Lankans herald dawn of new era
Island's elevation to top tier of Asian rugby may be the first step towards continent getting a second berth at 2019 World Cup
With my Sri Lankan hat on, I sat cheering wildly in the press box at the Havelocks Sports Club in Colombo as the home team smashed their way past Kazakhstan, 49-18, to secure a berth in next season's Asian Five Nations Top Five rugby union competition. There are times, especially in sport, when you are allowed a little excess and watching Sri Lanka romp past Kazakhstan, Thailand and Taiwan to book their seat at the top table aroused ardent emotions.
It is the same when I watch Hong Kong athletes, too, as I have spent almost 30 years in my adopted home. I suppose I will have to be truly neutral when Hong Kong take on Sri Lanka in the Top Five next year, assuming that we (Hong Kong) remain among the elite.
The Top Five competition kicks off this Saturday. Perennial champions Japan, last year's runners-up South Korea, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates and newcomers the Philippines will vie to remain in the top group so that they are in contention next year when the tournament will double as the Asian qualifiers for the World Cup.
Trevor Gregory, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman, observed after the game in Colombo that "a sleeping giant" had been awoken. He was referring to Sri Lanka's emphatic performance, which has been honed by foreign coaches - South African Ravin du Plessis and former England sevens captain Ben Gollings. The pair have instilled structure and discipline into the island-nation's natural and instinctive style of play. Gollings remarked "everyone always knew Sri Lankans could play rugby but it was just a matter of everything coming together and playing with consistency".
And things have been coming together ever since Asanga Seneviratne assumed the top position at the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union. The former Sri Lankan flyhalf has worked his magic and pulled together the various factions that had split the game in the past.
All the clubs have now thrown their support behind the new president and this has paid immediate dividends. Even though Du Plessis had been in charge for just three months, he had the full support of the establishment and clubs, and this worked in his favour and to the benefit of the country.
Another major factor was the presence of two sons of the first family - skipper and flanker Yoshitha Rajapaksa and hooker and parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa. With their father, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, watching from the stands, the team were inspired to give it their all. And they rose to the occasion.
Gregory is right in describing Sri Lanka as a sleeping giant. The country has a proud tradition of rugby dating back more than 100 years. It is one of the founding members of the Asian Rugby Football Union. The game is played island-wide and there is a huge depth in player numbers.
The game is also popular, almost on a par with cricket. A club match will draw thousands of fans. The Havelocks, sadly with a capacity of only 5,000 seats, was packed to the rafters on all three days of competition.
Victory in the Division One competition will give momentum to Sri Lanka. Already there is talk of opening the door to foreign-born players. Seneviratne said approval had been granted and it would become a reality soon. When this comes to fruition (Sri Lanka's parliament had in the past denied permission for the national team to include foreign players but with the first family's hands-on involvement opposition to the idea has faded), it will add another pretender to the Asian throne long held by Japan.
Hong Kong, South Korea and briefly Kazakhstan have been the challengers to Japan's supremacy. If club politics doesn't raise its head again, expect Sri Lanka to become a force too, especially if they have a spine of foreign-born players in their midst.
In 2019, when Japan hosts the World Cup, one would have thought that the International Rugby Board would give Asia an extra place with the hosts gaining automatic inclusion. But this apparently will not happen as the IRB is unhappy with standards on the continent.
The IRB will watch how Japan perform at next year's World Cup, and if the rest of Asia can rise up the world rankings, before reviewing the programme for 2019. Sri Lanka have taken a small step towards earning Asia an extra berth.