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Sri Lanka with 103,000 Players is the Second largest Rugby Playing Nation in Asia next to Japan

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by Emma Stoney

WELLINGTON — When you think of Sri Lanka, rugby is not generally something that springs readily to mind.

The island nation is certainly better known for cricket, tea exports and its recently ended civil war. But Sri Lanka’s British colonial forefathers left behind more than cricket as a sporting staple.

Royal shocked arch rivals Trinity to grab a morale boosting 33-25 win in the first leg of the 67th Bradby Shield encounter played at Bogambara Stadium on May 28, 2011 ~ Pic by Shantha Rathnayake-courtesy: Daily Mirror.lk

Rugby was introduced to Sri Lanka in the late 1800s, and today it boasts a large playing population and a television audience of millions.

According to International Rugby Board figures, there are more than 103,000 rugby players in Sri Lanka, making it the second largest rugby-playing nation in Asia, behind Japan.

Eight clubs contest the Caltex League and Clifford Cup, and one match per week is broadcast live during the season. Rugby is also a mainstay of the sporting curriculum at the country’s private schools, and interschool matches regularly draw crowds of several thousand supporters.

The Bradby Shield, a two-legged annual fixture between Royal College and Trinity College, can draw 20,000 spectators and is watched live on television by millions more. Royal College recently announced a sponsorship deal with KIA Motors that gives the carmaker the branding rights on the jersey of its first XV team.

Sri Lankan rugby can also count President Mahinda Rajapaksa among its supporters. Two of his three sons, Yoshitha and Namal, were members of the Sri Lanka team that played in the recent Asian Five Nations Division I tournament in Manila.

That rugby is so deeply engrained in Sri Lankan society came as a huge shock to Phil Greening, former England hooker and ex-coach of the England Sevens side.

Greening was appointed Sri Lanka’s coach in February. Through business, he had met the Sri Lanka Rugby Union president, Asanga Seneviratne. Greening was then approached by the I.R.B. to see whether he would be interested in helping lower-tier nations develop.

He arrived in Sri Lanka in March to prepare the national team for the Asian Five Nations tournament, which was the start of Asian qualification for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and to see how the sport could be developed and the standard improved.

“It’s massively followed and massively reported on. I’ve been blown away during the five weeks about how big rugby is there, but also how much scope and growth and development there could be,” Greening said.

“When I met Asanga and he said he was from Sri Lanka, I was like, ‘You play rugby?’ But when you actually look into it, their club rugby gets 5,000, 6,000 people every game,” he continued. “Schools rugby is huge, and Sri Lanka are the second-oldest union in the world. There is a history there that no one knows about.”

But for all the participation, money and media interest, Sri Lanka is still ranked 45th in the world, between the Netherlands and Ivory Coast.

It narrowly missed out on promotion to the 2013 Asian Five Nations Top League after losing 28-18 to the Philippines last weekend. But Greening believes the right steps are being taken to improve the standard of rugby.

The first was to put the players selected for the Asian Five Nations to the Sri Lanka Rugby Union on contract and to ensure they received everything a professional athlete should.

For many — some of whom were picked for the squad straight out of school — it was the first time they had been given any advice on nutrition and conditioning or had endured the rigors of regular, intense training sessions. Analysis of their matches, training and opposition teams was also new.

“They’ve been absolutely amazing,” said Greening, who played 24 tests for England and is contracted to Sri Lanka for two years. “It’s difficult for them because I’ve come from a professional background where I’ve got certain expectations and standards and they’ve never had it.

“It’s been new to them but very basic for a lot of other professional teams. They’ve loved it.” But Greening can already see the need to bridge the gap between school, club and international rugby to ensure that the messages about nutrition, conditioning and analysis — staples of the modern international game — filter through.

“It’s still very colonial old-school in a way,” Greening said. “Cricket and rugby are very big. Rugby is their first sport at school. But after that, it loses its way a bit.”

He has suggested setting up a national academy and an elite center. Those ideas have been taken up by Seneviratne, who is also eager to raise Sri Lanka’s profile in world rugby.

Greening admits breaking into the top 20 countries in the world in the midterm in 15s rugby is probably unrealistic. But he does believe quicker progress could be made in sevens rugby, especially now that a shortened form of the game will be played again in the Olympics starting in 2016.

