Ambitious Sri Lanka dare to dream of World Cup

Sri Lanka has launched a major campaign to develop rugby on the island with the president’s eldest son leading efforts to build a team that can qualify for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Last week more than a dozen foreign players participated in a seven-a-side tournament which was seen as a successful attempt to expose domestic players to top-class international-standard rugby.

Though Sri Lanka is famous for its cricket team, rugby has been on the island since 1879, during British colonial times, and is still played by nearly 50,000 school boys today at 100 clubs.

“We have given our players an opportunity to play alongside international stars,” Namal Rajapakse, the national team’s hooker and the son of President Mahinda Rajapakse, said during the Carlton Super 7s tournament.

“This is the kind of experience our players need. If we train properly from now on, we can qualify for the World Cup,” added Namal, 26, who is a member of parliament.

“It is all about putting everything together and we now have a plan to move forward.”

Sri Lanka’s full 15-player side, who have never made it to a World Cup, are ranked a lowly 46th in the world and missed out on a spot in the top tier of this year’s Asian Five Nations tournament, won by Japan.

The powerful Rajapakse family exert great influence in Sri Lanka, and their backing of the game is likely to be a significant factor for the sport’s future prospects.

The president is a keen fan and Namal’s younger brother Yoshitha, 24, is the national skipper.

Getting to Japan in 2019 is hugely ambitious, but one sign of hope was the thousands of fans who packed stadiums for the Carlton Super 7s games in Kandy and Colombo.

Sri Lankan columnist and historian Neil Wijeratne said the game was in decline three years ago when the sport’s administration appeared to be in disarray, but a strong resurgence was in evidence.

“There is hope now,” Wijeratne said. “We have time to get our act together (for the World Cup). What we need is a clear long-term plan.

“Our advantage is that we have a rugby history and people know the game.” (AFP)