Over the last ten years, Sri Lanka’s participation in the annual Asian Women’s international sevens circuit could best be described as sporadic – they made their debut in 2000, appearing again more regularly after 2004. When they have competed in the Asian series, their best standing has always in the lower half of the pool. That is, until now.
Sri Lanka’s meteoric rise from bowl contenders to plate winners at the first leg of this year’s ARFU Women’s Asian Rugby Sevens Series provded an unexpected spark in the proceedings.
Chandrishan Perera, former Sri Lanka skipper and men’s coach credits his charges with “a remarkable attitude and determination” in accepting the challenges set for them.
“The girls had an absolute sense of self belief, pure pride and willingness to face up to whatever is set. They understand how much it means for themselves and their families to compete internationally is a dream come true. Winning is a bonus!”
Perera is equally lyrical about captain, Thanuja Weerakody, a 27-year-old mother of two infant children.
“She is the hardest worker on the team, she leads by example and has the ability to inspire performance from her players both on and off the field she is the best ambassador for the sport I have met in my years as a player and coach.”
But beyond a charismatic leader and pure grit, what other factors have contributed to Sri Lanka’s recent performance?
Landscape of rugby in Sri Lanka
No other country in Asia can boast of a turnout of thousands to watch a women’s rugby event except for Sri Lanka – where nearly 2,000 spectators showed up over two days for the last women’s club 7s tournament.
In a wicket-crazed country, rugby is second only to international one-day and test-twenty cricket. Within Asia, Sri Lanka is the estimated to be behind Japan in playing numbers of about 100,000. It also widely reported that certain annual school fixtures can draw up to 20,000 spectators and is watched by millions more live on television.
Sri Lanka’s stocks in female participation are certainly growing with a current crop of approximately 2,700 female players, half of which are teenagers or pre-teen. Now that rugby is a part of the curriculum for all government schools, this number is set to grow exponentially.
Adult female players are active in twenty clubs across the island, playing in four to five domestic competitions a year on top of two official club tournaments which also serve as platforms for national selection.
With a player base that would be the envy of other female mid-table contenders like Philippines, Chinese Taipei and Singapore, why has it taken Sri Lanka until now to make an impression on the international stage?
Improvement and increase in allocation of Resources
Further examination reveals some important shifts within the women’s game within Sri Lanka.
Perera attributes the changes in Sri Lanka’s game to the recent changes in the level of the domestic competition and distribution of resources to the women’s teams. The last three years has a seen dramatic changes to the quality and pool of players available for selection.
The armed forces, where all of Sri Lanka’s team are drawn, are contracted simply to play the game and are placed in a structured environment with fully integrated access to facilities, effective coaching and information about sporting performance.
Perera quips, “The domestic competition in the armed forces contributes much to the fitness and physical strength of individual players. Their access to training facilities, skills, game IQ, training tech, nutrition, physio[therapy], medical, insurance et cetera are all factors that make the sport an attractive option for new players and add considerably to the potential of our current players.”
Sri Lanka’s efforts in the men’s 7s development have also reaped some dividends on the women’s end. Perera puts the girl’s motivation to meet higher targets and train hard as “all down to high standards and good learning from Coach Ben Gollings who was in Sri last year.”
Additionally, there Sri Lanka’s popular Calton Super 7s, where some of Sri Lanka’s best sevens rugby is played. “This has really inspired the girls.”
Perera started with a group of 40 players from the clubs and armed forces, and decided to look for players who had the capacity for hardwork. In his words, “a mind to endure the pressure and a willingness to learn from their mistakes. But my focus was endurance, good pace, experience and skills. Workrate was definitely a deciding factor.”
Looking to the Future
Now that they have shown that they have shown that they can pull their weight against teams like Thailand, Singapore and Philippines, Perera is optimistic about the future and look forward to competing against the top tier women’s nations.
However, he notes that there are still challenges ahead for the Sri Lankan women’s team. This is especially so for players who are not serving in the armed forces and who have young families and who have to travel several hours to and fro from training. Perera thinks this may be resolved by centrally contracting national players this giving them the financial security to focus on high performance rugby training throughout the year.
“Proper scientific training and adequate nourishment are economic realities that have to be addressed for all national level players – and for Sri Lanka to show consistent progress.”
Then there are the improvements to the domestic structure and schedule and recruitment of players from other traditional sports like netball, volleyball, basketball, cricket, kabbadi are other avenues that need to be pursued.
The Olympic infection
Whilst often hailed as one of rugby’s greatest coups, the value of the Olympic decision cannot be overstated. One need not look too far for the effects that this has had on the mindsets of those involved in the game within Asia.
Perera enthuses, “Traditionally rugby is not a sport for women in Sri Lanka but that is rapidly changing with 7s being an Olympic sport. We need to tackle the other traditional sports upfront, and give women fair career options and a decent path for the newest Olympic discipline.”
To achieve this, Perera emphasises the need for more assistance from rugby’s governing bodies to emerging nations like Sri Lanka in building an infrastructure that is required to support new rugby converts.
In the meantime, Perera, has ambitions for Sri Lanka and his trusty captain, Weerakody, whom he regards as the perfect example of a modern rugby player.
“The 7s Olympic banner has a new champion for the sport, the epitome of a pure athlete – always with a smile. This is how we must present the women’s arrival at the games in Rio 2016.”
Source : http://www.arfu.com/