By Marlon Dale Ferreira –
The entire Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union barring Group Captain Hon.Secretary Nalin De Silva were served letters that they cannot contest the up coming Annual General Meeting by K.D.S.Ruwanchandra the Deputy General of the Ministry of Sports in a letter dated the 25th of April 2015.The President of the SLRFU Asanga Seneviratne speaking to this columnist went on to reveal that all the hard work done to uplift the sport of rugby may now be in jeopardy with this decision that perhaps the Sports Minister should consider in reviewing.
The only exception made to this Sports Ministry decision is where Group Captain Nalin De Silva the current Hon. Secretary of the SLRFU is the only one who has been granted permission to contest. De Silva has already served 3 years as Secretary of the SLRFU as has Asanga Seneviratne as President and Lasitha Gunaratne as Vice President. Allowing De Silva to contest and not Seneviratne and Gunaratne could be viewed as the epitome of discrimination!
This ruling came as a surprise when the Sport Minister Navin Dissanayake shocked the local rugby circuit citing that any Executive Committee Member who has held office for more than four years irrespective of holding different posts cannot contest the AGM. The Sports Law of the country first enacted in 1973 and last updated on the 15th of January 2013 could be interpreted in many many ways. However Minister Dissanyake has chosen to interpret it in a manner where it is now Chrystal clear that he wants almost the entire EXCO changed with immediate effect.
“His interpretation of this law deprives anyone from joining the Executive Committee at a lower level and moving up the ladder with the hope of one day being elevated to post of President “said an EXCO Member who did not wish to be named.
Now a similar fate awaits SLRFU President Seneviratne and his band of Executive Members as what Sri Lanka’s famous aircraft hijacker Sepala Ekanayake experienced himself.
If then it was the former President JR Jayewardene who sold Ekanayke a ‘dummy’ then this time around it is Sri Lanka’s current Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe whose outfoxing ‘goose step’ demonstrated by his appointed Sports Minister draws a similar parallel.
If ‘JR’ sent Ekanayake to jail then for an offensive law that never existed prior to his successful hijacking of an Italian ‘Alitalia’ aircraft, then this time around it is Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who through his Sports Minister is about to crucify the steadily experienced growth of the sport of rugby football in the country.
For a fact it could be firmly stated that the sport of rugby did reach unprecedented heights during the last three years where both the senior and junior national teams moved up considerably in the rankings. Sri Lanka has also hosted four top international tournaments in the last three years and had sides form Europe and Africa touring and playing test match rugby where it had not been experienced for years.
The senior national team has been a steady contender in the last three years and remained in the ‘top four’ in the 15 a side version of the game. However remarkable progress has been made in the 7’s version where the country has now moved up to 3rd slot . Our physical structure is best suited for that kind of play.
However what is most remarkable was to see the junior national side coming runners up in the last year’s concluded Junior Rugby Asiad hosted in Colombo under the leadership of Tarinda Ratwatte. It was hoped that the sport could only move in a forward direction thereafter.
Despite many challenges the SLRFU faced along the way there undoubtedly was progress and the results does speak for itself.
It is also interesting to note that most ardent followers of the sport seem relieved now that the ‘Rajapaksa siblings’ no longer control the sport of rugby in the country. Seneviratne did manage to control them and ensured that “National Sides” were fairly selected at all times bringing back all the top Kandy Sports Club players who were shunning national duty. In fact the Rajapaksa controlled TV channel Carlton Sports Network (CSN) accused Seneviratne in a live interview once of interfering into team selection and enforcing his will. Kandy SC under Malik Samarawickrama’s reign had Seneviratne as their only saving grace at that time and now it seems that they are working overtime to dislodge him. This is a classic example of “dog that bites the hand that feeds it’.
However if we can find a way to detach that Rajapaksa stigma for the moment, we could clearly identify that the sport itself is going to suffer even greater pains if we are to dwell in the past and maintain a revengeful stance.
It must be noted that all Provinces and 9 out of the 10 ‘A’ division top tier clubs are the stake holders of the game with majority firmly behind Seneviratne and his Executive Committee.The vision of the ‘promised land’ appears now on the horizon as they seem to see it. This is an unprecedented situation in the history of our sport to have all in accord and the “good Minister” racking his brains to displace the elected and nominated representatives.
