Big gulf between school and club rugby, warns Abayakoon | Sunday Observer

Big gulf between school and club rugby, warns Abayakoon

Rohan Abayakoon
Rohan Abayakoon

Sri Lanka’s chief rugby selector Rohan Abayakoon is of the opinion that there is a big gulf between school and club rugby because of limited opportunities for players to hone their skills at the top level which in turn minimizes the national pool to pick for internationals.

Although the average age of the national pool of 39 selected for the Malaysian tour ahead of the Asia Rugby Championship Division I was around 24 or 25, there was not a single schoolboy in the squad.

“There were no schoolboys even last time (2017). The youngest player is 21 which means he played for school two years ago. I can’t remember a schoolboy walking into the national (XVs) side in the last decade,” said Abayakoon who has been a member of the national rugby selection on and off for the past 15 years.

It was in the 80s that the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union picked many talented schoolboys to represent the country at international level. Trinitian Thushara Weerasuriya played in the 1986 Rugby Asiad in Thailand as a schoolboy while two Trinitians Shah Doole and Imthi Marikar and two Isipathanians Pradeep Lakshantha and Nilantha Lakshmiweva went on the historic tour of Wales in 1987. Incumbent Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) President Lasitha Guneratne also represented Sri Lanka at the 1988 Asiad when he was a schoolboy at Royal along with Antonian Leroy Fonseka.

The problem now is schoolboys are lost to the system when they are unable to find a place in the starting line-up of clubs, according to Abayakoon.

“Also there is a big leap from schools to club. I don’t think even five per cent of schoolboys get a chance to play in A division clubs now. In our era, 30 to 40 per cent could compete to get into a club side. I can name only two or three players who would be in a starting line-up of clubs,” he said attributing it to how the game has evolved.

“The game has got very physical. It takes a while for kids to mature to that level. Same way as international has taken few steps higher, so is the transition from club to international level for some of these kids on this tour. We found that some of them need time to grow into that role,” he said referring to the Malaysian tour.

“Clubs should have an under-23 tournament which could be feeding our B division sides as well as returning players to the system because what happens is most of these kids when they leave school and can’t play for a club for two to three years, they are lost to the system,” he said in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

“We have under-20 at national level. May be we should have an under-23 team at national level too because step up from under-20 to national team is huge. We lose a lot of players in between. We should seriously look at under-22 or 23 tournaments at national level for players to compete. When we played there was an under-24 or 25 national side. That was a stepping stone to go to the national team,” said Abayakoon, a former Trinity, CH and FC and Sri Lanka centre three quarter.

“An Under-23 B division tournament with a status is ideal for clubs. Or most of these schools can start old boys’ teams so they capture players as they leave school and maybe they can play in B division. Form a club and capture these players from where they can feed into the club side when they mature,” he suggested.

The player base to pick talent is also reduced because there are only eight clubs from A division, said Abayakoon who has been chairman of rugby selection committee for the past one and half years.

“If you have 25 players we are currently looking at 200. Out of that, at international level 35 are ready to go. We have a small pool of players to pick from,” he said.

Abayakoon felt this could hinder SLR’s proposal to have separate XVs and Sevens squads.

“Many Asian countries have segregated their Sevens and XVs programmes. I don’t think right now we have the luxury of segregating the two formats because out of 200 we can find 30 or 35 at a level who can play international rugby. If you take out 15 of those to play Sevens then you are very thin. So that’s where the issue is. I think we should expand our base of more teams playing. It will be hard for us to segregate. Something they (SLR) should look at for the future,” said Abayakoon who captained the Sri Lanka Sevens team in the 1992-93 season.

Abayakoon also urged SLR to organize more bilateral tours or triangular tournaments so that Sri Lanka could rise up the rankings and regain their place in the Top Tier in Asian Rugby.

“SLR made a decision to only focus on Sevens during the last two years. They have now revisited the XVs progamme. I think they have to come up with a programme on how we can climb up the rankings. I believe we were 38th in about 2015. Now we have dropped down to 44. We have the talent. In our bid to go up the ranking we need to expose the players a bit more and focus on XVs rugby also to get them to that point. It’s very good at least Union organized this tour (Malaysia) at short notice. We need to focus on XVs as well. How we segregate the squads is the million dollar question. At one point we might have to do that but we don’t have the luxury to do that at moment,” said Abayakoon, CEO of True Digital Printing.

Abayakoon, who represented Sri Lanka from 1986 to 1994, said the game has changed beyond compare.

“It is a lot more physical than when we played for sure. Also some of the soft skills have got a lot better now. Never was front five forwards playing like the way they do today back in our time. May be there were better scrummage and line out exponents and stuff like that. But skill levels of front five not just in our country but around the world has improved tremendously,” he observed.

“I think fitness level has gone to another stratosphere you can’t even compare. But also the game has progressed in a way that it helps players as well for attacking rugby. When we played and the ball is kicked out to touch possession goes to the opposition. Now it goes to the same attacking side. Game has progressed to help attacking phases and stuff like that. In our time you could not have substitution unless you are injured so most players had to play 80 minutes of the game, whereas now you have the rolling sub advantage. You are really playing with 23 players not 15. In our time we were playing mostly with 15 players. Nowadays you go with 23 match day squad who all contribute. So you have specialized finishers, specialized starters now. Super subs who have specific skills for games,” he added.