No Schools Rugby 2020? Here’s Plan B!

The need to change and adapt to a ‘new normal’

Shazaan Mohammed, Dnal Ekanayake Kingswood College rugby team
Action from the Schools Rugby League 2020 encounter between Kingswood College and St. Joseph's College

If there’s one lesson we should learn post-COVID19 it’s adaptation. Businesses have adapted to play their game in the ‘new normal’ and so has sport.

A fitting example is the Super Rugby competition in New Zealand where the country adopted a new format to let the competition go ahead. This model succeeded and recent discussions at New Zealand Rugby showed that this might be a permanent change.

In Sri Lanka, things are different. The country was working their way towards bringing their COVID 19 patient count to 0 but the ‘second wave’ originating from the Kandakadu Rehabilitation Centre may have created a significant hurdle in their bid towards returning things to normal.

With that, the GCE Advanced Level examination was pushed further back meaning that it was time to take a call on schools rugby 2020. 

The heat from the second wave directed the Ministry of Education to halt all extra-curricular and sports activities until further notice.

2020, a season to forget? 

Dialog Schools Rugby League trophy. Photo by Viraj Kothalawala
The Dialog Schools Rugby trophy might have to wait till 2021 for its first winner

The governing body for schools rugby in the country, the SLSRFA, met last week to decide the fate of the Dialog Schools Rugby League of 2020.

The proposal to the Ministry of Education has two suggestions; to restart the league in late November and continue till 2021 February or to abandon ship.

While the first option is interesting, realistically, the more feasible option is probably to put the 2020 season to bed.

Sounds harsh but, a start in November would not really be a restart but like a new season altogether. Players would have been out for more than 9 months by then, no training or coaching, at least not to the level that they would normally train ahead of a season.

Making players match ready is going to be challenging for the coaching department. And the repercussions of this not being performed properly could be dire, with many players likely to be injured if not brought up to proper match-fitness.

So, instead of trying to revive what seems like a lost cause, rugby in Sri Lanka needs to adapt.

Under 23 what? Under 23 how? 

The idea of Under 23 rugby has been floating around for quite some time, but nothing has got off ground yet. Several discussions on an Under 23 tournament took place but its action plan never left the board room.

There was one under 23 tournament before the 2000s but that never grew into anything. 

But with the schools rugby season looking iffy, an Under 23 tournament couldn’t come at a better time. 

Imagine playing for your school for years and then being told that you aren’t going to be able to play your last year in that jersey. The under 23 competition will be the graduation for the Schools Rugby 2020 class who were deprived of closure due to COVID19. 

Schools v Club or School to Club

In Sri Lanka schools’ rugby is far more lucrative and popular than Club Rugby. Big budgets, hefty spends and a huge fan following are a given for the former but the same doesn’t ring true for club rugby in this era. 

In contrast, ask someone who’s been to a club rugby game in the 1990s or in the early 2000s. The visual image that they paint is something that looks like a present-day schools rugby game. Thousands of fans, packed pavilions and exciting rugby. 

Fans cheering for Kingswood College rugby 2020 Havelock Park
Schools Rugby in Sri Lanka has the biggest fan following, after National Cricket

The last decade has seen a gradual decline in the standards of club rugby in the country. This is disheartening as it has also taken a heavy toll on sponsorships, budgets and fan following.

The problem lies in the schools’ format. Today, less than 4% of schoolboys who play for their college end up in the big league. Of those who do, only a handful make the first team in their first year.

Out of the 4% another 1% drop out in the first year of competition, unable to find regular spots, contracts etc.

Competitiveness, physicality and financial constraints are a few of the problems mentioned in the exit interviews of the 1%. These are also the same factors that stop players from transitioning from school rugby to club rugby in the first place.

But, what if there was middle ground between the club arena and the schools arena? That middle ground can be the Under 23s. 

Here are 5 ways it will help the country’s rugby

  1. Attract exiting players of the 2020 schools rugby format who won’t get to play their final year for their school

  2. Gateway for players before they take the step from school rugby to club rugby to get some game time and be ready for the big league. This helps to reduce the number of players exiting the sport at the end of their schools career

  3. Clubs can cash in on the under 23 tournament to attract sponsors

  4. Since the players will be schoolboy graduates, the crowds will be back 

  5. Opportunity for coaches to pick their squads evaluating under 23 performers

Light at the end of the tunnel 

Gemunu Chethiya – St Joseph’s College 2018
Only a handful of schools rugby players make it to the club arena

Two weeks ago, Sri Lanka Rugby officially announced that Rizly Illyas will be their president-elect and will take on office at the end of August.

Speaking on Sunday Special with Boa Athu, Illyas spoke positively about commencing two tournaments, the Under 20s and Under 24s during his tenure.

“I was among the people that initiated it (under 24) during the late 1990s. I think we need to bring back the under 20 and the under 24 tournaments. Sponsors have been the issue so long, but I am capable of bringing in the sponsors” Illyas said.

The idea of two tournaments is exciting intriguing, but to see at least one of them get off the ground will be a win for the country’s rugby.

 The bigger picture

The value of an Under 23 tourney is what it brings to the table. The U23 will be a combo of the school and club format. You take the best of both worlds and then you end up with this hybrid tournament. 

The passion built inside schools’ rugby with a pinch of professionality makes it an interesting combination. It’s not perfect, but it is something worth considering. 

The Super Rugby local tournament in New Zealand was a successful adaptation post COVID19 and has been one of the best things that happened to New Zealand Rugby in the past few years. 

Maybe the Under 23 tournament will be Sri Lanka’s Super Rugby Aotearoa. 

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