Rugby in Sri Lanka – the year 2022 in Review

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The year 2022 was an important one for Rugby in Sri Lanka, the country’s second most-followed spectator sport. After being crippled for over two years because of the global pandemic, 2022 presented an opportunity for Rugby in Sri Lanka to start afresh, with wholesale changes taking place in many aspects of the game. 

Despite the fears of the global pandemic easing up, it was not smooth sailing for Rugby in the country as the political instability and the economic crisis continued to hamper the progress of the oval-shaped ball game. This year saw the return of Schools Rugby, while Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) continued to find itself on the wrong side of the authorities both locally and internationally.

Domestic Competitions 

The Inter Club Rugby League for the 2021/22 season began giving hope to many involved with Club Rugby who were the breadwinners of their families. They had faced numerous difficulties due to Rugby coming to a standstill. The League was to be played with two rounds – the first round to be played on round-robin basis with all teams playing against each other, while the top four teams at the end of the first round would compete in a super round for the Cup Championship, and the bottom four would compete for the Plate Championship.

Kandy SC, Havelock SC, CH&FC and Air Force SC made the cut for the Cup segment, while it was Navy SC , Police SC, CR&FC & Army SC in the Plate competition. While the first round was completed without incident, only one game of the second round could be completed before the League came to a crashing halt due to the social uprising. fter an emergency meeting, SLR decided to call off the League and named Kandy SC, who were the leading team on the points table, to be in first place, while Havelock SC who were in second place just five points adrift were left to rue what could have been.

SLR held its Premier Rugby Sevens Competition, which was traditionally called the ‘Inter Club Rugby Sevens’ but was renamed as ‘Sri Lanka Rugby 7s’ to include a wider playing base. The revamped competition featured four segments that included the Men’s Club segment, Men’s Provincial segment, Women’s Club segment and Women’s Provincial segment. However, some of the glamour of the tournament was lost due to Kandy SC, who have the greatest number of national players, boycotting the competition.

Air Force, one of the standout sides, saw to have improved steadily under Coach Shamly Nawaz and clinched the top spot, winning the Cup Championship by defeating Havelock SC in the Final.

In an attempt to provide an opportunity for young players who missed out on Rugby due to the pandemic , SLR revived the Sri Lanka Rugby Under 24 – 15 ‘A’ Side League Tournament with the participation of 4 Club and 6 Provincial teams. Science Maroons were the eventual winners of the competition, beating the Western province in the Cup Final. The North Western Province defeated the Old Wesleyites to win the Plate Championship, while the Southern Province defeated Peterson SC to the Bowl Championship.

Schools Rugby in 2022 

It is no secret that School Rugby commands the most attention and spectator support in the country, with the faithful fans of the institutions devoting their time and energy to support their beloved outfits in any way they can. School Rugby fans were sidelined for over two years with the 2019 season ending abruptly owing to the COVID-19 pandemic striking the globe.

Sri Lanka Schools Rugby Football Association (SLSRFA), alongside their main sponsor Dialog Axiata PLC, conducted a Provincial 7-A-Side Tournament in December 2021, which provided some consolation to young Rugby players who would have otherwise ended their school careers with no 1st XV Rugby, but it was by no means a substitute to the Schools Rugby League that everyone was yearning for.

The Marauding Green Machine wins the League Championship

The comeback season of the much-anticipated Dialog Schools Rugby League commenced in the final week of June, much to the delight of everyone. The expectations were not high, given that the young Ruggerites had not had any competitive 15-a-side Rugby for over two years, and some squads even featured players who had only last played Under 14 Rugby prior to this season.

Despite the slight teething issues in the opening weeks of the competition, the island was reminded why they were so in love with the Schools competition as the teams started dishing out competitive brilliant Rugby, drawing faithful in numbers to the stadiums. In a move to fit into a window that did not allow for the normal League to take place, SLSRFA had to change the format of the League, where twelve teams were divided into two groups of six and played each other on a round-robin basis. The top two teams of each group qualified for the Super Rotha, which decided the League winner.