This columnist caught up with Asanga Seneviratne the President of the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union who in a frank and candid interview answered some questions that should interest most ardent supporters, fans and stake holders alike.
The shifting of the ‘A’ division tournament to be held from November to March, ‘Coaching and Refereeing’ issues, the ‘Schools Rugby’ section, the Development and what the future holds for the sport of rugby, was all discussed at length.
Shifting of ‘A’ division tournament dates
The current SLRFU President Seneviratne commenced by saying “ the shifting of the ‘A’ division tournament to be held from November to March had been discussed and deliberated over the last ten years by many administrations with none having the courage to make the call. In fact the change was proposed, approved and unanimously agreed by the SLRFU’s rugby council which consists of members from all clubs. There were many advantages to the sport and players alike. For example during the months of October to April the weather is more conducive for play where the temperatures average in the 20 – 25 degree mark as opposed to the regularly played months of May to September when it is usually at least ten degrees hotter ( 30 -35 degrees ). Schools rugby had to be detached and run separately as opposed to be run concurrently with the club season. The lack of grounds within the country and the challenges faced logistically with the referee’s and match officials was making it almost impossible to run the schools and clubs tournament smoothly. The Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) now conducts an official 7’s series which takes place in August to November and the 15 a side ‘Rugby Asiad’ is also contested in the month of May. If the club season runs concurrently with the ARFU organized events then it would end up being a disaster since no clubs will release their players for national duty” opined the experienced rugby administrator in conversation.
The SLRFU had been portrayed to be having problems in retaining proper coaching staff and that too was explained by the President. He went on to say “this administration has done more to develop the national team than any other Executive Committee in the past. Top coaches were brought in for 7’s and also the 15 a side teams. For example Phil Grinning the former British Lion was our coach in 2013 and sadly we lost his services as he was offered a lucrative contract to coach the Wales national rugby team. Then we had Ben Gollins the English 7’s star who was our coach in 2012 & 2013 and he helped coach our 15 a side team too. He also left because he got a better assignment in the United States of America but he still continues to help us as and when possible. Alistair Savaranamuttu was brought in but unfortunately almost all in the EXCO did not see ‘eye to eye’ with him. I had no option but to accept his letter of resignation. However Alistair has gone on to publicly praise the current President as a visionary and for the immense work done by the him and the support extended by his EXCO. As an EXCO we have always contracted coaches for the season as and when tournaments are in progress as it is not financially viable to pay them during the off season to do nothing.
Financial status of SLRFU
The financial stability of the SLRFU has been a focal point since of late and the SLRFU President had this to say. “A proper corporate ‘Annual Report’ was presented to all stake holders maintaining transparency with accounts audited for all of the past three years which is an incredible achievement for a sports body in Sri Lanka ! The SLRFU coffers stands at a positive 28 million for the first time in its one hundred plus year history. I have personally negotiated a sponsorship deal to be brought in which should strengthen us by a further Rs 90 million. After the expenses projected for the year 2015 the SLRFU should have at least Rs 50 million in its reserves by the end of the next season. Our plan is to increase the savings to 100 million by the year end 2016 and invest in Sri Lanka’s first “Scientific High Performance Center” built for athletes of this country” said Seneviratne.
Seneviratne says his administration has done its best to bring Sri Lanka rugby to be the 3rd and 4th slots in Asia. It is impossible for Sri Lanka to go any further without scientific training and it is a known fact that all top rugby playing countries do have these facilitates to enhance strength and fitness and skill development training. “We may even come down in our rankings if we do not look at developing our players professionally” said Seneviratne.
Sri Lanka Schools Rugby
There has always been a strain between the Sri Lanka Schools Rugby Football Association (SLSRFA) and the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union (SLRFU) over the years. This was clearly witnessed at the last year’s concluded Sri Lanka Schools Junior Rugby Asiad where SLSRFA officials blackened the SLRFU logo on the sleeves of the junior players rugby jerseys which not only proved to be an ugly stance taken by the SLSRFA officials but also saw the wrath of the IRB for violating a constitutional law.
