14th March 2020 – the last day where we witnessed schools rugby in the country. Since then, we’ve had three more severe outbreaks of the covid-19 in the country, schools closed indefinitely, and sports halted.
But, with the vaccination drive coming up for children aged 12-18, will we see schools rugby back in 2021?
The Dialog Schools Rugby League of 2020 kicked off in celebratory colors only to be halted mid-way in its second round. The pandemic wiped out the entire schedule in place, and the efforts by the national body to restart the sport in any form have been unsuccessful.
The only rugby action we have witnessed since then was the Air Force SC v CH & FC Commanders’ Cup friendly encounters played under strict quarantine and bubble regulations.
But a restart of the schools league is far harder than you could imagine.
Starting the system again is not going to be something easy. With more than a year of no action, all the processes in place in the schools have since then gone silent, sponsors have turned a deaf ear to the schools’ requests, and coaches and support staff have gone without pay.
During the first covid outbreak in 2020, there was still hope for the 2020 graduating class that there would be a bit of rugby action when the entire situation returned to normal this year.
Read more: Time to say goodbye to Schools Rugby 2020?
This hope kept the school teams motivated and the coaches on payroll. Teams kept their players fit and conditioned from their homes with virtual training sessions.
But that was all 2020. Since then, this process has fallen apart, and the entire rugby ecosystem has come crashing down.
“We were on payroll with the schools, and they agreed to pay us half of what we used to earn until December last year. But since then, we have not been paid for the entire year,” a member of the coaching staff at a top division school in the country told us.
The schools’ rugby coaches in the country were once the highest-paid school-level coaches, drawing hefty six-figure salaries. Established schools in the top division of the sport had coaches employed from under 10 levels to the 1st XV. Sometimes, there was two to three staff at one level with a trainer and an assistant.
But no rugby means no employment for these coaches.
Schools in Sri Lanka that play rugby rely on two sources of income – sponsorships and ticket money. With the pandemic, both of these income streams have vanished, and the schools have been unable to maintain the rising costs.
“The sponsors don’t want to pay since there was no rugby played, and they are also facing tough times,”
“Most of the sponsors who were with us for years have pulled out and will most likely not come on board hereafter,” added a member of a rugby development committee in one of the top schools.
No more heavy spending
Every year, a schools rugby budget will average between 7 million and 30 million. Thanks to the hype built around the schools’ rugby league, sponsors have cashed in on the teams for exposure with ample branding spots at the ground, on jersies, and other placements.
But in future, even if the league resumes, sponsors will be reluctant to spend the same amount of money that they invested pre-covid. This will eventually have a ripple effect on the system with cost-cutting and can even mark the end to the high salaries of coaches.
Schools will need to work with the finances and compile a model that would fit them the best. The pandemic’s impact will hit the lower tier schools, who were struggling even before the pandemic, hardest.
Despite less funding than many of the top teams, schools such as Science College, Maliyadeva College Kurunegala, and Vidyartha College have put on convincing performances over the years, but we may see that all change.
Getting new talent to the system
The pandemic has also revealed the broken system in the country’s rugby. Only 4% of the total registered schools rugby players find contracts in the professional tournament every year.
One of the primary tournaments that clubs look out for when it comes to selections in the schools league.
In 2020 and 2021, players did not get that exposure to showcase their talent to secure a club contract and continue playing. This means that more students will need to find life beyond playing the sport they’ve dedicated years to.
Most school players have also realized this void and are finding life outside the sport. While Sri Lanka praises its competitive schools’ rugby format, it has failed to build a pathway to mold the next generation of players.
The country’s rugby will only feel this void created in a few years’ time, with the overall competitiveness of the local club tournaments dropping with the lack of talent coming into the system.
For now, the situation in terms of a possible resumption still hangs in the balance. There is so much to be done to get rugby back on track.