So, the optimism after game one of the Asian Five Nations turned out to be only delusional. Three weeks ago the Sri Lankan rugby team held the U.A.E. to an admirable 13-all draw in a match they really should’ve have won. Yet, for a team making its debut at the topmost level of Asian rugby, the achievement was quite soul-stirring. And understandably, hopes perked up considerably that we can preserve our status as one of Asia’s five top-tier nations for another year.
Sri Lanka, of course, is a long way away from the no.1 slot of the Asian Five Nations – the exalted position that rewards its occupier a place in the finals of the World Cup. The task for the time being, though, is about producing performances that will show we aren’t misfits in Asian rugby’s big league – and in our debut- performance we certainly didn’t look the part of gatecrashers.
But last weekend, alas, the feel-good bubble went bust: a ruthlessly-efficient rugby machine from Hong Kong seemingly put us back in our place. Overpowered and outwitted to a point of helplessness, it would’ve been excusable had the home team preferred life in the easy streets of second-tier competition, as they had done in 2010 and before.
The score-line provides eloquent evidence of just how out of depth we were, as the visitors churned out the points like sausages, scoring seven tries; the home side’s wretched reply was a lonely penalty. Hong Kong eventually won by the walloping margin of 48/3, their biggest win in Asian Five Nations history, and presumably their biggest ever over Sri Lanka since the beginning of encounters between the two back in the 1970 Asiad Championship in Bangkok, which, incidentally, the then British colony won by not a lot. As well, it is difficult to recollect any Asian team, barring perhaps Japan, handing us as severe a dubbing as last week’s, in our own backyard.
Had anyone bet, pre-match, Sri Lanka would lose by a margin of more than 40 points, takers would’ve been unlikely. Of course, the better-prepared Hong Kongers were always the favourites; but to suggest they’d win by the margin they did would’ve been as good as predicting a cakewalk for the visitors –a far-fetched forecast as it can get, at the time. Apart from the confidence derived from our doughty performance against U.A.E., there were other reasons why it was difficult to envision an untroubled advance for the favourites.
For a country whose rugby season is in winter, playing in the 3 -4.30 p.m. steam of Colombo is not a kindly prospect at all. And coping with the discomfitures of heat and humidity whilst nursing the hangover caused by the previous Saturday’s crushing defeat at the hands of Japan, Hong Kong’s focus would surely have been on somehow eking out a win– not so much by how much. Pre-match, the Hong Kong coach admitted just as much, saying his team was wary of the Colombo challenge and it would be unwise to take Sri Lanka lightly on their home shores.
The after-match remarks of Hong Kong skipper Tom McColl reflected their sense of relief and surprise: “I didn’t expect that we would score seven tries for Sri Lanka is a passionate side and they had a big crowd supporting them. It was tough conditions out there today. But all credit to the guys. They stuck it out.”
From Sri Lanka’s perspective, it has to the said that this wasn’t a case of playing under the white flag of surrender. They performed as well as they were allowed to – and the allowance wasn’t much. Hong Kong, using their superior strength and physique, remorselessly wore down the home team, reducing their task to one of trying endlessly to stop rampaging men twice as big – a dispiriting, torturing job that a team can endure only for so long before submitting to futility’s fact.
And apparently our four-match campaign now appears to just as futile an exercise. With only a point from two games, we’ll need to win one of the two remaining matches to ensure we remain in the big league. The encounter against Japan (who whopped HK 44/22 and the Kazaks 61/0) on May 21 in Colombo, is, well, let’s say Superman and Batman would have to be hired if we are to conquer the perennial Asian champions.
So, in precise terms, it was all down to our game against Kazakhstan yesterday in Almaty. The records provide hopeful reading: whereas we’ve managed a draw from two games, the Kazaks have lost all their three matches; whereas we all but defeated the UAE, the Kazaks went down to the Arabian team, 10/24; whereas the Kazaks’ points- for- and- against differential is 88, ours is 44; whereas a draw would suffice to retain our place in the top league, the Kazaks require nothing short of a win.
Encouraging as the above facts are, it is prudent not to plunge into hasty conclusions. After all, overcoming Kazakhstan on their home turf is something we’ve never managed ever. If the duck was cracked yesterday, it would not only be a historic feat, but, more importantly, our place in Asia’s big league next year would’ve been secured. Otherwise, we’ll be on a return ticket back to tier two.
Either way, though, the year ahead has to be dedicated to the reformation of our rugby, after a five-year backslide. Two years of divisive elected committee rule in 2006/07, followed by the two controversy-ridden-years of interim committee administration and the highly politicized and unconstitutional governance by the 2010 committee have thrown rugby into serious disarray, and with little in the bank for rejuvenation.
The outstanding performance against the U A E might’ve papered over the damaging impacts of long years of mismanagement and neglect of the game, but its affects are something you couldn’t hide for long. Sure enough, eighty minutes on the field with Hong Kong – and our deficiencies as a Five Nations team were made all too obvious.
This is not to infer that our talent is too inferior for competition at the topmost level. The problem was in the preparation, or the lack of it. Being our debut appearance in the big league, the preparation wasn’t anything like what was required. Suffice to say, a National coach was hired and organized training of our national pool began just about three months before the competition – a time when the season of the other four countries was in swing, with a few internationals thrown in too as match-preparation for Asia’s premier tournament.
So, where the debutantes to the big-league absolutely needed to be in a yearlong training program, with a liberal sprinkling of international fixtures included, Sri Lanka went to battle less than half-baked: their last international had been in April 2010 and they hadn’t touched a ball in a match situation since the closure of 2010 domestic season last August. It was pretty much like stepping into a battlefield bristling with heavy artillery, armed with catapults. Annihilation at the hands of Hong Kong, so, was something we brought upon ourselves. All that is now water under the bridge.
In the year ahead, the more serious concern is not so much the retention, or not, of our place in the top tier as installing a efficiently-run administration, one that focuses on delivering rugby to a higher level, not on delivering another year office to incumbent officials. For five years, the politics of power has reduced the lovely game and its players to trivia.
So that the troubles might cease in 2011 and the game put back on rails, the feuding parties were both included in the present committee. It wasn’t the most ideal arrangement, but given the Sport Ministry’s determination to retain a few of members of the 2010 committee, including Air Chief Marshall Roshan Goonetilleke as President for a second year and his erstwhile deputy Lasitha Gooneratne as Secretary, the 2011 committee at least held promise that the game might be better run than it was over the past five years – a promise inspired by the inclusion of Asanga Seneviratne as Vice President. That is an old story you’ve heard many times before.
It’s approaching three months since the 2011 committee took office, and having to host three of the four Asian Five Nations matches in Colombo, the much looked forward to policy of the new committee understandably hasn’t emerged yet. The SLRFU has been without a CEO for nearly four years, an absence which, insiders say, caused all the administrative bungling. So, one expected the present committee to appoint a CEO, pronto – more so as the two feuding parties at the outset had agreed that Dilroy Fernando was the man for the job.
The first CEO of the SLRFU, Fernando held the job for four years before quitting of his own accord in 2007. Few will disagree that he’s the best candidate around, and that his appointment should take this long in coming is surprising – and arouses suspicion. His entry will doubtlessly diminish the importance of some officials – his non appointment, so, could be due to attempts at preserving some officials’ vested interest.
If that be the case, then, 2011 isn’t going to be any different to any of the past five years. Life at the top, albeit for only a year, would’ve become a distant memory, and competing with Asia’s third tier nations not such a far-fetched prospect.