By Shehan Daniel
A board propped against the wall of his Sri Lanka Rugby office, in a renovated section of the building that previously housed the Sports Ministry, tells you as much about Inthisham Marikar as it does about what lies ahead for Sri Lanka Rugby in 2018.
Printed on the board is a calendar with dates highlighted in different colours, each denoting different events planned for the year.
The scarce presence of white is an indication of not only the heavy load of competitive rugby in store for the national team, but also the level of planning undertaken by Marikar with a number of training and development programmes for men and women scheduled over the year.
It is this level of planning and eye for detail that were among the skills he needed to exhibit in order to qualify with a World Rugby Level 3 Coaching Certification, becoming just the second Sri Lankan to receive that accreditation when he did so earlier this year.
Appointed as the High Performance Director of SLR almost two years ago Marikar was entrusted with developing a short-, and more importantly, long-term strategy for rugby in the country.
Being virtually the first person to hold such a position in national rugby, Marikar had no blueprint to work with, and whatever he has developed is out of his own thoughtful planning and attention to detail.
“I had to come up with a plan and that was actually part of my presentation to secure the job as well. I had to give them a short-term and a long-term plan. There was no High Performance team, coaching structure or system in place,” he said.
“(Came up with the) plan with all the experience I have had in New Zealand and my connections and learning from New Zealand, it helped to a massive extent for me to plan and put things down. I have done a basic plan where we have athletes from the age grade.”
One of the first plans he put in place was for an under 18 national team and giving them international exposure, with the impact of that move going far beyond junior rugby.
Last year, when several big names of club rugby turned down the opportunity to represent their country in the first two legs of the Asian Sevens Series, the selectors were able to call up a number of players from that junior team, who had by then graduated to Under 20 level, and their previous exposure to international rugby made it an easier transition against some of Asia’s best rugby players.
On paper, the performance of Sri Lanka’s sevens team had regressed, falling two spots in the Asian standings, from second the previous year to fourth last year, but the performances of the young players had been remarkable, and added depth to the senior team.
“This is the fruits of that (setting up programmes at junior level). We had five Under 20 players who went on that trip to Hong Kong (with the senior team for the Asian Sevens Series). That’s how it works in any country. You can’t suddenly bring them in at that level,” Marikar said.
“You need to have this growth. You need to introduce them at young levels, give them that exposure, give them that confidence, give them the training methods. I was really happy and I think I said last year our plan was this year’s Asian Games. Part of the reason to introduce youngsters and take them was with this in mind.”
Some of those youngsters had been part of Sri Lanka’s Under 18 team in 2016 that won the Under 18 Asian Sevens Championship, an unprecedented success for a junior team.
In the first leg of that tournament, Sri Lanka won the plate title, before winning the second leg – albeit with the notable absence of Asian power-houses Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea – and winning the overall title.
“One of the reasons the Under 18 (national team) started was because I pushed (for it). Actually, we need to start from Under 16 – that’s the best year to target them and start grooming them. Under 18 came to action, and we played two tournaments that year (2016).”
“We should have won both legs of that tournament, but we ended as Asian Champions, and the good thing is when you expose that level to international competition then they get that extra bit of confidence when they go to the next level, rather than now (when they are limited to domestic competitions),” he said.
With eleven tournaments planned out for the sevens team alone, Sri Lanka’s depth will be heavily tested in 2018.
The Asian Sevens Series and the Asian Games remain Sri Lanka’s most realistic chances for success, and in preparation, warm-up tournaments have been planned in Borneo and Paris, with sevens players also slated to take part in domestic sevens tournaments – the Mercantile Sevens, the Club Sevens and the Sri Lanka Super Sevens tournament.
In preparing for these tournaments however, Marikar says the national team face a practical issue, with the club season almost overlapping with national duties.
“It’s a bit of a frustration for me and the coaches and the trainers. We are not training properly – we’re training only for two weeks with the best team while teams like Hong Kong are training for about six months. So our preparation is not the best,” Marikar said.
“Teams are spending a lot of time in preparation while we’re playing 15-a-side rugby. We just finished the Clifford Cup but in April we’re at the Commonwealth Games, playing the top teams in the world. At some point we need to understand, the athletes, the schools, the clubs need to understand, that the country has to come first. We must have that system. What we wanted from the clubs was to release them one day a week during the season, a Tuesday, but barring one club, everybody else came on and off. That’s the problem we are having,” Marikar lamented, adding that plans for player management have also proved to be futile with clubs showing a disinterest towards releasing their players for national duty.
