Sri Lanka’s junior tuskers finished 3rd of 4 in the recently concluded Asia rugby championship in Malaysia.
Hong Kong successfully defended their title whilst Chinese Taipei finished as runners-up and hosts Malaysia, despite some heroic performances ended up with the wooden spoon and were relegated from the top division.
Was it the right preparation?
Sri Lanka has one of the most competitive schools’ rugby formats filled with unbridled passion, emotion and talent, yet preparation prior to competing in the one and only Asia’s top age grade competition has been abysmal. Regrettably, this has been the case since Jivan Goonatillake’s team won the Asian championships and played in the Junior World Rugby Trophy (JWRT) in Chile way back in 2000. Sri Lanka goes in with very limited preparation having little to no time to gel as a team. In some cases, most of the combinations have never played a game together until the tournament kicks off. We cannot expect hookers and jumpers to coordinate their lineouts with no practice. Halfbacks and fly-half’s take months if not years to get in sync and we expect our juniors to manage it in mere weeks.
Was it the right selection?
The answer is a yes and a no, but firstly let’s not forget that it is the same national selectors who selected the squad for the victorious U18 and U20 sevens team, who made history few month ago, winning the Asian crown. However, with all due respect to the selectors, leaving Samuel Maduwantha, the highest point’s scorer in the school season out of the squad seems illogical, especially when the coaches have publicly stated they would like him in the squad. Much of the accountability for the team’s performance should fall upon the selectors as much as the coaches.
Having studied game footage it is clear that Maduwantha is brilliant in every aspect of the game he even made some try saving tackles and he certainly carried St. Anthony’s on his shoulders. Per the national selectors, he was not picked due to his weak defensive work.
However, apart from Maduwantha’s omission it was the best team who toured after some fine school performances. Perhaps some of the combinations could have gone better. Additionally, the individual skills were not executed well enough.
There has also been much talk of Ashwantha Herath’s inclusion, but the fact is he was a vital part of the second-best team in this year’s schools league. He is also a strong utility back who can slot in at both 10, 12 and 13 as needed. He has also historically been good with the boot although he missed a sitter whilst on tour. It is also the opinion of this writer that he should have been utilized better on the tour, possibly to play outside Kushan Indunil as a center partner.
It would be interesting to know how much attention the section panel pays to the schools rugby season, and what criteria is used when selecting players. Additionally, the coach must have an influence in the selection process. This way he can communicate his vision for the team and game structure to the selectors who thereafter pick a side more suitable to the coach’s plans.
Gameplay & decision making
Prop Aveesha Priyankarage of Trinity College was good as an attacking player but struggled defensively. As did most of the other tight five. The defense around the fringes was average and the set-pieces were appalling both in attack and defense.
The ball retention was also atrocious. The third row struggled to get to the breakdown point and often Sri Lanka lost the contact area. Vageesha Weerasinghe of Isipathana College played with a lot of heart but the small made third-rower went in to contact three times and conceded turnovers on all three occasions. The rest of the third row also struggled to compete physically even though they were not overly outmatched in size.
The inside halves also struggled to get good ball out with Sandesh Jayawickrama standing very deep and collecting the ball far behind the gain-line the young tuskers struggled to make good yardage. The likes of Kushan Indunil and Naveen Heenakankanamage were unable to get possession in space. Both of them who were Sri Lanka’s primary attacking weapons were well marked by all three opponents.
Sri Lanka’s tactical kicking was also very poor with kicks being taken at all the wrong times. On numerous occasions the tuskers kicked away possession whilst having a mismatch in front of them. For example on one occasion when Indunil kicked against Hong Kong he had a prop and hooker in front of him, at a point any back would have opted to run.
Thanuja Maduranga from Science College was brilliant and has improved as a ball carrier and might have earned himself a starting berth outside of Indunil for the 3rd and final game but possibly could have started the previous game against Hong Kong following his sensational injury time game winning try over the hosts Malaysia in the first game.
Supun Dilshan (Science)was probably the best performer in this tour despite his one missed tackle which cost Sri Lanka the runner-up medal. Having had an exceptional tour he missed a crucial tackle on the Chinese Taipei winger and Sri Lanka lost the game in the final minute after leading 25-24. In addition to this Wajid Fahmy of Zahira College also made some brilliant tackles and some useful lineout steals, although Sri Lanka failed to capitalize.
The leadership group of the junior tuskers were far below the mark. The decision making on the field was appalling. The leaders failed to rally the team both on and off the field and they seemed incapable of controlling the game and the emotions of the team.
Additionally, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the captaincy. According to the administrators, the captain was selected based purely on seniority. Nikhila Gunadeera (Royal College) who was the captain did play last year as did Rahul Karunathilake (Trinity College) who was in line to captain. However, Karunathilake was carrying a knee injury going into the selection process and ThePapare reliably learned that he was not given captaincy due to the uncertainty around his injury. Rahul who opted not to travel with the national side was seen playing in the Kandy v CR&FC match. Zayan Sabar (Wesley), Nirosh Perera (Science), Pandula De Silva (S.Thomas’), Sandesh Jayawickrama (St. Peter’s), Kushan Indunil (Isipathana), these are six other captains who led their respective schools in the schools league. Selecting a captain based purely on seniority is ridiculous, especially when the team has six or seven players who have all led teams before and done well in leadership roles. Picking a captain should not be based on seniority but finding the perfect leadership skills. Having said this, Nikhila Gunadheera played his heart out and led from the front, but in hindsight was perhaps not the best choice.
The team discipline on the field was also very poor and they conceded a number penalties for high tackles which resulted in a number of yellow cards. Players need to be educated in how to tackle legitimately. It exposed the inability to remain calm under pressure during play. Sri Lanka had the worst disciplinary record of all four teams.
All in all it was a mediocre performance by the tuskers. It was a combination of questionable selections, lack of discipline and leadership, some poor rugby and a wave of illness that resulted in Sri Lanka finishing in 3rd place. Although historically Sri Lanka has struggled against Hong Kong teams like Chinese Taipei and Malaysia should have been easy pickings for a team of this caliber.