Presidential flavour to Lankan side leaves HK feeling secure
You know the Sri Lanka team are minutes away from the Ceylonese Rugby Football Club in the verdant neigbourhood of Longden Place when a squad of plain-clothed navy security personnel arrives to do a sweep of the ground, the venue for today's HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five encounter against Hong Kong.
This is because Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse's second son, Yoshitha, an openside flanker, is in the squad.
There is speculation that the president might turn up today to watch the game. He is a keen follower of the sport with two of his three sons having represented the country. And following Sri Lanka's stirring 13-13 draw against fancied United Arab Emirates a fortnight ago at this same venue, there is a buzz in the air.
Expectations are high in Colombo rugby circles following that game. But having failed to clinch a much-needed win, Sri Lanka know they will have to do something special, like beat Hong Kong, if they are to remain in the elite competition next year.
Hong Kong are wary of the threat the home team will pose. With home advantage and having brought forward the kick-off by an hour to try to benefit from the steaming hot conditions, Sri Lanka could be a handful.
'They need a win against us at home to keep them alive and we are expecting them to throw everything at us,' Hong Kong coach Dai Rees said. 'We know they are a skilful side and we won't underestimate them.'
Hong Kong, buoyed by their second-half performance against Japan last week when they outscored the champions three tries to two in a 45-22 loss, will field the same starting lineup bar a couple of changes to the front row. 'Brent Taylor will start at hooker, but we are undecided whether to stay with the same two props or if Nigel Hobler should start,' Rees said. 'We will decide later. But the rest of the team remains the same.'
Hobler, a tighthead specialist, has been called up to counter Sri Lanka's front row and pack, which has looked a dangerous unit under the tutelage of new coach Ellis Meachen. The New Zealander, who coached Tonga at the last World Cup, has created a cohesive and fit side in the space of four months under the captaincy of No8 Sean Wijesinghe.
'What I have told them is that you are representing 20 million of your countrymen on the field, and that you are playing for the villages and the cities. So go out and do your best,' Meachen said.
Sri Lanka had a bye last Saturday, and will field the same side that started against UAE.
'It is disappointing that we didn't win that game. We had our opportunities and didn't take them,' Meachen said. 'But that was to be expected. It has been a long time since Sri Lanka has played at this level and it is all about taking your chances.'
Rees said: 'We need to demonstrate consistency in this match. That will be the key. The players know this and are prepared for the challenge of playing another match on the road in front of what we expect to be a very large and partisan crowd.'
Hong Kong: 1-Andrew Li, 2-Brent Taylor, 3-Nigel Hobler/Alex Ng Wai-shing, 4-Renaud Chavanis, 5-Michael Waller, 6-Nick Hewson, 7-Mark Goosen, 8-Pale Tauti, 9-Peter McKee, 10-Keith Robertson, 11-Rowan Varty, 12-Lee Jones, 13-Tom McColl (captain), 14-Salom Yiu Kam-shing, 15-Ross Armour. Replacements: 16-Hobler/Ng, 17-Pete Spizzirri, 18-Kwok Ka-chun, 19-Terence Montgomery, 20-Tim Alexandder, 21-Jamie Hood, 22-Alex McQueen.