There is something to be said for winning in style – just ask Sri Lanka. The Brave Elephants snatched promotion to the Top 5 of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations during the early weeks of April, securing a spot alongside the region’s heavyweights as qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2015 steps up a gear in 2014.
Under the guidance of South African coach Ravin du Plessis Sri Lanka produced a stunning display to defeat Kazakhstan 49-18 in the Division I title decider, showcasing the quick, free-flowing style that they hope will become a trademark.
Du Plessis set his players a series of tough objectives for the three-match series – which also included impressive victories over Thailand and Chinese Taipei – and they delivered. The step up to the Top 5, where Rugby World Cup regulars Japan currently reign, will be a tough ask but according to their coach they have the firepower to make a mark.
“It was a privilege to work with these boys,” he said. “We focused a lot on our objectives and were very disciplined. We set ourselves a goal of scoring at least four tries per game and being well conditioned to play a brand of rugby that suits the strength of our players. If we plan meticulously and if we look after our players’ conditioning throughout the year, we can stay up there. I don’t think that would be a problem. It’s a challenge, but it’s a good one.
“We scored 17 tries in three games, and the backs probably scored 11 of them. We have speed out wide and tremendous skill. The forwards are very mobile so they can play. It was a very balanced side. We’ve got players with a real X-factor who can open up and change a game. Those are things we need to work out – how to lay a good foundation and let these individuals come into the game and do their thing.”
While Sri Lanka may not be the first name to roll off the tongue when asked for a rugby hotbed, the country has a long and rich association with the sport. The first club was formed in 1879 and an ‘All Ceylon’ selection was playing a touring New Zealand rugby league side as early as 1907.
What Du Plessis found upon taking over was a dedicated set of fans and a talented group of players drawn from the local club game. Among them are Yoshitha and Namal Rajapaksa, sons of the country’s president.
“They’re passionate,” he said. “Sri Lanka is one of the oldest rugby nations in history. They love their rugby and it’s a question of putting a good programme up, setting up good structures, making them believe in what we do. We need to coach a style that suits them.”
For Sri Lanka to be successful at the sharp end, in next season’s high-pressure qualifiers, they must build upon this year’s improvements further. Identifying the brand of rugby that brought out the best in his players was only part of the challenge for Du Plessis, who carried with him a slate of ideas influenced by the professional game.
“I’ve coached Super Rugby, so for me it’s about bringing a lot of structure to the team,” he said. “It’s running a good programme within the squad. We brought in player performance reviews, skill assessment and conditioning. We made sure that they were improving in their specific position and that we worked in units.
“It’s more structure and style of play that was lacking. I looked at tapes from the last three or four years and there was no real structure. If you look at our tapes now, it’s quite different. That is why we could put away our opposition with 40 points, scoring four tries, five tries, six tries.”
Every team in the Rugby World Cup qualifying race has a chance to make a slice of sporting history. Du Plessis is one of a number of coaches already contemplating next season’s twists and turns and believes that motivation among his players will be at a high when the first whistle blows on their Top 5 campaign.
“If that doesn’t excite players, you have to get out,” he said. “It’s very stimulating and it’s a very big challenge, a good challenge. They need to make sure that they are up to it. It’s about your life on the field and your life off the field, making sure it’s not detrimental to your performance. It’s about improving, being fresh and focused.
“To qualify for a Rugby World Cup is going to be very tough but it would be big for the country, where there are 20 million people passionate about sport. It would mean a hell of a lot for all of us involved. We have the ability to get there, it’s just about putting hard work in and going at it flat out.” (Courtesy Rugby World Cup web)