Nevertheless Seneviratne who was not perturbed by the actions of SLSRFA officials said there were greater things that needed to be done from grass root levels for the sport of rugby. “I have been making every endeavor to get the SLSRFA under the SLRFU banner. This was stopped dead in its tracks by the power hungry schools officials who pleaded with the former President Mahinda Rjapaksa to keep the SLSRFA and SLRFU apart. Sadly the SLRFU had secured Rs 200 million to be brought in to develop schools rugby with a three to four year program.” said Seneviratne.
Seneviratne claims he offered the schools full autonomy to run the tournament on their own and to manage all the funds collectively with full disclosure and with financial audits in place. The SLSRFA refused this proposal for reasons best known to them and went with their usual sponsorship package of securing less than Rs 15 million for the year. The financial struggle the SLSRFA found themselves in made them come running back with the begging bowl to the SLRFU seeking funds to pay the hotel accommodation bills when the last ‘Junior Rugby Asiad’ was held in Colombo.
The result of poor or no structure at junior level is the reason we are struggling at international level. The players’ priority is only to play for their schools and they don’t have any ambitions of continuing. A lot of them also suffer serious injury and the conditions they play in are appalling. No one cares and the officials are only interested in conducting tournament after tournament.
“We have to groom our junior rugby players’ right from the Under 10 to 20 brackets and have a superb feeder program to filter and channel them into the senior ranks. If we do not have structures in place similar to what is been currently used by countries such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England, we have no hope in hell in competing consistently in the world rugby arena. All the hard work done by our National development programs are not yielding the expected results since there are no funds or facilities to scientifically train them or offer meaningful carriers thru the sport. No administration in the past has made any effort to address these issues in such a scientific and technical manner” said Seneviratne.
President Seneviratne was part of the famous Sri Lanka’s 7’s side that also played in Sydney in the World 7’s tournament. He went on to say that even then though there was no such technicalities involved with the sport , the side by itself was one of those that clicked and gelled together as a group of absolute talented rugby players and that alone was still not good enough. Now with the game changing completely the demand for professionalism is the call of the day.
Sri Lanka has always been blessed to have had some of the best rugby referees over the years. However over the last few years there has been a dearth of top referees coming through the ranks. Seneviratne commenting on this said “ the referees play a crucial part in the sport of rugby and more often than not a mistake made by a referee could go on to not only change the result of the game but moreover decide the winner of the tournament. We have countered that challenge this year by flying down rugby referees from overseas for most crucial games and also have recruited the services of Grant Williamson a New Zealand ‘Test Match’ Rugby referee and we are working together on a two year plan to uplift this crucial arm of the sport. The ultimate goal is to have the ‘Rugby Referees Society’ run in a competent and professional capacity. I feel we are on track in this respect now”.
Sri Lanka’s First Secretary General of ARFU
This scribe contacted Ross Mitchell the Operations Manager of the ARFU to get his views and thoughts about Sri Lanka rugby. Mitchell commented “Sri Lanka is blessed to have a visionary thinker and a brand ambassador for the sport such as Seneviratne who himself was once a talented rugby player. His services provided to the ARFU have been remarkable and he is the first Sri Lankan to hold the Secretary General’s post over here in the ARFU. Seneviratne’s contribution to the sport not only in Sri Lanka but in the entire Asian region has been of immense value and due to his persuasion, Asia may soon be hosting the first ‘second tire’ version of the World Rugby’s 7’s tournament with the first one to be held in Sri Lanka if all goes well to plan. Seneviratne has put Sri Lanka on the world stage and the rugby world is making note of this fast developing rugby playing island nation ”.
“It is also widely known that Seneviratene has not benefited in anyway and does not not claim monies from the SLRFU for any of his travels, hotel accommodation, allowances etc; when representing the SLRFU over a 10 year period where he has funded for himself. He has personally invested his own private funds for the sport of rugby and its development” said a present EXCO Member who also commented that the game of rugby will suffer terribly if people of his calibre are ousted.
