By T.M.K. Samat
SRI Lanka ’s fall at the final hurdle of the A5N rugby tournament in Manila last week evokes much regret. The failure to get among Asia ’s top five nations is obviously disappointing, but more hurting was seeing the triumphant march of a team of brave young Sri Lankans finally come to grief.
Lankan fullback Rizah Mubarak gets by Singapore’s Nicholas Groen at the HSBC A5N Div I-Apr 18, 2012-pic courtesy of asian5nations.com
Though not an authentic reflection of a full-strength national outfit, the team pretty much performed like one. Without more than a few established national players from the champion side, the team was hardly the betting man’s favourite, but it so admirably marched to the threshold of glory that you couldn’t help but will it to win this last game.
Had Yoshita Rajapaksa’s team somehow succeeded over the host team in the final, there was much Sri Lanka rugby might’ve have gained. Promotion to Asia ’s premier division would’ve been an obvious boost. But far more satisfying would’ve been the proof that our rugby is in possession of a rich repository of talent, which if professionally harnessed, as this one was by the new English coach Phil Greening, could only mean an enhancement of prospects in our international rugby endeavors.
The championship, however, was not to be. But not all is lost; the legacy of this outstanding performance is promising. To describe the performance as “outstanding’’, some will argue, is a tad exaggerated, remembering that the team of 2010 did actually win the Division 1 championship – and earn a historic promotion to the premier division. But that was a full-strength team, including more than a dozen Kandy SC players, all of whom were in prime condition after their club’s tour of South Africa and Dubai a week or two prior to the A5N
Top seeds Sri Lanka outclassed Chinese Taipei 36-8 in the opening match of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Div I championship in Manila (Apr 15 2012). Div I is also doubling as the start of the Asian qualifiers for Rugby World Cup 2015. To mark the occasion, Koji Tokomasu, IRB Council Member and GM of the local organizing committee for Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, attended today’s match along with the Webb Ellis Cup, the champions trophy of the Rugby World Cup. Apr 15th also marked Ex England international Phil Greening’s first test match as Head Coach of Sri Lanka.
This outfit had just three champion side players – none, though, from its lethal back division, an absence that influenced the final outcome. It is fair to say that were all of the champion club’s talents laid before the selectors, then, Kandy SC’s players would’ve dominated the selections, as had long been the case. They were not, and that meant the 2012 squad was virtually second string – and for them to fall just one win short of the A5N division 1 title says a lot for the depth of talent at our command.
Before we review the team’s Manila performances, let’s first place on record the results: beat Chinese-Taipei, 36/8 and Singapore 35/10; lost to The Philippines, 28/18.
Chinese-Taipei is an imitation of the country that constantly presented serious challenge to Sri Lanka in the era of the Asiad, defunct since 2008.
In fact this year Chinese-Taipei was one of two qualifiers from last year’s Division Two competition, but anyone devaluing of our win over a Div.2 team of 2011 should be reminded that the second country promoted this year was the Philippines , the eventual champions.
The old balance of powers in Asian rugby has clearly been rearranged by a perceptible leveling up of standards between the top and mid-level countries – which is to say that you presumed Chinese-Taipei as level-2 opposition, and so easy meat, at your peril. In other words, we had to perform well to overcome them.
And play well we did. Sri Lanka ’s domination over Chinese-Taipei was total, and by half time had as good as pocketed the win, holding a 20-point lead. The back division was in cracking form, scoring five tries, three of which by Sandun Herath, St. Peter’s winger only last year – evidence of the team’s youngness.
The win over Singapore reflected quite another virtue. Nursing a fragile, 14/10 lead at half time, success, unlike in the previous game, was anything but guaranteed. But the Sri Lankans reacted to the looming dangers daringly, launching a relentless offensive to sweep the opposition off its feet and eventually win facilely, 35/10.