In the buildup to the Rio de Janeiro Games, the HSBC Sevens World Series is expanding the number of tournaments each year, and the Olympics themselves will provide a far bigger audience for rugby.

And with the I.R.B. eager to develop and expand rugby’s brand in Asia, seeking a place on the circuit could be the perfect pathway for Sri Lanka. Another possible avenue would be to hold an Asian Five Nations tournament.

“To have these guys playing on the sevens circuit would be fantastic,” Greening said. “But it’s not just the rugby. They can offer so much. They have the facilities. They have the support. They’ve got two of the president’s sons playing, who are driving development, so they have government support as well.

“Sri Lanka could open up to the rugby community.”

(This article appeared in the Print version of International Herald Tribune and web edition of the “New York Times”)

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13 Comments

  1. Thanks DBSJ for Giving Readers Different Taste !!!

    In Fact SL Couldve Done Much Better in Phil Given That Seniors from Kandy SC & CR&FC were Included to the Team… One has to Blame Rugby SL Officials for the Mess They ve Created by Appointing Very Junior Player Like Yoshitha Rajapakse for the Captaincy…

    Year Ago Yoshitha R Could’nt Find a Place in SL Team & Now He is Appointed as Captain !!!

  2. A very good, thoroughly researched article, I am happy to hear about how much Sri Lankan Rugby is improving, I’m sure that we can go far. Very good information actually, I play Rugby for Royal College, So I know what goes on in my own country, but for anyone else who doesn’t know anything about Sri Lankan rugby, I’m sure that this article will give them a good idea about what we have going for us. I was very much fascinated when I heard that there were 103K players who are playing Rugby, it also gives me pride to see that you have put my school in one of your articles (:

    And note: I saw that you had put that Royal College won the first leg of the bradby, that is true, but Trinity College hammered us in the second leg :/ I can’t remember the exact score, but it was a pretty big deficit.

  3. I agree next to cricket Rugby is used as the sports for climbing the social ladder in Sri Lanka…and rugby games are in fact social events to hunt for “talents” in the female sense of the word

  4. only two of the presidents sons is playing in the national team in a game played by some 103,000 is a clear indication that fairness prevails and the motivation levels of the players involved. Pray Sri Lanka will produce more Chandrishan Pereras.

  5. Very interesting article and thanks DBS for putting it on here. Many years ago as a school kid I used to follow rugby closely. I always thought that we had a pretty high standard of play in the country. One problem those days was that most Sri Lankan rugby players were relatively small-made compared to their international counterpart which was a massive disadvantage in the game. I think with better nutrition, that weight gap has now narrowed. With better coaching and better diets, I am sure our players will do well in the future.

    With TV exposure, more and more schools are now joining the game which is also a very good thing. A sport that was once restricted to a few elite schools in Colombo and Kandy is now expanding in the country.

  6. Come on PJ, You are still in school and don’t remember the score from last year’s 2nd leg? TCK (the better team), whipped Royal 40-5 after conceding the 1st leg in Kandy.

    rugby fans – visit http://www.Thescore.lk for live webcast of school games

  7. Thanks DBSJ for this informative and well researched article.
    Despite SL’s cricketing glamour and fervour, rugby has indeed been a big draw at Clifford Cup level and School Rugby very keenly contested. Having played both school and club rugby in the ’60s I still remember the enthusiasm for it nationally.Some truisms about the dimunitive stature of Lankan players by comparison with those who play internationally and how it has improved relatively for Sri Lanka today as well as the smile evoking comment about tha “talent’ at the big games has made the article thought provoking. It should not be of any critical relevance that the Prez has two sons in the Lankan Sevens squad if they merit selection although captaincy by favouritism if this be the case is not quite kosher!

    DBSJ RESPONDS:

    Thank you Sunil but I did not write this piece.It was Emma Stoney

    By the way if your name is really Sunil Perera and you played rugger in the sixties are you Sunil Perera the son of Archibald Perera who played as Fly -half for St.Peters?

