Sri Lanka Rugby battles foreigner-phobia to reignite crowd flame | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka Rugby battles foreigner-phobia to reignite crowd flame

File photo shows an inter-club match between League winners Kandy and runner-up Navy played to empty stands last season
File photo shows an inter-club match between League winners Kandy and runner-up Navy played to empty stands last season

Dramatic moves by Sri Lanka Rugby to nudge four lower rung teams to enlist foreign professionals in a bid to bring back dwindling crowds and create a balance in the lop-sided League championship, may be causing the jitters at some of the better cared-for clubs ahead of the 2018-19 domestic season.

If the plan works amid the murmurings, Sri Lanka Rugby’s drive to allocate foreign players to clubs like Air Force, Army, Police and CR and FC, the upcoming 2018-19 season may also keep afloat corporate interests while the teams that finished in the top four of last season, Kandy, Navy, Havelocks and CH are likely to raise objections citing injustice and favouritism.

“We cannot go on like this any longer and keep losing out on both spectator and sponsor interests”, said Sri Lanka Rugby’s new Tournament Director Rizly Illyas.

“This is not about favouring some clubs and creating animosity among the rest or hurting others. As the promoter of rugby in the country and a member of World Rugby we know this present system must change for the better”.

Rugby in Sri Lanka over the past 15 years or more has been dominated by Kandy Sports Club thanks to its roving godfather Malik Samarawickrema, a top notch corporate superstar in the garment-export trade who broke away from his fanciful CR and FC in Colombo to set up base in the hills and is now a government minister. But while Kandy rose from being the poor cousins of rugby to the most professional of teams with the entry of the big bucks that enticed the best of players, the rest of the teams and their supporters frowned on them as club rugby in the country became less interesting with a virtual ‘one-man show’.

Many rugby fans who walked away from the club scene saw the domestic season as a Kandy versus Colombo scenario and it seemed that beating the former was more important to the rest of the teams than winning the League title for such was the dislike towards the Kandy side whose players had the best of financial security that made them the envy of rival players.

But Sri Lanka Rugby have now decided time was up to reject any possible objections from teams like Kandy, Havelocks or Navy and see the latest development as the only way out of a championship that turned out to be one of the most boring Leagues in sport anywhere in the world with most teams merely and aimlessly going through the motions season after season.

Under the new development, Sri Lanka Rugby will import 10 players from Fiji, Samoa or New Zealand and allocate two players to each of the four lower rung teams depending on their positional requirement with only one to take the field at any given time.

Sri Lanka Rugby will also pay the overseas players for their services while the four clubs will have to only foot the bill covering player accommodation and meals.

“It is the welfare of rugby that matters and we will go ahead and implement the new system. Any club that objects cannot fall into the category of an institution that sustains and promotes rugby”, said Illyas.

Mobile phone service provider Dialog has an allocated advertising budget of more than Rs.75 million for the season and it is also likely that Sri Lanka Rugby will look to buy at least two venues, Havelock Park and Longden Place in Colombo and invite spectators free of charge to create an “attractive climate” according to Illyas.

In recent years spectator attendance had yielded less than Rs.500,000 for the whole season at each of the two venues, an indication of the poor patronage of club rugby in the country.