Related – https://www.thepapare.com/unbeaten-isipathana-win-league-and-trophy-double/

Royal College and St. Joseph’s College topped Group A, while Isipathana College and Wesley College qualified from Group B. The Green Machine of Isipathana College was the only unbeaten team out of the four teams, and had an advantage over the others. Royal College, who had just one slip-up against their archrival Trinity College in the first round, delivered a superb performance against St. Joseph’s College to set up a mouthwatering contest against Isipathana to decide the League in the final week of the Dialog Schools Rugby League 2022. Royal started strong, but the marauding Green Machine was not going to be stopped at Havelock Park as they continued their good form to win the decisive game, and with that finished the Dialog Schools Rugby League 2022 with an unblemished record. It was even more special for the Havelock Park boys as they won the coveted Milroy Fernando trophy as well, with their win against Royal.

St. Joseph’s College, who suffered losses at the hands of both Royal College and Isipathana College, had the consolation of finishing the League as the Runners-up of the competition, with a win against Wesley College in the final game of the League.

It was no surprise that the League Champions Isipathana College and League Runners-up St. Joseph’s College, ended up as the finalists of the Dialog Schools Rugby Knockouts Competition, with the likes of Royal College and Trinity College opting out of the competition. It was tipped to be a keenly contested encounter, with the Josephians wanting to redeem themselves after the League’s disappointment.

The Green Machine, however, had other ideas, as they were determined to end their perfect season with another trophy in the cabinet. Shaming all pundits who predicted a close affair, St. Joseph’s were chasing their second knockout trophy when Isipathana ran riot, perplexing the onlookers and stunning the Josephian faithful in the first half 29 points to nil. Despite a strong comeback by the Joes, Isipathana completed the unbeaten double, winning the game 49-22.

Related – https://www.thepapare.com/isipathana-reign-undisputed/

Emerging Forces Joint Sevens Champions 

The shorter format of the Schools competition of the year was held in the Hill Capital at the home of Kandy SC in Nittawela, where the top talents of Sri Lanka Schools Rugby squared off against each other. All eyes were on the Green Machine’ of Isipathana College, who came into the competition as the favorites. Isipathana’s dream run was abruptly ended in the Semi-final of the Cup segment by the hometown team Vidyartha College, who used the wet and soggy underfoot conditions to their favour, handing Isipathana their first loss of the season. Winners of the Premier Tournament, D. S. Senanayake College, who had displayed tremendous form throughout the season and could have challenged some of the top teams in the League, justified their recognition as one of the most promising teams by qualifying for the Finals after defeating the likes of St. Joseph’s College & Royal College en route to the Final.

Related – https://www.thepapare.com/joint-champions-vidyartha-and-d-s-win-the-sevens/

Both Vidyartha and D. S. Senanayake College were not going to go home empty-handed as they battled it out in difficult conditions at Nittawela. As fate would have it, both teams were square at 10 points all at fulltime, and as per the Tournament rules, both teams were recognized as Joint Champions of the competition.

While Schools Rugby provided thrilling action and encouraging signs of raw talent being unearthed, Sri Lanka as a nation did not have great year when it came to Rugby. Trouble started when the then Minister of Sports suspended Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) via an Extraordinary Gazette. This was followed by Asia Rugby, the regional governing body of the oval-shaped ball game, suspending Sri Lanka’s membership in May, which stopped Sri Lanka from taking part in any of the regional competitions.

Sri Lanka in International Competitions 

Despite the suspension by Asia Rugby, Sri Lanka competed in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Sevens Competition, which was held on the 30th of July to the 2nd of August. Sri Lanka Women made their debut at the competition, making history as the first Asian Women’s team to participate in the Commonwealth Games.

The Men’s team had a tough opening game against New Zealand, who ran in 9 tries against the Tuskers. Tarinda Ratwatte went into the history books as the man to score Sri Lanka’s maiden try against New Zealand during the game, with the game ending 63-05. The Tuskers then put on a real gritty show against England, where they were unlucky to have conceded few early tries, but were in the fight until the long whistle. Despite losing the game 47-19, Tarinda Ratwatte, Srinath Sooriyabandara and Buddima Piyarathna scored tries in a game where Sri Lanka were only beaten through the physical dominance of their opponents, and not skill.