  8. Malayaka………… We don’t need Chandrishans……….
    But we need the calibre of Lintons, Murga Jayarathnas & Buddhadasa……. These are some of the players who only saw and handled the oval shape very late in life BUT they created such an impact & fear on those players from more polished Institutions who came to play club rugby with big write ups against their names.

    Also, we need dazzlers & cork screw runners such as Rodrigos, Sampaths, PL Munas, MJs
    And dedicated Coachs in the mould of Arcihbald pereras.

    Wow !!!! It appears Rugby is going to take off………….

    My only worry is why Yoshitha was made nationals captian.
    Rajapakshes would have gained more clout had Yoshitha played under a more senior.
    Being Prez son does not qualify for such position.
    YOSHITHA HIMSELF SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS FACT & SHOULD NOT HAVE ACCEPTED THE CAPTAINCY.;
    AS IT IS NOW, IT DOES NOT SPEAK WELL OF HIMSELF. SOONER HE REALISE THE BETTER to put the country first before self. had he acted sensibly, more exoerienced players would have been in the squad and we would have beaten Philliphines in the qualifiers finals. SL LOST OUT TO YOSHITHA’S EGO AND / OR GREED. HE DID NOT TAKE THE COUNTRY’S INTREST FIRST BUT PUT HIMSELF BEFORE THE COUNTRY.

    Asanga need to put this right.

  9. The above artical and the comments by many have no relavance to the Sri Lankan rugby history and its current status. Please people dont write thing you dont know and no idea.

    Many including MR & his sons think this game belong to them/or thier class or school. That era is gone now, untill we think that way, we will naver get up as a strong rugby playing nation.

    Rugby needs to take to other part of the country, its not a game belongs to Royal & Trinity (just like UNP), it belong to the people of the nation.

  10. Great article. I reckone Sri Lankans are a little bit too small/light to play at international level, but it’s good to see that Rugby is becoming popular. After horse racing was banned, Rugby became the fasion show for the Sri Lankan beauties. Sri Lankans should concentrate on improving soccer too, because soccer is the most popular game in the world and also it is very cheap to play soccer. For some reason soccer in Sri Lanka is considered as a working class game and didn’t get the respectability it derserve.

    Good luck all the football codes in Sri Lanka.

    DBSJ RESPONDS:

    There is a saying that Soccer is a game of Gentlemen played by Rowdies and Rugby is a game of Rowdies played by Gentlemen

  11. My love for Sports has pushed me to make these comments:

    * My interaction with Rugby was only as a ‘fan’.
    * I remember: Didecus De Almeida. (Did I spell the name correct). He was good.
    * Does size matter? Of course, at international level. Not locally!
    * There was a time when I thought that SL does not have the right ‘size’ even for
    Cricket. I have been proved wrong. I don’t want to be proved wrong again!
    * Yet, I will take the risk. In Rugby, a robust physique is a must!
    * We should try harder on improving our Soccer. We may stand a chance.
    * These are all Team Sports. You need Team players.
    * Athletics is most suited for individual pursuits.
    * Golf is not a sport (As someone aptly put it, it is an activity!)
    * Boxing, Car Racing are Sports that test your reflexes most.
    * Badminton, Tennis, Table-Tennis are sports demanding lesser reflexes.
    * What is the best track event? It was said to be 100m. Now, 400m or even 800m.
    * 100m – pure Speed. 400m – speed and endurance. Marathon? Grit, perhaps!
    * Whatever sports you are involved in, challenge yourself, not others!

  12. Rugby is 80% strength, speed, stamina, stuffness, and endurance. 20% technique and skills. Also 100% injury prone. Also other countries have separate grounds that are prepared only for rugby, but in Sri Lanka our hard surface grounds are not suitable for this sport. Yes size matters for cricket also. I mean international cricket. Did anybody saw how Chris Gale slam all the sixes in IPL, where others try similar but due to less power the ball does not reach boundary line. Also our hot climate take a tall on players strength. Nutrition play a major roll to conditioning a player. Also they should be well looked after by making them professional and competition.Sports is no more a sport but a science which comprise whole lot other than just carrying a ball and running.Other sports Sri lanka can do well in internationally is Billiard, Snooker, carram, chess, badminton etc.Finally I say sports should be out of politics when selecting a team or a captain.

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