By Vimal Perera
‘Dialog’ is committed to funding Sri Lanka Rugby’s (SLR) future in keeping with its contractual obligations. Harsha Samaranayake, Senior General Manager (Brand and Media), Group Marketing of Dialog Axiata, said that the sevens’ current issue is a mere irritant. They look forward to being involved in rugby in the coming season, and hopefully, the game will commence soon.
A few moons ago, the Sports Minister outlined the future of sports in Sri Lanka. Hopes included an Asian Club tournament for rugby in line with the promotion and support of Asia Rugby.
Rugby is on hold. As write-ups say, it is a tug-of-war between Sri Lanka Rugby, the controlling body, and the sevens’ partners, Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) and now the sponsors.
The situation prompted the Minister of Sport to address the media, and stated he believes that all associations, including SLR, should keep their egos aside and prioritize the sport.
I asked the President of SLR, Rizly Ilyas. He said that this is not an ego issue but a clash of SLR’s objectives, the governing body, SLAF, a constituent club, and the sevens’ partner. Ilyas spelt his thinking, saying that what is essential is the game. He would welcome the Minister of Sport stepping in to bring the parties to the table so that rugby can continue.
He was disappointed that SLAF, the partner and logistics manager, pulled out following disagreement and spat of words. Given the pandemic situation, logistics was an essential element, and I appreciated the proposal of SLAF to be a partner and name the trophy ‘Commander’s Cup’ as part of their 70-year celebrations. He said SLR went ahead with the Commander’s Cup and SLAF. However, he faced a dilemma as the position of Commander was common to other Forces. SLR hoped to revive rugby. He was concerned about players (around 250) who he said had turned up for practice and clubs had incurred expenditure.
The statement on ego and the events reminded me of The Iron Lady, the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Margret Thatcher once said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you are not.”
The statement of the Minister applies to all sports despite there being a reference to SLR. The case of cricketer Vaas, it appears, was another example of an ego trip. As Thatcher said, if you have to tell the people you are or what power you have, you do not have what you are trying to say.
SLAF, SLRs partner for this rugby sevens, issued a communique announcing the postponement of the proposed Commander’s Cup. The Cup, as previously publicized, was to coincide with the 70th Anniversary celebrations of SLAF. Three leading clubs had indeed opted not to participate and informed the match organizers - SLR. Within this constraint, practices commenced for a rugby revival on 20 and 21 March with five clubs putting in lots of time and space. Ilyas said despite not having a cash flow, SLR would have to compensate the club that had formed a bubble, because he and the council led by him want to take the game forward.
Various permutations and combinations indicate why SLAF withdrew their support in organising the sevens and naming it Commander’s Cup. These issues include the distribution of any surplus for SLAF development, commented Ilyas. However, if a tournament takes place, the Air Force will participate.
SLR President’s first message was that the Union would go ahead with the tournament and be powered by ‘Dialog.’ Though three clubs are not playing, boys have been at practice in the last six weeks, and they must be on the field for the revival of rugby.
Samaranayake explained. “After SLAF withdrew from ‘Air Force Commander’s Cup Powered by Dialog,’ Sri Lanka Rugby forwarded a fresh proposal to conduct a Sevens Rugby tourney. On 15 March, Dialog Axiata received a letter signed by the President and Secretary of SLR requesting the Inter club Rugby Sevens’ sponsorship be powered by Dialog. Subsequently, Kevin Herft, Consultant/CEO SLR, sent an email on the 16th forwarding a budget. After careful evaluation by the management, Dialog Axiata PLC decided not to pursue sponsoring the tourney mentioned above at this juncture due to the very high variance in costs, compared to the contractual obligation for the Club 7s Tournament.” The statements: one on the postponement of rugby’s revival and the second on the immediate counter, suggest an issue of a wounded ego staring in the face of starting rugby. The possibility of there being a conflict is seen by what the Minister of Sport said. Many sports have got off the block, and why not? The Pandemic has posed many challenges to the sport, and rugby need not be an exception.
While SLR efforts to revive rugby have to be appreciated, the withdrawal of SLAF has other repercussions, Ilyas explained. The issues led to another concern of the Sponsors who had committed Rs. 17.5 million for the tournament and Rs 2.5 million for the media.
With the partner’s situation and the non-continuance of the Commander’s Cup, the sponsor needed to get corporate approvals for releasing funds for a renamed sevens tournament. Ilyas explained that three possible scenarios were presented after discussion, considering additional expenditure which arose with the pandemic environment and the SLAF opting to manage the logistics.
The sponsors, according to Ilyas, fell back to the clause of the club sevens of the original contract and agreed to release only Rs 3 million, which was a fraction of the costs in the environment of the Pandemic. He said that the backing away of the sponsor was a disappointment when it had agreed to sponsor the Commander’s Cup, and the commitment was Rs 20 million.
The impasse sends SLR back to the drawing board and faces the original sponsor agreement for funding the club sevens. Yet, the commitment of the sponsor is to continue to support rugby.
By Vimal Perera | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 20 2021
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