Last week, Sri Lanka celebrated another sports title win as the Tuskers defeated Kazakhstan 45-7 to secure the Asia Rugby Championship Men’s Division I title, ensuring the country’s return to the Top Division of Asia Rugby. This accomplishment was truly remarkable, with the team coming together swiftly to beat India 45-10 in the semi-final and [...]


Tuskers roar back to the top


Last week, Sri Lanka celebrated another sports title win as the Tuskers defeated Kazakhstan 45-7 to secure the Asia Rugby Championship Men’s Division I title, ensuring the country’s return to the Top Division of Asia Rugby. This accomplishment was truly remarkable, with the team coming together swiftly to beat India 45-10 in the semi-final and maintaining their form with a 45-7 victory over Kazakhstan in the final.

When news emerged of international rugby making a comeback after a four-year hiatus, Sri Lankans were thrilled to see the Tuskers back in action on home soil, facing off against Qatar from Division I and Kazakhstan and India from Division II. Originally, they were to play against Pakistan, but the neighbouring nation withdrew from the competition due to political reasons, obliging Asia Rugby to promote the two low tiered sides.

Despite the limited time available, Sri Lanka demonstrated their strength with two convincing wins, earning a promotion back to the Top Division, a well-deserved achievement. While commending the outstanding achievement of winning the Asia Rugby Men’s Division I title, former President of Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR), now a total outsider to the country’s second most popular sport, Rizly Ilyas stated that the feat was long overdue if not for political and external meddling.

“I’m one person who is honestly pleased with what our team attained last week. All credit should go to the coaching staff headed by Sanath Martis and the boys led by Suhiru Anthony. Their commitment and dedication was a real testament for letting the team officials and administration run their affairs independently. That’s what was not there in Sri Lanka rugby during the past few years,” Ilyas said.

Sri Lanka’s last international appearance was in 2019, when they lost 22-39 against the Philippines and thrashed hosts Chinese Taipei 72-17 in the Asian Rugby Division I Championship. Their last outing was a friendly match against Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, where Sri Lanka suffered a 26-31 loss in mid-2019. It was their last international outing before Covid-19 and other reasons—a ban by Asia Rugby and World Rugby, curtailing Sri Lanka’s appearance at global stage.

“Despite turmoil and uncertainties, Sri Lanka Rugby managed to conduct the domestic tournaments, which I could easily term as robust. Each team had to play at least 10 games against other opponents and the Asian Division I Championship followed soon after, where the boys played for sheer passion of donning the national jersey, and the coaching staff put out their very best efforts to prove that the locals can fit into the system aptly,” he praised the collective efforts of the team and coaches.

Sri Lanka was put under the wings of renowned coach Sanath Martis, who was ably assisted by the SLR Nippon Paint League winning CR&FC head coach Dushanth Lewke as forwards coach, and the SLR Nippon Paint Knockout winning head coach of Police Sports Club, Nilfer Ibrahim as backs coach. Sri Lanka fielded a well-balanced combination from all eight top division club teams, under the leadership of Suhiru Anthony, the skipper of CR&FC.

“The feeling is overwhelming, and it’s an honour for me and my boys for being able to perform our duties in front of the home crowd with two standout wins. During this short time we had, myself, my assistants Dushanth (Lewke) and Nilfer (Ibrahim) worked very close with the players, who in return executed our strategies accordingly in both games. We proved that we can go a long way if we work up to a plan, and that nothing is impossible if we have the will and commitment. As a unit, indeed we are proud,” Head Coach Sanath Martis told reporters soon after the game last Saturday.

Had Sri Lanka been able to continue playing international rugby during the past two seasons, where they were forced to withdraw due to internal reasons or international bans Ilyas stated that his ambition was to make the island nation the best in Asia.

“The desire is back on track, and SLR should have a solid strategy to continue this success. The administrators should be given the independence to carry on with their duties and responsibilities, as they were clearly given this time. For that I must commend the current Minister of Sports, Mr. Harin Fernando, for supporting rugby, and this trend should continue,” Ilyas, who had to step down in order to restore Sri Lanka’s global ban in November 2023, following a personal rift between SLR and the head of Asia Rugby which reportedly sparked off animosity between the two parties that mounted into a major conflict that also brought in World Rugby into the scene.

“I may have been the target of a few individuals, including two former SLR presidents, a powerful former Sports Minister and the head of Asia Rugby. I’m not afraid to say this anywhere in the world, but it was the sport and
Sri Lanka rugby in whole who had to suffer. I’m glad that I was able to withstand all storms and conduct all local tournaments amidst legal battles. I have not failed rugby,” he recalled furiously while praising the rugby community for standing as one family when Sri Lanka rejoiced last weekend.

Next season, Sri Lanka, who jumped three places to 41 in WR global rankings, will take the place of the team that will be relegated Asia Rugby Championship 2024 that will take place from June 1 to 22, involving reigning champions Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.

Head Coach Martis, who dedicated the win to all who committed, including school coaches, who nurtured the current players as youngsters, went on to say that Sri Lanka will have to work beyond when competing in the Top Division.

“It’s a totally different level there, and we were able to fulfil the mission this time around within two weeks. For that all contributed equally,
Sri Lanka Rugby, the Selection Committee, fellow coaching staff members, the support staff and the boys, and even the spectators, who were very supportive and loyal to the team. I really have no idea what SLR has in mind, but if I’m given the task, I will do my best as this time, but with local coaches. We have to be more organised at top level, for now we all played our parts perfectly, I would say”.

As Sri Lanka prepares for the Asia Rugby Championship 2025, Martis acknowledged the need for further development to compete effectively in the Top Division. He credited the entire team, the school coaches who nurtured the players, and emphasised the importance of organisation and local coaching expertise for future success.

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