Hulk Omalka does not need foreigners | Sunday Observer

Hulk Omalka does not need foreigners

Leaders are made, they are not born, according to Vince Lombardi, American football coach and NFL executive.

However, Sri Lanka’s youngest rugby captain Omalka Gunaratne seems to be a natural and destined for greatness after the leadership mantle was thrust on him by default following the withdrawal of captain-elect for the Malaysian tour Roshan Weeraratne.

The powerfully built Number 8 has been hailed for his leadership qualities both on and off the field during the two-match tour as he led a fresher-laden national team from the front. The 23-year-old joins an elite group of back row forwards such as Priyantha Ekanayake, Harris Omar and Dushantha Lewke who have donned the captain’s arm band for Sri Lanka in the recent past.

Gunaratne was earmarked as a leader at the tender age of 12 going on to captain his school Isipathana College in all age groups in his chosen sport. Having started off as a hooker, Gunaratne structured his physique and agility to transform himself into a crack forward for school, club and country.

Gunaratne has never looked back ever since his father gifted him an oval shaped ball as a kid.

“It was my father (Gamini Gunaratne) who introduced me to rugby. He literally passed the ball to me after he took a liking to rugby when our family moved from Anuradhapura to Colombo and I gained admission to Isipathana.

“No one in our family played rugby before me. My brother Devin also played rugby but quit to pursue higher studies,” recalled Omalka of his humble beginnings in rugby in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

He took to the game like a duck to water being chosen to captain the Isipathana Under 12 team in 2007 and going on to lead their Under 14,-16, -18 and -19 teams.

Gunaratne made his junior international debut in 2013 representing Sri Lanka at the Under-18 Asian Youth Games. He had a terrific season in 2014 scoring several tries to help Isipathana win the ‘treble’ but they finished runners-up in the league and knockout as well as the Sevens under his captaincy the following year.

More significantly, he captained the Sri Lanka Under-20 team at the Asian Youth Championship in 2015, counting among his most memorable achievement being vice captain of the Sri Lanka Under-21 team which emerged Asian Series Sevens champions in 2016.

His club career took off when he represented Navy SC before joining CR and FC in the 2016/17 season. Vice-captain of CR and FC last season, he led the team in a couple of matches in the absence of captain Kavindu Perera.

“I had a dream to captain Sri Lanka some day when I started playing rugby. But I did not expect to get it so early in my career,” said Gunaratne.

“It is a great honour to be the youngest rugby captain of Sri Lanka. It is a big achievement in my life,” said Gunaratne who has represented Sri Lanka in both XVs and Sevens since 2016.

“I started as a hooker. After training as I developed my body and my speed improved, I played as a Number 8 from 2013,” he said.

The pressure of captaincy seems to sit lightly on the broad shoulders of Gunaratne. “There was no pressure at all. I did not believe we will perform so well because there were not many seniors in the side. Only Sajith Saranga and Sathya Ranatunga had played for five years. We had 21 freshers in the entire squad. I did not expect us to play so well against Malaysia who had several Fijians. We had all Sri Lankan origin players and some of them have not played Internationals before. But the team responded magnificently. We could have won,” said Gunaratne after their narrow 31-26 defeat to Malaysia.

The Sri Lanka skipper was confident they would perform above expectations in the upcoming Asia Rugby Championship in Chinese Taipei.

“It (Malaysia tour) was a good experience for our next tournament. It is a pleasure to lead this side. I am confident of winning in Chinese Taipei. We have a lot of hopes the way we are training. I like the determination and attitude of the players,” said Gunaratne as his team prepared to face Philippines on May 29 in the semifinal of ARC Division I.

The other semifinal is between Chinese Taipei and Singapore with the final taking place on June 1.

Gunaratne said they had tightened their loose-ends in defence. “We had only two to three weeks training before the Malaysia tour and we were working mostly on game plan. Our purpose was to gel as a team and execute game patterns. We did not have big ambitions but I did not think they would play like this. With limited training we performed above expections. If we had trained more, we could have achieved bigger things. Now we have tightened our weaknesses,” declared the captain.

Gunaratne also welcomed the return of Weeraratne who has resumed training and will be available for the Asian tournament.

“Roshan Weeraratne being in the squad is a big motivational factor. He has played a long time for Sri Lanka and also been around in the club circuit. His joining the team is a massive boost. His experience will be a great asset to the side in addition to seniors like Satya (Ranatunga), Sajith (Saranga) and Kavindu (Perera). For these players to blend with the young side is a big strength. Their experience is invaluable,” said Gunaratne who is looking even beyond the Asian competition.

“Our aim is to climb up in rankings and qualify to play in the ARC Top Three. I think we can achieve this and make giant strides next season,” he said.

Gunaratne was also of the opinion that Sri Lanka were not a ta disadvantage because they did not have foreigners in their national rugby team.

“I don’t think we need foreign players to play in the Asian circuit. We play with our hearts and with lot of passion and pride for the country. Because of our genes we are not physically big made. But if we structure our training programmes there is no reason why we cannot compete at international level. We have the talent,” he said though welcoming foreigners to play in the domestic circuit.

“Foreigners should be playing for clubs. If there are good, skilled players we can learn from them and grow in confidence playing against them. We can also improve our game,” he said.