Navin Dissanayake may have filled the huge shoes left behind by his father who also served as President of Sri Lanka Cricket for 7 long years. Ironically if the Senior Minister Dissanayake was still around he would have been disqualified too for going over what now seems an absurd four year rule.
Thankfully then, administrators took their time in clinically planning out strategies and implementing them over a period of time.
One hopes that Minister Dissanayke would pursue a path of sanity and the sport of rugby does not get derailed. Sri Lanka rugby will certainly go back a few years in time by whoever comes in to replace the current SLRFU Head and EXCO.
Seneviratne who if he stays on with the SLRFU is certainly to be the first Sri Lankan to join ‘World Rugby’ or also formerly known as the IRB, graduating from his current Secretary General post of the ARFU. If that happens then the sport of rugby within the country is certainly bound to reach even greater heights than it has ever seen.
The futuristic thinking leader as portrayed by many was questioned by Colombo Telegraph as to why the biblical scripture adorned the pavilion walls of the famous Havelock Sport Club’s refurbished pavilion he currently has leased. On it is found the scriptural verse of Philippians 4:13 which reads “ I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” .
Seneviratne went on to conclude this interview by saying “The Biblical scripture verse was to inspire and to proclaim the word of God to all who visit the venue. It isn’t in any way to create a perception, portray or project an individual’s character or claim righteousness. As human beings we all need God’s grace and forgiveness. I need it much more than anyone else. Since you have now asked me the question, let me say that rugby is the only sport played in Heaven! There is a reason for this. The game is structured like no other. Completely physical, fast, skillful, full of passion and integrity and usually the most kind and decent characters emerge from seemingly hopeless situations. It is not a coincidence then that most rugby players around the world are believers. You come to realize that ‘Only God’ can save you. I am blessed to be criticized for this! “
Dissanayke seems to carry a personal grudge against Seneviratne whom he also removed from the Vice Presidents post at Sri Lanka Cricket.
“Seneviratne was one of the most respected members of that SLC EXCO for his forthright and honest contributions made during his tenure and went on to create history as Chairman of the
“Sponsorship Committee” who brought in over Rs 1.2 billion to SLC” said an EXCO Member of SLC..
It appears that Minister Dissanayake who has now replaced Seneviratne with his former Thomian and CCC team mate Kapila Wijegunawardena at SLC, is embroiled in the country’s greatest sporting spectacle where politicians made up mainly of Royalists and Thomians are viewed to be playing their very own personal big match for the ‘Yahapalanaya’ Trophy.
In a sporting sense the writing is certainly on the wall when politicians interfere in sport. There is no doubt about that. But what is most fearsome is when tainted officials like Nuski Mohamed and Jayananda Warnaweera are shielded at Sri Lanka Cricket and other respected officials are similarly thrown out of the SLRFU.
In the last 25 years rugby in Sri Lanka has been controlled and contested by the cream of players who either went on to play for the ‘Samwarawickrama’ Sports Club or the ‘Rajapaksa’ Sports Club who bought and poached the best of talented players at home and also overseas.
Samarawickrama kicked many a ‘grubber’ and many a ‘punt’ as he controlled the sport of rugby from the hills from the early 1990’s to the mid 2000’s. No ‘smothering’ or ‘cover defense’ could stop this cash spending side as Kandy SC crowned themselves as undisputed champs during this period. It was only mid way into the new millennium did ‘Samarawickrama’ Sports Club lose its grip and meet it’s Waterloo when the ‘Rajapaksa’ Sports Club took firm control and ruled the roost for the next decade.
We all know how that story panned out and perhaps its best forgotten than remembered.
I for one have this hunch that with the turn of the political events taking place in this country, the game of rugby is once again shifting and tilting towards the ‘Samarawickrama’ camp. I only hope for the sake of this wonderful sport, a firm decision will be made by Minister Dissanayake who will go on to be remembered for leaving a legacy behind in rugby like his father once did for the sport of cricket.
But the all important question on the lips of all stake holders of the sport of rugby is will political pressure get the better of Minister Dissanayake and ruin this sport for now.