Sri Lanka relinquished their Asian Rugby Championship Division One title and had to settle for second place at the 2016 tournament that was concluded in Malaysia, as their rivals proved that other Asian teams were catching up quickly with the Tuskers.
While unable to beat the likes of Japan and Hong Kong, Sri Lanka has been viewed as the ‘best of the rest’ in the region, constantly challenging for a place in the now Asian Top Three – the pinnacle tournament for Asian rugby playing nations.
So it was no surprise that Sri Lanka were expecting to breeze through this year’s Division One Tournament and take on the bottom team of the Top Three to move into that tier. Sri Lanka got their campaign off to a good start with the win over Singapore, but an unexpected 42-17 defeat to Malaysia, who had a large number of Fijian expatriate players in the side, meant that Sri Lanka would need to win their last game against Philippines, to successfully defend the title.
They did win, but not by enough (25-21) to overtake Malaysia into top spot, though they too suffered a shock defeat, to Singapore.
Sri Lanka headed into the tournament under-prepared, as the squad was selected just two weeks before the tournament, despite being fully aware that it was scheduled for May. Also, several top players – mostly those who played for the domestic triple-title winning Kandy SC – were either not fit or had personal commitments which meant that selectors had to choose from second choice players, though a majority of those players came from the team that finished second. A lack of synergy and understanding between these players at national level may have cost Sri Lanka – who might have slid into the Division Two had they lost to Philippines – and is something that needs consideration when Sri Lanka prepare for the tournament next year.
Sri Lanka began this year’s tournament ranked 37th with all their opponents having been ranked out of the top 48. The Tuskers dropped to the 40th place, while Malaysia has moved up eight places to 52, Philippines has dropped eight places to 57 and Singapore dropped a place to 60.
Singapore were relegated back to the Division Two but their win against Malaysia, and their brave performance against Sri Lanka, is evidence that the quality of Asian rugby is on the rise. Singapore only qualified for the Division One tournament after Kazakhstan pulled out this year.