Chief rugby selector says newcomers in the Sri Lanka squad for the Asia Rugby Championship Division II are a great investment for the future:
Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) selection chief Rohan Abayakoon, defending their decision to send a fresher-laden squad for the Asia Rugby Championship Division II in Chinese Taipei, said they had made a “great investment” by banking on young players who will form the nucleus of the side for the next five years.
“Many of the freshers performed to expectations and beyond,” said Abayakoon analyzing Sri Lanka’s performance in the competition where they lost to Philippines 39-22 in the semifinals before blowing away hosts Taipei 72-12 to clinch the third position.
“We started picking players based on their talent, commitment, fitness, and passion in wearing the national jersey and that is what my committee is following and will continue to do so,” reiterated Abayakoon, a former Sri Lanka Sevens captain who feels winning a medal at the next Asian Games is within their grasp.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: What is your overall assessment of Sri Lanka's performance in the Asia Rugby Championship Division I considering we took a young side and took part after skipping the competition last year?
A: Considering we had 18 freshers in the squad, the performance in Taipei was pleasing, more so because SLR assembled an XVs squad after a lapse of two years having focused on the Sevens for the past 24 months. Taking a team to Malaysia prior to this tournament also held the team in good stead. Overall, with only six weeks of preparation in total, a part of that being disrupted to the Easter Sunday debacle, this young team laid a strong foundation for the future of the XVs programme.
Q: the Philippines have leapfrogged over us in the rankings after winning the final as well. Have they improved by leaps and bounds while we have stagnated or were the youngsters overcome by nerves on the day?
A: The Philippines have invested a lot over the past 24 months in both formats of the game, reaching out and expanding their player catchment base under present world rugby eligibility rules. Even players who have a grandparent of Filipino origin who are playing division A rugby in Australia, Japan, the USA, and Canada, have been roped into their rugby programme and are flown in from all parts of the world and prepared for these tournaments. This has given them a very wide catchment of experienced players in world leagues and around 90 percent of their team is made up of such expats.
Under the circumstances, our very young side competed against them and a few lapses at the beginning of the game and right at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half cost us that game. One should remember that even with a very experienced Sevens team who beat the Philippines by over 40 points 12 months ago, we lost twice to them after that in the shorter format even in Colombo with much of the same side and this was mainly due to their aggressive player recruitment policy since then.
Q: Or didn’t we have a Plan B in the Philippines game in terms of strategy when we seemed deflated or pegged back after a strong performance in the first half?
A: The coaching staff has been trying over the six-week build-up to this tournament to get the players to play what is in front of them. Our players from school days and into the clubs are taught to play to set plans to be it A or B. There are 26 letters in the alphabet so why should we restrict ourselves to a few of these letters. Having said that there are basic structures and formats they undergo in training depending on the SWOT analysis of whom they are playing next. This kind of playing style which they can change from game to game takes a while to kick in and had we played the Philippines later than we did, we could have beaten them to the title even with this young side. In fact, we played better in the last 20 minutes of the campaign against the Philippines scoring two late tries.
Q: How did we manage to run riot in the match against Chinese Taipei? Was it a strange of strategy and allowing backs the freedom to run with the ball?
A: The six-week training programme to play what is in front of you came to fruition in the Chinese Taipei game. It took us four games counting the two in Malaysia for all the of it to come together in this game; that too considering our normally solid set piece was the poorest of the four games with this squad. That is why I say, had we played the Philippines that day it would have been interesting to see what the outcome would have been. No team blew away any team in that tournament like that with second-placed Singapore beating Taipei by only one score and losing in the final to the Philippines by just over a converted try.
The backs ran from the depth and that enabled them to bring their one-on-one skills into play and we counter-attacked extremely well all around the park and the forwards were very good in carrying and turning over the ball. The combination between the forwards and backs was outstanding and our collective defence was the best of the four games in this campaign. This was how the team was prepared to play from day one by the coaching staff and it came together in this game.
Q: Would you still justify your decision to pick 18 newcomers in a 26-member tour squad for a major tournament?
A: It was not a deliberate decision by the selection committee to pick a freshmen-laden squad. We picked this squad from the players who showed up for training once we had called the national pool in. There were around 14 players with experience from Kandy, CH, CR and Havelocks who did not show up for the trial due to injuries, studies, family commitments, and some possibly choosing to take time off before the Sevens campaign. But this gave us the opportunity to check the depth we have in this country and it was a blessing in a way as there was a lot of young talent that grabbed the opportunity they got and laid an exciting foundation for the next five years in this format.
Q: Do you believe the newcomers especially can be banked as a future investment? Any outstanding individuals in your opinion?
A: Hundred percent I believe the youngsters have impressed the selection committee and coaching staff to know they are a great investment for SLR for the next five years. Many of the freshers performed to expectations and beyond. The likes of Sudhakara Dikkumbura, Umesh Madushan, Dinuk Amarasingha, Reza Rafaideen, Ashan Bandara and Yakoob Ali showed that we have a bright future with the young talent we have. The fact that we were led so admirably by the youngest ever captain in Omalka, arguably the best player in the four-nation tournament who himself is just 23 years old, together with his deputies Jason Melder and Kavindu Perera, both not yet 25 themselves, shows that we have a solid investment in this group for a while to come.
Q: As the focus switches to Sevens with the Asian series coming up, do you plan to continue your youth policy and dump players of repute and experience?
A: With the Sevens campaign being the focus now for the next five months there will be no conscious elimination of seasoned players from the team by the selection committee but it does bring a new perspective to the dynamic that is SLR. That is all players will have to earn their places in the final party of 12 for each tournament and there will be no entitlement just because you are a senior player or have vast experience on the circuit. With the emergence of very exciting young talent, it gives us the opportunity to bring together a team of seasoned experienced players with this exciting new talent keeping an eye on the next Asian Games coming up in three to four years. In the next year or so we will need to put together a team that will still be in their prime for that event as winning a medal is within the grasp of the players who will be around during that time.
Q: Don’t you think it would send a wrong message to National players who have given their blood and sweat in the past with your stress on preference to younger players. Are fitter younger players a substitute to experience?
A: The wrong message selectors and coaches can send to rugby players is that merely by the fact you are seniors that you will be an automatic choice into a team over any young challengers to your position. What message would we be sending to the next generation of players if seniority was the main criteria for selection? Under Michael Jayasekera, the former chairman of selectors under whom I served for a few years, we started picking players based on their talent, commitment, fitness, and passion in wearing the national jersey and that is what my committee is following and will continue to do so. It is not just the past players who have shed blood, sweat, and tears. The young players too work as hard or harder and shed their blood and sweat when they represent the country. Experience matters and we need these players to nurture and groom the next generation of stars for the country but it cannot come at the expense of entitlement just because you are senior and experienced. The seniors too will have to show good form, fitness, commitment and passion, and if all these boxes tick there is no reason that many of the experienced players will be playing for the country in the upcoming Sevens campaign.
By courtesy of Daily News, Thursday, June 13th ,2019 - Allaam Ousman
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