Christmas has come and gone but it’s still apt to bring out that seasonal jingle Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town and its opening line “You better watch out”, having witnessed the happenings in Sri Lanka over the past few weeks.
Rugby is taking off in a big way under the stewardship of Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union president Asanga Seneviratne, who revealed that plans to include foreign players in the national teams at 15s and sevens are under way.
As I pack my bags to return to Hong Kong, the jingle rings through my mind – You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why ... Sri Lanka are coming to town.
Things are moving in the right direction in Colombo and Hong Kong better beware. It might not happen in May, when the two sides clash in the Asian Five Nations, but very soon the island nation will be a force to be reckoned with if internecine politics don’t interfere.
Since Seneviratne took over as president two years ago a marked change has come about and there is an air of optimism blowing through the set-up.
A major feature is the renewed interest in club rugby with the Premier Division clubs all investing heavily - to the tune of between US$1.5 million and US$2.5 million per season - on players and foreign coaches.
A top foreign player – there are around 40 – is paid up to US$4,000 a month, plus accommodation and food, and this has seen an influx of talent from Samoa, Fiji and Tonga. Clubs are being encouraged to hire young players who are committed to staying for three years or more when they will become eligible to represent Sri Lanka under the existing IRB residency requirements.
“We are also looking at the Sri Lankan diaspora overseas and trying to build up a data base of young talent whose parents emigrated to England, Australia and so on over the past couple of decades,” says Seneviratne.
Sri Lanka want to challenge Hong Kong and South Korea for the number two slot in Asia behind Japan. The islanders have already made a mark by finishing third in last year’s Asian Sevens Series. That has whetted the appetite and they are now looking at improving their standings in the 15-a-side game.
Sri Lanka’s cause is served by the fact the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has three sons who have all worn the national colours. The first family is rugby-mad. This has helped with Colombo’s corporate sector lining up with open cheque books hoping to curry presidential favour.
The IRB has also been impressed. Not so long ago, the SLRFU was in the bad books due to political infighting and poor governance. Not today.
Last September’s inaugural tri-nations Serendib Cup – Poland and Madagascar were the invited countries – was a major boost for the game and welcomed by the IRB. There are plans to host this annually, even extending it to more countries.
Hong Kong travel to Colombo in May to take on Sri Lanka in the A5N. They may still be without a national coach but the talent is there. Club rugby is winning back the fans.
Seneviratne promised rugby would soon overtake cricket as the number one sport in the country. Hong Kong, you better watch out.