“We did a major plan where we wanted to monitor them and control their minutes of training and control their minutes of playing. These are elite athletes. You have got to look after them. They don’t get a break. They are going from club 15s, to national sevens. How do you give them a break? So we have no choice but to enforce a two or two and half week break after the Commonwealth Games. Part of the High Performance unit’s duties is to look after the players, nurture the players, give them the best of the training, and give them the best of the recovery so whatever possible we are doing that. But we need the athletes for longer. I have told SLR that we must start developing a secondary squad that we can call on if required and where we can have access on a regular basis,” he also said.
Marikar believes the best way to achieve this is for the club season should be shortened – maybe by segmenting the season round of the league tournament or by making it the knockout tournament – but with club rugby being the driving force of the country’s rugby, such moves would not make financial sense from a club perspective.
He also admits that Sri Lanka should focus a lot more on the sevens game than the 15s, where the gulf between them and Asia’s best is even bigger.
“You can see what is happening to us. We’re losing to Malaysia because they have eight Fijians. We go back to the same problem unfortunately. When I played we trained like this or a little more because there was no money involved so the clubs couldn’t control (the players like they do now).”
Marikar however sees a future in the women’s game and is encouraged by the growth of the women’s game that, while lacking the foundation of rugby in schools, has seen an increase in interest especially in the outstations.
“We’re doing an aggressive development programme where we are going to the provinces and developing rugby and doing awareness and looking at girls who are capable of continuing those programmes. We want to do a more focussed programmes in schools that are keen on playing rugby and introduce rugby and be more concentrated on skill. There were two under 18 tournaments played last year, one was held at Navy where there were about 200 under 18 girls. There was another tournament for Under 18 and 20 at Ruwanwella where 400 girls played. Girls are keen.” Marikar said.
“There’s a lot of potential in the women’s game. We did a programme in 2016 after the Asian Series in Colombo, and we developed only their skills for a period of about eight weeks and once they came to a certain level, we introduced game structures. We won the Borneo sevens, which wasn’t the biggest tournament to win, but it was the first cup we won. We played well against Japan in the Asian series and we were competing.”
Despite the challenges he faces, Marikar’s vision for Sri Lanka rugby lives on, and he hopes to see Sri Lanka one day competing in the highest levels of World Rugby.
“The greatest achievement for me (as a coach) is if I can see Sri Lanka competing in the top level in sevens or fifteens rugby. The good thing is the players are exposed to more international rugby, in that they can see the quality of rugby abroad, and there are training videos, and material on dieting and nutrition. Players are learning a lot and if someone wants to be a professional rugby player, there are a lot of resources, which I think a lot of them are doing. But why don’t they want to make playing for Sri Lanka a priority? You’re challenging yourself inside this country, why don’t you go out of the box and challenge yourself against other countries?” Marikar asks.
“For coaching I want more structured more planned coaching and a lot more detail, and for coaches to go into more micro-detail. We want to play All Blacks rugby but we can’t catch and pass properly. If we can get the basics right first -- and you can do that by going into micro-detail -- get that sorted, and if we can sort that out, once we go to the next level we can play good rugby,” Marikar said.
“Coaches need to sit with players and do video reviews. (Break down plays and) Ask them what the options are. Then they see the vision and the options come to them. A lot of work, a lot of planning, and a lot of detail, needs to go into it,” he said.
Ultimately, Marikar wants nothing more than to share his rugby knowledge.
“The level three is a lot of work, and lot of learning, but I think because of my time in New Zealand and my exposure it was easier for me to do it. The best thing is I can give more knowledge to players and coaches. I want to be the best resource for rugby I can be for Sri Lankan. I am firm believer that if you pass knowledge to the athletes you can demand the performances. If the athletes know what to do, if you have given them the option, then you can demand from them. That’s something I really want to do and that’s part of my coaching philosophy.”
There is a dire need however if Sri Lanka is to achieve international success.
“If we are to go forward we need to expose the players and the clubs and schools need to work with the SLR otherwise we will struggle internationally.”
Unlike in more professional setups Sri Lanka is yet at a primitive stage where the same set of players are used for both formats of the game, and players should be contracted to SLR bridging the unequal bargaining power that the clubs hold.
It is high time that Sri Lankan rugby thinks of a mechanism to come out of its comfort zones and face the reality of having two separate squads, for sevens and 15s rugby, as a long term measure, and within the framework of domestic rugby it is high time that the administrators figure out a mechanism whereby there would be more time allocated for national duty.