“Operation success, but the patient died”

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The Asia Rugby U20 sevens series concluded in Hong Kong on the 5th of August 2017, as the home team comprehensively beat last year’s champions Sri Lanka by 36 – 00 in the Cup final. 

Unbeaten Tuskers make it to finals

All round Sri Lanka made it to yet another Asia Under 20 Sevens final showing no mercy onto…

Hong Kong has long been considered Sri Lanka’s Achilles Heel in the Asian circuit, an affliction suffered from the senior to the junior levels. Even Kevin Dixon and his team, who were crowned Champions last year, could not go that extra mile in the second leg final where they lost 36 – 10 to Hong Kong. They were crowned overall champions based on the points they had accumulated by winning the first leg in Johor Bahru-Malaysia.

One of veteran coach Sanath Martis’ favourite lines “Operation success, but the patient died” refers to the fact that Sri Lanka get all their bases covered, give good opposition to all teams but always ends up losing to Hong Kong. This time around Sri Lanka went through with the clear aim to go to the finals and they won five games in a row but when they met Hong Kong, once again they faltered.

The junior Tuskers were up to the task physically against South Korea in the semifinals, who were much bigger than the men from Hong Kong. There seems to be a mental block among the players when it comes to Hong Kong and yet again Sri Lanka squandered the opportunity.

Photo Courtesy - Hong Kong Rugby Union
Photo Courtesy – Hong Kong Rugby Union

Mentality

Hong Kong played the tournament without some of their star players as one of them is in the senior trials with the French club Racing 92 where the legendary Dan Carter is playing. Another is in the English Premiership club trials whilst two others are in the senior XV’s and 7s team. The Sri Lankan rugby fraternity see Hong Kong as a team made up of imports, however 90% of these players are born in Hong Kong and the remainder are from the expatriate community who migrated from other countries a very long time ago.

For the development of national rugby, age group international competitions certainly plays a vital part. The Sri Lanka U18’s challenged Fiji at the Commonwealth Youth Games (CYG) in Bahamas few weeks ago. We all know the culture of sevens rugby in Fiji.  They do not have any expats in their teams and they are bigger and stronger than England, Canada etc… Sri Lanka lost to Fiji 14 – 07 in Bahamas, just one try away from making history.

In the U20’s in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka gave themselves too much work by conceding too many tries to the lesser teams. Hong Kong on the other hand conceded just one try in 6 games; they simply always stick to their game plan when it comes to defense. Sri Lanka giving away six tries prior to the final game, is something the coaches have to sort out in the future.

Another learning point of the tour is how well the Indian women’s U20 performed in that competition. The smallest team in size and the least experienced,  they managed to finish the tournament with wins over Malaysia, Singapore and Uzbekistan. It was a phenomenal display, winning the hearts of many present and sending out the message that their preparations are well on the way for the Olympics in 8 years’ time.

Photo Courtesy - Hong Kong Rugby Union
Photo Courtesy – Hong Kong Rugby Union

Maturity

Kevin Dixon’s team had a bit more game experience coming into the tournament last year while Naveen Henakankanamage’s team did lack that experience despite making in to the finals. This team did not seem to have a plan B in place versus Hong Kong and they did not know how to react when they trailed by 2-3 tries. At the contest in the kick-off, we saw both Adeesha Weerathunga and Wajid Fawmy in two minds. They did win one or two but did not manage enough turnovers. The kick –off contest was very poor in the finals. Hong Kong saw that there was only one man charging so they changed their plans and targeted the shortest man on the park, Lahiru Herath, and that worked out well for them at the restarts. They also switched directions in taking the kicks, and that had Sri Lanka  nonplussed in the face of their moving defense.

Photo Courtesy - Hong Kong Rugby Union
Photo Courtesy – Hong Kong Rugby Union

Once Hong Kong scored the first try, the body language of the Sri Lanka players just slumped with hands on hips as if they had already lost the game. They lost focus instantly and forgot it’s a 14 minute game and that there was indeed more time to make a comeback. Sri Lanka showed great discipline in not conceding a single yellow card until the finals, but against their most challenging adversary they conceded a yellow, which immediately put them on the back-foot.

It is apparent that you do need to micromanage these players, teaching them game management and game sense. Sri Lanka handed out too many penalties at the breakdowns and had two sloppy games against the Philippines and Malaysia where they should have won with big margins. Also you should not consider Hong Kong as just another team, you need to the team well to find their weaknesses and identify our strengths.

Future

It is the responsibility of the senior national men to do well in the Asia sevens series first leg which will be held on 1st & 2nd September at Kings Park, Hong Kong. The Tuskers are yet to beat Hong Kong and this time too they will probably meet in one of the knockout clashes. The current squad has the skills, experience and some good match practice gained in the concluded Super 7s to aid them in the quest of taking on their old foe. However, Japan’s inclusion back in to the Asia sevens series will make it an even more rigid competition. Japan, who was in the World Sevens Series couldn’t impress and as a result they only managed the wooden-spoon. They must win the Asia series in order to get the license to go back for the next World Series.

Most of Hong Kong’s senior players have departed from the squad, will that give some hope to the Tuskers? The veteran McQueen brothers retired and are off to start careers as pilots in Australia. Former captain Max Woodward and the scrum half Cado Lee joined  Japan’s top league club. They have brought a few young players into the senior system while Sri Lanka too have included four players from the concluded under 20s and a few players from last year’s U20 squad in the 25 man senior national pool. However, only 12 players will fly out and it is time for the youth and seniors mix to do something different this time around which will certainly go on to drive the generation to come.