Sri Lanka Rugby tackles club vs country debate
Dr. Maiya Gunasekera, the former Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union (SLRFU) President, has called for better awareness from Sri Lankan rugby players and clubs after recent withdrawals from the national rugby team made headlines. In a nutshell, the issue comes down to clubs paying players and the ongoing struggles with players choosing between club loyalty (and financial income) versus national pride.
National rugby player withdrawals
In an article by the Daily News, Gunasekera said that ‘Players making themselves unavailable for national tours is totally unbelievable’. This follows the recent Asia Rugby Championship Division 1 tournament and preceding tour to Malaysia debacle, in which the most experienced player in the squad, Sajith Saranga pulled out due to injury. However, it was alleged the real reason was that he was unhappy with a club teammate (Sathya Ranatunga) not making the final team selection. Club team-mate from Kandy S, Roshan Weeraratne, also withdrew from the national squad.
The Sri Lanka national XVs rugby team came 3rd in their Division 1 tournament in Taipei.
In addition, for the recent Clifford Cup knock-out tournament in March, Kandy Sports Club chose not to participate either. The club did not favour the Pallekelle venue.
This resulted in Gunasekera calling for a workshop to be conducted by SLRFU to make players and clubs better “aware of the consequences of clubs withdrawing from domestic tournaments and players pulling out of national teams.” He told the Daily News:
“I think the SLRFU (Sri Lanka Rugby) will have to make all the clubs aware of these rules and regulations because nobody still knows what are the consequences. The secretary, captain, players and everybody must be aware once you make a commitment for a tournament and if you pull out, the sponsors and everybody are at a loss”.
KANDY SC sanctions
Kandy SC is one of the biggest domestic rugby clubs in Sri Lanka. Gunasekera said that he felt the SLRFU committee should make a decision on whether to sanction the club. He stressed that this was a widescale issue as “playing for clubs has become more important than playing for the national team which is of course stupid.”
“All these have to be sorted out because the tournament belongs to the SLRFU (SLR) and the main idea in having a tournament is to select players for the national team. And if you are going to make use of that opportunity and not play for the national team, you are basically depriving someone else of that slot,” he said.
The SLRFU has created a new committee to look into the current SLR constitution and Tournament Rules. The task of the committee is to recommend any amendments or new regulations that should be considered. These could include disciplinary action against a team for non-participation or sanctions such as giving a walkover result against clubs from withdrawing from domestic tournaments.
The committee suggested that the Tournament Committee shall decide the venue of matches and it shall be final unless or otherwise decided and agreed upon by the participating teams. In addition, they recommended that all rugby stakeholders in Sri Lankan rugby be more familiar with the “Judicial and Disciplinary procedures (Regulation 18) related to Foul and Dangerous Play (Regulation 17), Misconduct and Code of Conduct (Regulation 20) and Tournament procedure and participation obligations.”
A national Sri Lankan rugby issue?
The issue seems to have reared in Sri Lanka as clubs have gained more prominence than the national team according to some sources.
Maithri Gunasekera is also a former chairman of the National Sports Council and said “it has changed here because of some individuals promoting clubs which is stupid. It is no point having a good club season and getting hammered internationally. Like all these pull-outs, players making themselves unavailable for national tours is totally unbelievable.”
He added that he didn’t feel this was an issue in other Asian nations such as Korea, Japan and Thailand.
Is semi-professional rugby the problem?
Previously, if club players were selected by the SLRFU, the clubs had to release the players. However, some players were now not prepared to play for the national team as they feared an injury on national team duty would mean they would not play or get paid by their clubs injured.
Recently there was news that SLRFU planned to make the 7s game professional by targeting 20 players and building a team with the aim of targeting a medal at the Asian Games in 2022.
With the club versus country debate raging for years in other countries which have professional rugby and/or players, specifically those from the Pacific island such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, will the increased growth of the game in Asia bring these same problems to Asian rugby federations and unions? The current Rugby World Cup 2019 preparations have already seen some players announce early retirements believed to be due to club pressure.
Sri Lanka has one of the most robust and widescale rugby programs in Asia, and aside from Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, would be one of the few Asian countries to fully embrace professional rugby.
What are your views on the issues in Sri Lankan Rugby? Do you think this issue of club vs country will become more common in other countries in Asia? Let us know!