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We’re In Asia’s Top Five – So What?

Jul 3, 2010 3:17:22 PM - thesundayleader.lk

As the case over the legitimacy of the SLRFU elections of last April drags on, a matter of great importance, unfortunately, isn’t getting the time of day it deserves. The fact that Sri Lanka is now one among Asia’s five elite rugby nations and ought to be acting like one is apparently of little concern; the legality of the last Union AGM is what consumes the minds of administrators, understandably so.

Sri Lanka enjoying success in Singapore

After all, the ‘elected’ officials need to first establish beyond doubt their right to office before they can get their minds round to other matters, such as making plans to upgrade our rugby to a level befitting our newly-acquired elitist status. To expect a transformation of our union rendered bedraggled by a year and half of administration by a government-appointed committee, to one akin to fellow-elitist nations like Japan, Hong Kong or South Korea, is, of course, a pipedream.

Nay, an impossible transformation, given the politicisation, and the divisiveness born of it, that has arrested the SLRFU. Truth be told, the ongoing crisis over the legitimacy of the last elections is one of the many unwanted baggage the game has had to bear since the Interim Committee took over the reins.

The issue of the present committee’s legitimacy, it must be said, is no nearer a resolution than anytime before. In fact, the IRB presently has been asked to arbitrate, following the Western Province RFU, the most powerful constituent body within the SLRFU, complaining to the world body that the AGM was unconstitutionally conducted and hence the officials elected at the said meeting are illegitimate.

You would’ve expected the world body to take the standard view any world body would – that is, elections of one of its member countries is a parochial matter and needs to be resolved internally – and so, stayed clear of what really is a domestic issue. If the present ‘elected’ committee had hoped for such a hands-off approach by the IRB, a surprise awaited them: the world body asked the newly-’elected’ SLRFU to answer the charges made by the WPRFU.

It is a response that at once invites accusations of partiality. In asking the national union to answer the charges of one of its subordinate bodies, it is hard to imagine that the IRB wasn’t aware of what it might be getting itself into. So, it is fair to assume that the world body has taken a long hard look at WPRFU’s charges and obviously thinks the WPRFU’s complaint warrants probing – even if it means courting accusations of bias. The standoff between the SLRFU and the WPRFU, so, continues and the importance of the nation’s first appearance at the highest level of Asian rugby gets the sort of attention that is, well, let’s just say, as if promotion was never achieved.

Sri Lanka’s first test at Asia’s highest level is next April. Ten months might seem a long time, but then the jump from division one to the super group is steep, requiring long-term preparation. Ideally, preparations should’ve begun no sooner the crossing was made last February. After all, the challenges that wait next April won’t come from the likes of Thailand, Singapore or Chinese Taipei, but, rather, the continent’s four top ranked countries: Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Kazakhstan – an experience pretty much like Gulliver’s travel to shores inhabited by giants after a visit to the land of Lilliputians.

Prior to the present classification according to each country’s strength, the Asian tournament had been a biennial gathering of all of the continent’s rugby-playing nations. It is well to remember that under the old format, Sri Lanka had met countries in the elite group of today and were thrashed by margins of 60-80 points by Japan and S. Korea; Hong Kong had always proved a tough nut to crack. Kazakhstan became a part of Asian rugby only after the dismantling of the old Soviet Union in the mid 90s; even so, over the past decade or thereabouts, we’ve lost all but once to the Kazaks.

If anything, under the recent five-nation format, the traditional Asian giants, driven by ambitions to challenge the world’s powerhouses, have relentlessly advanced their rugby to quite another level. What this means is, we’ll be encountering a Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea twice as tough as the ones we failingly battled in times of the old Asiad. So, it’s elementary that our preparations too will have to be twice as intense.

All the more so, as our domestic competition is skeletal in comparison to that of other nations in Asia’s top-tier. Only the two teams that qualify for the knock-out final would’ve had a 13-match season (10 league and 3 k/o games); the season of the other six division 1 teams would’ve been of 11-12 matches – as against a domestic season of 18-20 matches of the other countries, interspersed or followed by a series of internationals.

The SLRFU has reportedly marked down the October Commonwealth Games in New Delhi as preparation for the Asian Five Nations. Last week it spoke of hosting an 80-80, 15-a-side tournament in November, with help from Sri Lanka-born Australian and one-time head of the Australian RFU, Dilip Kumar. 80-80, in essence, is rugby between teams of equal weight; a concept that hasn’t found willing followers among IRB member countries. That being the case, it is unlikely that national teams would participate in the planned event  and its value as preparations for the Five-Nations is debatable.

Participation in the IRB World Series Sevens in Dubai and Hong Kong, next November and March respectively, might have provided useful preparation for the crucial April competition, but our present lowly world ranking shuts us out from those two world-class events.

So the only worthwhile international fixture we have before the premier Asian tournament is the Commonwealth Games. If that isn’t bad enough, the SLRFU hasn’t thought it fit to appoint a National coach yet. But then you can argue why sign on a national coach when a national squad isn’t in operation, which, in turn, raises the question: how do you have a national squad when national selectors haven’t been appointed as of yet, appointments that most other sports made last March.

It would be unfair to lay all of the blame for the lack of planning at the door of an ‘elected’ committee that took office only a month ago. Our elevation to Asia’s super group happened earlier this year, under the stewardship of the IC, and it’s they who ought to have launched a plan of preparation for the Five-Nations. Nothing of that sort happened and so it’s become the lot of the ‘elected’ committee to clear the backlog.

In this situation of disarray, the presence of officials who have worked through the ranks – as opposed to ‘parachutists’ – might have been useful. Without officials who have been a part of previous administrations, continuity in SLRFU’s working seems non-existent, which brings us to the root of the present crises. That was back in 2007 when a time-honoured tradition was tossed into the bins.

To ensure that rugby management might not become a plaything of divisive elements, for more than a century the SLRFU solemnly adhered to the tradition of approving nominations of the outgoing committee to serve as office bearers in the ensuing year.
When such noble, age-old customs are cast aside by the avariciously ambitious, the game itself is threatened, like it is presently, with suspension from the IRB a real prospect.