Rugby, in Sri Lanka, has a long and rich history, as one of the sports inherited by the colonials apart from cricket, football, billiards and snooker and other various sports, in which the country has achieved global recognition. Next to cricket, 7s rugby was a team sport where Sri Lanka could have, at least by [...]


The 7s blunder: Who is responsible?


Sri Lanka was beaten twice by UAE in the same tournament last weekend

Rugby, in Sri Lanka, has a long and rich history, as one of the sports inherited by the colonials apart from cricket, football, billiards and snooker and other various sports, in which the country has achieved global recognition. Next to cricket, 7s rugby was a team sport where Sri Lanka could have, at least by now, easily attained global status.

Instead, Asia’s first and oldest Rugby Union, which was formed in 1879, are still travelling through that long dark tunnel with expectations of a light at the end of it. The light at the end of the tunnel, however, seems to be a sight that will never be visible in the near future.

Almost two decades ago, the entire rugby fraternity and even the then Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union, which was later renamed as Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR), were focused on the 7s format, stating it was the only way forward to global status. After recording its first major title, winning the Bowl Championship at the Hong Kong 7s in 1984, Sri Lanka accelerated at steady pace to become a force in the Asian 7s circuit.   By 2016, the Tuskers, as they are well known among the rugby circles in Asia and across the globe, were a highly respected side by all opponents, who knew that Sri Lanka could strike at the cost of their mistakes. The SLR administration too, gave their potential focus on the 7s version, as the team was giving the desired hopes of reaching the World 7s Series.

At a point Sri Lanka was the most welcome underdog to many International and Asian 7s competitions, but for some reason or the other, the status has reached a total contrast by today. Even in the recent years, Sri Lanka had a decent team with players who could be ranked as international stars.

But what was witnessed a week ago in Dubai, was a total disaster. A team that played in the Cup segment, though they have never laid hands on the silverware, except once in 2016, when they lost the title to Hong Kong after reaching the Cup final twice in the three-legged series. Since then, for some reason Sri Lanka’s journey in 7s rugby has moved backwards.    Beginning from moving to the Plate segment and reaching the Cup at least once, by last week Sri Lanka was placed sixth in Asia, next to Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, China and the United Arab Emirates, the newcomers to the big league. What caused this huge and unexpected plunge is a question that haunts many in the Sri Lankan rugby fraternity.

Though many decline to talk openly of what they really feel of what caused the thrust, most of them are well aware of the selection process to pick the national 7s side was the main cause to this debacle. Without any competitions since end of 2019, most of the elite players, had to stay out of the game, just doing the needful bit to maintain their physical status and fitness.

Even for the two competitions, both invitational and organised by affiliations of SLR, few teams, namely Kandy SC and CR&FC, failed to turn out, mainly due to financial restrains. The first of the competition, however, failed to materialise but the second event took place with 10 teams in contention, mostly from the armed forces and organisers Sri Lanka Police.

“If SLR had made this tournament as the only one to select the players to represent Sri Lanka at the Asian 7s Series, they should have clearly stated that. Here, what took place was a total breach of fundamental rights of the players, who were actually in the national 7s side when the country was last represented in 2019. Since then it’s no secret what took place not only in Sri Lanka, but the whole world. I really cannot fathom what SLR was thinking about, when they decided to simply and that easily pick that team which was sent to Dubai and talk nothing of it,” a former administrator of SLRFU, who wished to remain anonymous, due to the state of shock Sri Lanka reached, stated.

Upon speaking to many rugby stalwarts, most were comfortable not to even talk, but there were a few who had negative and mixed opinion on what they thought should have really taken place. A former member of the national 15s and 7s coaching and management staff, now not active with rugby, stated that he wished to simply forget the whole episode.

“I would rather follow what’s taking place at global stage, because I love this sport and it’s part of or rather, my life. It actually hurts to observe when the administrators simply knew what was the best option to go for, not taking any chances and then praising for what they were able to achieve with this lot, while instead the ones who went with the team are seniors with just a day’s play at a local tournament, not a national. I’m not taking sides, but the side of the sport. I’m really confused and mostly crestfallen,” he said.

Adding more woes to what took place in the process of the team selection and training the inexperienced players at the next level, a cold war among or between a few in the rugby top brass, was invisibly visible. Many had it to their knowledge, but opted to keep mum, and are still adhering to what they call is ‘safer to be inactive than proactive, because we love the sport’.

“If administrators think that wins can be achieved by draws or drafts, I really don’t know how they are in-charge of the sport. It’s the players who represent the national flag that does the ultimate part and they (administrators) should be mindful of the sport and the country, not their own goodwill. If the players from the clubs that were left out because they have said are not willing to take part, then anyone will justify this selection. Those players were willing but couldn’t and that’s the truth, what the administrators did was, rather than drafting a common policy, simply going easy and ignoring the aggrieved players, who already are much experienced,” a former coach told the Sunday Times.

But there was one who had mixed feelings about the whole episode. He justified the selection stating there were two ways to explain what occurred, but eventually was contended with the final outcome of being placed at sixth in Asia, comparing Sri Lanka’s performances to regional heavyweights Japan, who finished third overall.

“It’s a tough story to explain. We all know that for the past 16 months or so there had been no competitions in rugby whatsoever happening in Sri Lanka. It’s a known fact that Sri Lanka’s future in rugby is totally reliable on the 7s format, but SLR too has its restrictions, unless it gets the support of all clubs when it comes to a national plan for 7s rugby. I think the team did well to finish at where they ended up, taking into consideration the time factor Sri Lanka had to prepare for the event in Dubai. But we do need a strong and long term plan if we really need to move forward,” the official said.

Back in June this year, the now former Sri Lanka 7s skipper Dansha Dayan, who also led Kandy SC, sought for help from respective officials, pleading them to help take forward rugby after over a lull period of six months. When Dayan made the plea, all other sports were back in action with most national sides of other sports returning to train except for rugby.

His concern then was the backwardness of SLR for not acting promptly in picking an initial 7s pool under health guidelines. None of the leading ‘A’ division clubs namely Kandy SC, CR&FC, Havelocks and CH&FC could resume training but all teams of the three armed forces and police had already began training their respective pools when Dayan made the call. But SLR then, did not respond positively though reports said that it had sought assistance from the Ministry of Sports and other authorities to commence residential training for the Men’s and Women’s 7s pools. This, however, never materialised and the eventual outcome was witnessed with both Sri Lanka 7s men and women placing sixth in Asia.

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