The Tuskers went on to lose the next two group games, ending up in the 13th place playoff Semi-final against Zambia. Sri Lankan tuskers managed a 27-14 win over the Zambian outfit, booking their place in the 13th place playoff Final against Jamaica. After a tremendous battle saw both teams going at each other, it was the Jamaicans who came out on top, with the Sri Lankan Tuskers having to be satisfied with a 14th place-finish. The Tuskers scored 16 tries in the 6 games they competed in, and while they lost 5 out of 6 games, they were never humiliated as they put up a fight against much stronger and professional outfits.

The Sri Lanka Women, who competed in their debut tournament, failed to score a single try throughout the competition and were placed 8th out of 8 teams.

Sri Lanka missed participating in the first leg of the Asia Rugby Sevens Series 2022 which was held in Thailand, due to SLR being a suspended member of Asia Rugby. However, after mediation by the President of the National Olympic Committee and the Minister of Sports, Asia Rugby granted permission for the Sri Lankan teams to compete in the second and the third leg of the competition under the National Olympic Committee flag.

In the second leg of the competition which was held in Korea, the Sri Lanka Men’s team impressed as they managed to qualify for the Cup Semi-final against South Korea. Having started strong scoring two converted tries, Sri Lanka went down to the Koreans 14-31, as Korea opted to keep the game physical and overpower the Lankans. Sri Lanka faced the Philippines in the 3rd/4th place playoff, and had to be satisfied with the 4th place after losing the final game of the competition.

The Sri Lankan Women were outmuscled in the first-round games by the strong Hong Kong and the Kazakhstan teams, but managed to beat Malaysia to qualify for the Plate Final, where they were yet again outmuscled by Hong Kong. The Women’s team unfortunately grabbed the spotlight for all the wrong reasons as their Skipper Dulani Pallekondage was reported missing and was absconding in the country. The team left Korea sans Pallekondage, who was later arrested and deported.

Sri Lanka Rugby did not announce the squad for the third and final leg of the Asian Sevens Series until the day that the players were scheduled to take wing for UAE. The team landed in the UAE just a day prior to the competition, and the lack of preparation was evident on the field as well, as Sri Lanka suffered a disastrous Tournament during the third and final leg of the Asia Rugby Sevens Series. Sri Lanka ended the competition placed 7th, an all-time low for the island nation.

Sri Lanka did not field a Women’s team sighting lack of funds, and this has turned out to be a massive oversight as Asia Rugby has decided to impose a fine of USD 10,000 for not fielding a Women’s team for the third and the final leg of the Asian Sevens Series. The above sum would need to be settled to Asia Rugby if any Sri Lankan Women’s team is to compete at a regional competition.

Due to the impending suspension, Sri Lanka did not feature in any of the age group regional competitions or Rugby Asia. When Sri Lanka resolves these matters with Asia Rugby, SLR is at the risk of having to start over from the bottom divisions.

SLR, along with the Ministry of Sports, will have to work hard to make sure that the impending suspension on SLR by Asia Rugby is lifted, as it is a massive roadblock to the progress and development of the game in Sri Lanka.

What to look forward to in the year 2023 

With 2023 being a year the Asian Games is scheduled to be held in, it is also important that SLR put in a viable plan for the games. Despite only winning one game, the Sri Lanka Sevens outfit dished out an encouraging performance against big teams in the likes of New Zealand and England. This was purely because the squad received close to two months of preparation, which allowed the players to build cohesion and provided them with enough time and opportunity to buy into the pattern and the styles the Coaches were trying to implement. It also allowed the coaching staff to experiment and decide on the best lineup, leaving them ample time to try out different combinations.

It is also alarming to note that five players who were part of the Commonwealth Games squad have decided to hang up their boots and have already migrated. ‘A’ Division Clubs are also facing difficulty in retaining their top talent, with most considering migrating as an option. It is also important to be mindful of the vacuum that has been created by the two plus years’ hiatus, and the players that have moved away from the game.