Player Boycott from Pool Practice and the Unequal Playing Grounds in Sri Lankan Rugby

In an interview to the Lakbima News journo Jatila Karawita, the new Lankan rugby coach expresses his displeasure at “key players” boycotting national pool practice. The coach, a former English hooker, does not seem to have any idea of the power struggle that flirts with the underbelly of Lankan Club rugby — the highest form and the most keenly followed form of the game in Sri Lanka.

Last week, an interview with Sri Lanka’s new rugby coach Philip Greening was carried in The Lakbima News paper under the heading “Its A Crime” (http://www.lakbimanews.lk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4962%3Aits-a-crime&Itemid=56). In this, the former England Hooker laments that some of Sri Lanka’s top players in the sport – all from Kandy SC – have “pulled out from on going national training” and that, for him, such withdrawals are unacceptable. Jatila Karawita, the article compiler, quotes Greening on this matter, as stating that a player’s “not having the desire to represent their motherland” is “criminal”. While the reasons for the Kandy SC players’ withdrawal were not given, Greening mentions that “there is a lot of selfishness on the part of certain clubs and their players” and that the SLRFU needs to “build bridges”.

Greening dodges the question as to whether the current national selection process, to him, is commendable. He answers by saying that he was “not yet familiar with the selectors and the players” and that he would “need time to adjust to the system appointed by (Sri Lanka)”. Greening, I feel, has put the cart before the horse and would have spoken better had he got to know the way rugby is played in the country – particularly over the recent years – before issuing statements on the selfishness of “certain clubs” and their men. Greening’s allusion, here, I feel, is to Kandy SC, whose players have repeatedly made themselves unavailable for national selection over the past two years or so.

In the current case, I am unaware as to what has caused them to opt out of practices; but, the fact that these players often uphold club commitments over “national duty” is a repeated accusation leveled at them from the mainstream. Greening says that “to not represent your country, when you got a chance to do so, is criminal”. But, such maxims need to be weighed contextually – and not be hummed uncritically, irrespective of circumstances. The players highlighted as “boycotters” – Fazil Marija, Gayan and Roshan Weeraratne, Senaka Bandara, Sean Wijesinghe and Pradeep Liyanage – are also veterans for Kandy SC. They have played more rugby for Kandy than any other team and it is arguable that the club has appreciated their services more than any other organization, including the SLRFU.

Then, on the other hand, we have Sri Lanka’s club rugby scheme which is the only “real” rugby we play. Our so-called “international engagements” are limited to the Asiad or the few sevens tournaments we play. These teams, too, are picked up more in an ad hoc way, without any long term and transparent selection policy or set up of team management. The latter can be excused, for for one to have a sustained schemata of selection and player management one should have a regular “national team”. Sri Lanka, at present, does not. So, our idea of “national rugby team” is more or less like Namibia’s world cup contingent at Cricket. Under these circumstances, for “pragmatic reasons”, one cannot gauge the “loyalty” of a player by imposing conditions that are not exceptional to the Lankan rugby playing reality. Nor should one moral police a player’s choice without being more intimately read of the prevailing issues of that set up – for Sri Lankan rugby has many.

Phil Greening

Kandy SC has been the undisputed forerunner of Sri Lankan rugby for the past decade and a half. Their trophy cabinet as well as the star-studded pool (and bench) which they maintain testify to the fact. Their players are well groomed – physically, socially and financially – and the club has set its own standards at performance and management. What Greening implies as “selfish” is Kandy’s stubbornness in not bowing down to the demands of the administrative center: Colombo. While the Hill Country club dominates the games on the field, the rugby strategy and national management is dictated from Colombo – largely by traditional loyals of Colombo Clubs and institutes. During the time when Kandy and CR & FC were considered the “top rivals” in the local games, officials who bore the CR mark were often seen disagreeing with Kandy and vice versa. These are inevitable “loyalties” that occur no matter how straight you try to keep your face. In Sri Lankan rugby, “club blood” is thicker than “national blood” (though the former, it can be argued, is less in density to “school blood”).

The game, too, has become a “politically loaded” game over the past few years. Since 2009, what we see in the rugby bowl is more the rehearsing of the whims and desires of politically motivated VIPs than fair play under the blow of the referee. Here, too, Kandy has always been at the receiving end, both at the management level and in the arena. Since 2009, much has been done to attempt an infiltration of Kandy’s dominance in club rugby – specially, by a resurgent Navy SC – and their increased rivalry (while serving the intensity of the game) has often left a bitter taste in the mouth of the Hill Country team. Teams such as Navy SC and Air Force SC had had repeated clashes at Nittawela, where the supporters of these teams – trained soldiers – have even had violent exchanges with the Kandy SC fans. I myself have been the witness to such attacks and such incidents have only estranged the Kandy club from the officials, who have not been able to respond to such low-stooped behaviour.

Kandy SC in 2011

Clubs such as the Navy SC and Air Force SC carry with them a political patronage and allowance that is unprecedented in Sri Lankan rugby. The three sons of the head of state – that, too, in a country where politicization has no heeding of the panic button – play for the former club and the chairman of the rugby bureaucracy is the Air Force Chief. Navy’s “resurgence”, yet again, began with a wholesale adoption of half a dozen Kandy players in 2009 – a move which I personally see as productive; but, which would leave Kandy dissatisfied. Last season, the Air Force detained one of the newly crossed-over players – Nuwan Hettiarachchi – to Kandy from the Welisara side. Then, an Air Force person(nel) re-wrote national rugby history by allegedly discharging an automatic at Nittawela, half way through the same season. As far as I know, no action was taken regarding this incident and the officials running the game were found fumbling for credible excuses for not doing so.

Thus, the rugby administration and the political VIPs have pushed Kandy SC to the ropes and the past few years has been a struggle for the club – to stay on its feet and to stand by its policies. Kandy brought professionalism to the sport when other teams were banking on “old tie loyalty” and was able to furnish a XV with imagination and flair. Kandy has the ability to challenge the bureaucracy and it is good that they do so – for a balance in power is always necessary for the positive evolution of a discourse. Jatila Karawita is subtle – for he notes down the names of the players who have opted out; and sums up that very paragraph by indicating that the national skipper is Yoshitha Rajapakshe. No doubt Yoshitha is a capable player and a “born leader”. But, the selectors should also look around whether there are more experienced national captains / players with captaincy mettle, with equal or greater skill and imagination.

Kandy SC, in recent times, has emerged as a counter-hegemonic force to the growing politicization of the game. It is one NGO that has stood tall against heavy odds of state intimidation and lopsided treatment. Before passing the ball onto Kandy’s court, the rugby bureaucracy should take a good look in the mirror. The administration as well as the coach should take a good shave before pointing fingers. The players hinted at as “boycotters” have given their best to the country and have the best of reputations as being die hard players. There is nothing wrong with their integrity, if you ask me. The issues that keep the cream off national pool practice are born in the den of duplicity and political stooges – and that is not in Kandy.

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One thought on “Player Boycott from Pool Practice and the Unequal Playing Grounds in Sri Lankan Rugby

  1. The game, too, has become a “politically loaded” game over the past few years. Since 2009, what we see in the rugby bowl is more the rehearsing of the whims and desires of politically motivated VIPs than fair play under the blow of the referee.

    This is a fact.
    But may have to wait for a regime change to happen for these things to change either in ‘the proper way’ or in yet another ‘improper way’ 🙂

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