Evolution better than revolution

Sri Lanka spent millions on hosting a rugby sevens tournament, but it can never rival Hong Kong's world-class event

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 5:24am

Money can buy you anything these days, even a World Cup-winning captain and coach as proven by the presence of DJ Forbes and Gordon Tietjens at the Carlton Super Sevens tournament in Sri Lanka. We ran into former Hong Kong Rugby Football Union supremo George Simpkin in Colombo and as usual he had ideas popping out on how the game can be improved worldwide.

The architect of the drop-kick conversion at sevens - previously teams had to place-kick using up valuable time - Simpkin has created the world's first Indian Premier League cricket-style rugby sevens tournament in Sri Lanka. Backed by the financial might of the ruling elite - the rugby-loving Rajapaksa family - the Carlton Super Sevens comprised a two-leg tournament played over successive weekends in Galle and Colombo.

It featured many of the world's best players, including Forbes and an assorted crew from the All Blacks Sevens, as well as Fijians, Kenyans, Samoans and others who had featured in the HSBC Sevens World Series and Rugby World Cup Sevens. Lote Raikabula, Uale Mai, Kurt Baker and Carlin Isles brought huge cachet to the event, as did the presence of celebrated coach Tietjens and others like Mike Friday.

The organisers had deep pockets with nearly US$15 million being spent, it is understood. The foreign players received between US$5,000 and US$10,000 for the 10-day stint with everything else from five-star accommodation to business class flights thrown in. There were more than 60 overseas players spread across the 10 franchises, each owned by local corporates who spent tens of millions of rupees to have their names associated with the tournament.

Like in cricket's IPL, the local players were auctioned and bought by the franchises. Each of the 10 captains, all Sri Lankans, was auctioned with 15-a-side leader Yoshitha Rajapaksa - the second son of President Mahinda Rajapaksa - bought for more than HK$700,000.

His elder brother Namal, who also played last season in the Asian Five Nations, was the tournament's mastermind. A parliamentarian, Namal holds huge clout and local corporates were falling over each other to get his patronage by backing the franchises. His political influence has such huge sway that even IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset turned up to give his blessing to the novel event. Even though it wasn't part of the IRB World Series, the tournament was a huge draw and it seems here to stay. As a promotional and development tool, it was massive. Each team had to feature an under-23 player in their starting line-up with only three foreign players on the field at any one time. While the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union's involvement was minimal, the game is bound to benefit in the long run.

In Hong Kong, rugby is a well-oiled machine run smoothly by an organisation which has created the world's best sevens tournament. The financial success of the Sevens has helped to spread the game to such an extent that it is now an elite sport at the government-backed Hong Kong Sports Institute.

This week's success by the boys' and girls' under-18 teams at the Asian Youth Games in Nanjing - a gold medal and bronze respectively - bodes well for the future. This followed success by the 'A' team at the inaugural 15s Asian Tri-Nations where Hong Kong thrashed the national sides of Singapore and Taiwan. The seniors will now have to follow that example by winning the gold medal at the National Games, starting in Shenyang, Liaoning province, on Saturday.

While a solid structure and framework props up Hong Kong rugby, in Sri Lanka it is all down to the power and whims of one family. No prizes for guessing which is the better system. Hong Kong's structure is set to stand the test of time. In Sri Lanka, it is all down to certain individuals - Simpkin and the Rajapaksas - which raises the question: What happens if they leave the picture?

Already cracks seem to be appearing. The sevens team, who have been preparing for the Asian Sevens Series which gets under way next weekend in Malaysia, were left rudderless after a couple of foreign coaches left apparently over a pay dispute. If such a thing happened in Hong Kong, the system would take care of the breach. It goes to prove that evolution (Hong Kong) is the best way forward and revolution (Sri Lanka), while capable of fast-tracking progress, is inherently unstable.