Even though the preparations had been less than ideal, Sri Lanka rugby had reason to be quietly optimistic of success at the just concluded Asian Games.
You might not have heard rugby officials publicly trumpet a medal in Guangzhou, but privately they said the prospects of a bronze were realistic. The prognosis might’ve been a tad adventurous, but not one journeying into the realms of fantasy. For one thing the field was a sparse nine nations, not ones of 16 and 24 normally ranged in international sevens in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Borneo. Sure, the games had the Asian powerhouses, viz Japan, Hong Kong and Korea, to contend with, but with teams barred from fielding non-Nationals, Japan and Hong Kong were going to be hard-pressed to touch levels of their renown, which, respectively, is being Asia’s number one and two.
This is not to say that Japan and Hong Kong, shorn of its expatriate players, would become easy-beats – they are much too serious about their rugby and the country’s good name to risk humiliation and would surely have readied teams worthy of international competition, a proud attitude our incumbent administrators will do well to adopt. It was so, fair to say that Japan, Hong Kong and Korea were going to be the chief medal contenders in Guangzhou.
Equally certain were that India, ranked 81st and unranked Mongolia would be early dropouts – and so they were, finishing seventh and ninth respectively in Guangzhou. As for the remaining four teams in the competition (Sri Lanka, China, Malaysia and Thailand), their most realistic prospect was to bid for the best positions in the mid-levels, i.e. number four to seven.
Only an upset of stunning magnitude could eliminate Japan, Hong Kong or Korea from the medal race. In the unlikely event of a shock result eventuating, the team most likely to deliver it would have to be either China, given home advantage and Sri Lanka, not because of exceptional preparations but on the basis that it’s 41st position in the IRB world ranking is superior to any of its trio of rivals (China 67, Malaysia 57 and Thailand 60). Sri Lanka, on their day and given the luck of draw, has in the past turned tables on the giants, notably the USA in the 2006 Hong Kong Sevens.
But then it must be said the USA was overcome by a team whose planning and preparations was comprehensive and complete; preparations for the 2010 Asian Games, on the other hand, was modest at best. So hopes that our team might defy odds and bring home bronze was more patriotic than practical. Realistically, a fourth-place finish by Sri Lanka would’ve been good reason for cheer. It would’ve meant that we are only behind Asia’s three powerhouses, thus authenticating our new-found status as one of Asia’s five rugby elites, alongside the likes of Japan, Hong Kong and Korea, who, incidentally, finished first, second and third in Guangzhou.
So anything less than the fourth slot in Guangzhou would have to be regarded as a comedown. And that sadly was the case. Sri Lanka didn’t finish fourth or fifth either, but sixth – ahead of only India, Thailand and Mongolia, minnows really. Embarrassingly, China and Malaysia, second-tier countries in the Asian Five Nations, by finishing fourth and fifth respectively, questioned the credibility of our superior status, achieved only last March. The decline is dramatic and before we discuss the reasons for the collapse, let’s first spread out the results-sheet from Guangzhou.
With a nine-nation lineup, all but one team were going to qualify for the quarterfinals of the medals round. As expected, unranked Mongolia was eliminated and the eight quarterfinalists were placed in two groups – ‘A’: Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand; ‘B’: Korea, Sri Lanka, China and India.
Korea, of course, was certain to top Group B; the battle for the second slot was between host China and Sri Lanka. The outcome was expected to be a toss-up, but alas, the encounter was anything but touch-and-go as China romped home, 26/5. Korea slammed 43 points to our nothing, leaving our 42/12 defeat of India as consolation.
These results, however, wasn’t going to have any bearing on the quarterfinal lineup, but only went to decide the draw. Sri Lanka, third in Group B, was to meet Hong Kong, Group A second. We had our best moments here, causing Hong Kong quite some concerns before succumbing 14/19 – and elimination from the semifinals.
If the performances in our group matches and quarterfinals had little to cheer about, the showings in the play-offs for the fifth to seventh places were pathetic. We won over Thailand, but not in the manner expected, scrounging out a 21/17 win – a win that later was hugely devalued when India thrashed the Thais, 22/7, in the seventh place playoff. To complete the misery, we then lose to Malaysia, 17/21, to end up sixth.
For a country in the top five of Asian rugby, the decline in Guangzhou is embarrassing to say the least. The elevation to top tier, achieved at last March’s Asian Five Nations, might’ve been in the 15s format but the failure in Guangzhou sevens is not so much about format or lack of ability as of insufficient preparation, as illustrated by the fact that the touring squad was officially confirmed only a day prior to departure.
The why and wherefore for this sorry state of affairs has been dealt with ad nauseam in this column – i.e. the part about better players being unavailable for national duty, the disharmony between the union and clubs, the long absence of an appointed national coach, well, you know it all, so why prolong the boredom.
The decline in Guangzhou shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, we couldn’t get among the first six in the Shanghai Sevens too last September and just about managed sixth place in Borneo last month. But it must be pointed out that the teams that did duty in the aforementioned events were not full-strength national outfits – for reasons you know very well and the incumbent administrators prefer to not know.
The past can’t be undone. One can only hope that union officials get mindful of the serious responsibilities that come with the office they hold. Unless the problem that precludes our better players from national duty is sorted out, then our elevation this year to the top tier of Asian rugby would’ve been for just a year – all because our better players would’ve remained at home with our second-stringers asked to do duty next February at the 2011 Asian Five Nations. Nothing can be more ridiculous than self-inflicted demotion.
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