorary General Secretary  of Asia Rugby.

“Another challenge for Asian Rugby  is that for the last  seven years or so they have not had a sponsor. Once HSBC pulled out no sponsor had been attracted.”

Seneviratne is a member the SLR Appeals board, one of the sub committees of Sri Lanka Rugby and asked why he was given the cold shoulder by SLR despite being its immediate past president when he was nominated for a top position in AR, Seneviratne shrugged it off by saying: “That was a bit unfortunate because the entire team led by President Qais Al Dhalai nominated me and we missed a good opportunity. It’s very sad that Sri Lanka Rugby, now doesn’t indulge in dialogue to sort these things out. They don’t bother to even communicate as to what they want to do or what they are doing.”

The former rugby chief and Sri Lanka star has no ill feelings, warding off the obstacles he faced by smiling and saying , “let’s concentrate on the future , we will now work hard to rebuild our image and credibility.”

“We have to concentrate on 7s a for juniors from under 17 to 20. This is a crucial area of development. Earlier we were playing more 15s. To develop 15s we will need massive funding and a complete change in training and lifestyles. We only play XVs seriously at under 19 level,” he said.

Outlining the proposed changes that would be taken up at AR’s ExCo meeting in Dubai next month he said:  “We want to bring division I and division II together so teams like Sri Lanka meets their traditional rivals from Asia such as Thailand , Singapore, Chinese Taipei, etc.,  more regularly. We want to create a festival atmosphere at these events and play the 15s every two years like we did in the past. We can use the free year to play African, European or South American sides, and hopefully improve our world rankings.  I believe it is pointless playing the same Asian teams every year.”

Sri Lanka successfully did this by hosting the Serendib Cup when he was president and played Madagascar and Poland who were ranked number 29 in the world. “Sri Lanka was ranked 69 and we beat them and managed to rise to 38 which is the highest ranking ever achieved,” he pointed out.

Seneviratne has proposed two, 24-team Asian International Sevens, bringing the cream of Asian Rugby teams together and to create that sort of vibe that is experienced in the IRB 7s. Already  China and Malaysia have shown interest to host. Sri Lanka will also be a contender. “We must convince sponsors to increase the teams because it will create a lot more value for all concerned ,”  said Seneviratne confident that it would help boost Sri Lanka’s  tourism image hit by the Easter blasts.

“It will be good to bring more than 20 countries into an Asian competition. It would be one of the biggest tournaments in the world. These are some of the changes we are considering. We are also looking at West Asia having a bigger tournament involving countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iran,” he added. “This is amazing considering the unfortunate conflict situation prevalent in the region. Rugby unites and helps bring everyone together.”

To a query as to whether having more tournaments would improve quality of competition, he replied: “What we are trying to do is strategically merge the present events. I am not trying to have more tournaments. When Sri Lanka, UAE and Malaysia play year after year, what does it do for the players and country? If you bring Thailand, Singapore, Taipei , India or whoever else who qualifies , you have six or eight countries. It will look a lot better, and offer sponsors more mileage and the players too will have a greater challenge.”

Asked about Srilanka’s National men’s and women’s performances in the last year he said it was time to take stock and work out a plan for the next four years like they did in 2012.

“A strategic plan for High Performance is key for a country like Sri Lanka with a 100-year rugby history and a superb junior programme inherited by having an ardent school rugby following. Permanent foreign coaches and trainers are a must until we fully train and have our own coaches. We did this with 12 coaches and trainers training in Canterbury, New Zealand who all did the level 2 exams and experienced world class training and facilities,” he said.

“The women’s game is the future and we must invest to build a credible product. A full club tournament is a must. The women’s team is now disbanded. They only get together to play the Asia 7s tournaments . Earlier we had a full-time women’s team with separate trainers and we also funded them for the whole year. You could see the difference. We were losing to Japan and Hong Kong by two points. Now we are getting thrashed and I think we went down to number 7 out of 8,” he said.

“The  men’s team is also not training enough and haven’t been allocated world class coaches and trainers. Over a longer period of time we will drop in performance. Full time National coaches are a must,” said Seneviratne who introduced night matches to arrest the decline in attendances at club level and changed the club season from April-September to November-March.

“As you know we were trying to move matches to late evening (5.30-6 pm) to enable fans to make it after work. A more festive atmosphere with entertainment and music has to be offered to attract fans once again to the grounds and things like that,” he said.

Asked why schools rugby always has crowds he replied, “parents, old and present boys, and well-wishers all come no matter what for school matches. The clubs have lost their way and offering a bar and some outdated facilities for indoor sport won’t cut it. They need to look at a new business model and one way would be for the government to offer the ownership to investors with strict guidelines to ensure the sport continues at the facility.”

“The clubs have not moved with the times and developed their infrastructure. They don’t have facilities to attract youngsters or families, and are completely male dominated. Gone are the days when people would come to patronize the bar and support rugby only. I think all the clubs will have to look at a different model. Our only saving grace has been the forces and police because they have continued to support sport and they have really been the solid foundation that has kept most sport in this country competitive and ticking ,” he said.

Asked how Sri Lanka would benefit with him being at the helm, he said: “Where SLR is concerned, I will always keep an eye out and I will do the best I can for them but it is also important that they are also willing to participate and contribute positively. I hope the proposed changes in the tournament structure will be understood and support to formulating new (competition) plans will be accepted by SLR. If the changes are accepted and we play 15s every two years they must utilize the free year to play sides ranked above around the world and try to improve their ranking and not just sit it out.  In this manner Sri Lanka rugby will have a real chance to develop their standings and reputation internationally,” said Seneviratne who noted that rugby is growing rapidly in Asia.

“There are lot of new countries like Syria, Bangladesh, Nepal, Jordan, Qatar and Iran. The game is being spread far and wide in Asia but the crucial thing now is to get sponsors and develop the top tier to compete on the world stage,” he added.

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