The Philippines too had won over Chinese-Taipei and Singapore , both by the identical score of 37/20. So the stage was set for a humdinger of a final. But alas, by half time it looked to be anything but a humdinger as the Filipinos had seemingly run off with the match, leading 23/3. Sure, the home team played quite some exciting rugby, but frankly, they were allowed to do so by a dithering, diffident opposition.
It wasn’t due either to technical deficiencies on the part of our team or the superior skills of the Filipinos’ that the traffic of tries was one-way in the first half; rather it was more mental. This Sri Lankan team clearly wasn’t the same team that days before had dismantled Chinese-Taipei and Singapore so efficiently
But then the game against the Philippines wasn’t a game like the other two – it had everything riding on it; a winner takes all dustup. And for a young team with limited international experience such crippling pressure was probably a tad too much to bear– at least in the first 40 minutes, by which time the home team had run up a lead that was never going to be easy to overhaul.
If someone predicted the Filipinos would double their tally in the second half that was a reasonable assumption. But that was underestimating the resolve of the young Sri Lankans and the wisdom and knowledge of coach Greening. Whatever Greening’s words of advice at the interval were, the transformation was remarkable, as the comeback from 3/23 down to 18/23 illustrates.
With a try now separating the teams, it was anybody’s game. The Filipinos it was that took it, thanks mostly to their players’ exposure to top-grade professional rugby in Australia , USA and Japan
It has to be said that nearly the entire home team was composed of foreigners, mostly Australians, whose forefathers were Filipinos – a genealogical link that entitles them to represent the Philippines , a Div Four A5N team in 2008 and whose Union was founded in only 1999. That in this short space of history the islands-nation has graduated to Asian rugby’s top tier is an astonishing feat, but it’s not a reflection of a dramatic grass root development – solely it was due to the services of its heritage players.
Allowing foreigners – and heritage players are that – to represent countries, especially in teams representing dozen-plus new countries to rugby, is a meaningful step towards developing and expanding rugby in Asia . Against that background, the Philippines promotion to the level of Asian powerhouse, Japan , Hong Kong and Korea , gives credence to ARFU’s decision to allow non-nationals into the A5N competitions.
But, potentially, the issue has the ingredients for making a nasty controversy sooner or later. After all, a country graduating to Asia’s premier division with a virtual all-foreigners team doesn’t quite spell poetic justice, especially in the eyes of those countries fielding homegrown talent, like Korea , Kazakhstan , Chinese-Taipei and Sri Lanka , all with serious ambitions in international rugby. That, though, is a matter that is under the purview of the ARFU and the IRB and for them to review.
Back to the Manila adventure: why a virtual second string outfit figured more impressively than many previous full-strength national teams has many reasons – none more crucial than that the preparations this time round had been far more comprehensive than any in recent years.
For one, SLRFU administrations of the recent past hadn’t deemed important the services of a foreign coach on a long-term basis; instead, either an overseas coach was hired prior to the A5N or a local coach given the job, piece meal.
Preparations for the 2012 campaign began no sooner than had the new Asanga Seneviratne committee taken office in early January. A national pool went into training in late January and coach Greening took charge in March. It’s a tribute to his coaching skills that a virtual second-string team didn’t perform like second-stringers – after just about five weeks. So, give a year of Greening and, logically, our rugby should have ascended to a higher plain
But then our rugby has never been too far from politics’ pitfalls, which is why the game hasn’t blossomed as it should. The hand of politics touched the 2012 campaign, too –if it hadn’t, a full-strength team would’ve been on duty, the championship won and our little rugby world a happier place.
But the overall message from Manila isn’t an unhappy one: If our second-best team all but emerged champions, then it ought to be in the capacity of a full-strength team to repeat the 2010 achievement next year, given a continuation of the planning and preparation that went into the 2012 campaign. There’s no reason to think it won’t, with rugby chief Seneviratne committed to steer “a new course’’ and “take the game to another level’’ courtesy: The Sunday Leader