By Shehan Daniel
Once a huge influence on the rugby field as national captain, Priyantha Ekanayake has been tasked with being the same off of it, as the Chief Executive Officer of Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR).
Appointed in January to transform a sport in which Sri Lanka has always had the talent but lacked the structure and professionalism to maximise the potential, Ekanayake has hit the ground running in strengthening provincial rugby and working towards finding SLR a new permanent home.
An old boy of St. Anthony’s College Katugastota, Ekanayake had remarkable success as a player, captaining Sri Lanka for over 10 years including at four Rugby Asiad tournaments and in an interview with the he elaborated on the importance of unifying the schools and national game and stated that the country’s rugby future best lies in the sevens game.
Q What is the vision of Sri Lanka Rugby, particularly in the near future?
The vision is to grow the game and we see an opportunity, especially in the sevens segment. We see that we can go further than where we are, probably getting into the Olympics and then also win an Asian Games medal. So if we can be successful at that level then probably we can push for a Commonwealth medal. That’s the short-term vision, in terms of achievable goals.
With that in mind we have to restructure the whole (set-up). We had a development plan, but unfortunately they scrapped it and we’re trying to restart it again. It’s going to take a while but we’ve brought in General Daya Ratnayake, former Army Commander, on board and with his help we’re thinking of driving this development programme. Sri Lanka went through a difficult period during the 33-year war, and the only good thing that came out of it, as I see it, is that every major city has an Army, Navy, Air Force camp. So (part of our plan is) that we would identify those places, because the infrastructure is already there and then see how we can work with the forces to develop the game in those areas. We have nine provinces, and the (Sri Lanka Rugby) Council is represented by all these provinces and in certain provinces not much work has happened, so we want to kick-start those provinces immediately. We have 25 districts.
And we also have 19 educational zones, and what we thought was to identify one educational zone from each district and start developing that zone. (The thinking is to get) about 12 schools in one educational zone, and then have camps using the (military) facilities and also use the army personnel and take it from there. And once we do this, we can roll it out to other sports as well.
Q So implementing that is your role as CEO?
As CEO, this is one of the things I’m looking at. We also have the High Performance Unit that works with the national teams. Inthisham Marikar – we brought him in as a High Performance Director – he works on the technical aspects, and I have to work on the strategies, the sponsorships and the structures, so that we continue with whatever we start. Otherwise when we start something again it falls off the cliff and then again we try to start; so there needs to be some sort of continuity, and to bring a structure in place, so that we have a better process rather than depending on individuals. We need more professionalism and that’s my role. Right now SLR doesn’t have a proper office or a proper ground or an academy and those are my three targets, (at least) immediately. Before I came here Rohan Gunaratne was running the show, and he was doing a tremendous job. He’s got so much of information and he was doing it almost single-handedly.
We’ve been talking about an academy but it has never happened. The New Zealand government had discussions with our Prime Minister looking at how we can get their help (to develop rugby). They’ll only give us knowledge though so we need to set up the infrastructure and then see how we can drive it forward.
Q Rugby, for a long time, was competing with cricket for attention and sponsorship. Does rugby still have that problem or has it become a legitimate competitor to cricket?
Yes, and no. Internationally we have not achieved much. That’s a fact. We’ve won a few things at junior level – we won the Under 18 Asian Championships, the Under 20 Asian Championships – and in the sevens, we finished number two in Asia. But it’s not easy to sustain because all the top teams have taken a step further. They are all focusing on High Performance, most of the countries have more funding than us, they get state funding, or if you look at Hong Kong, they have contracted players through the government. They have a US $ 3 million budget just for the Sevens teams. So, it’s very difficult for us, monetarily, to compete with a lot of countries.
But having said that, if we can get our infrastructure right (Sri Lanka can compete with these countries). If you look at our pyramid, then you have the development at the lower end and the high performance at the top end, and in between you have the schools and the clubs. The elevation from the schools to the clubs and from the clubs to the national team is our biggest problem, because we don’t have a provincial system. We also don’t have enough clubs, but (at the same time) we don’t have enough quality players coming through the system.
We need to set up the structure and need to bring more and more people, and that can only be done by identifying talent at Under 16 level and bringing them in through the system.
People ask why we can’t be better than this – the issue is we don’t get much support from World Rugby. We get very little and that’s mostly for development, not for the provinces. It’s to do development programmes – be it development of referees, development of coaches and also GIR (Getting-into-rugby) programmes. Getting people interested in rugby and keeping them interested has to be done by us, and at the moment we’re trying to get all these things together, and then see how we can market ourselves.
On the flipside of it, we haven’t done enough GIR programmes since last April to now, so our funding was cut. But fortunately for us the last two, two and a half months we’ve done over 170 GIR projects which are more than Asian (countries) put together.
We were fortunate to also have had the support of Sirasa TV because of their Platinum Awards, which gave us the platform to visit all these schools. Those projects are like a smell test – we do the projects and then identify where the potential is.
Also women’s rugby is the fastest growing sport in the world, and we have a lot of emphasis on women’s rugby. I also think there is a lot of scope for women’s rugby, and we’ve been given a clear direction by World Rugby that 40 per cent of our development has to come from women’s rugby. We have to emphasise on that. We have a separate person looking after the women’s game, and we have a directive from World Rugby that 40 per cent of our of development work has to be done in women’s rugby. We’re looking at introducing it to more schools, and start with tag rugby, so that we don’t need the entire grounds and then we can gradually introduce them to rugby.
Q Last year SLR President Asanga Seneviratne spoke of forming a joint committee with the Sri Lanka Schools Rugby Football Association (SLSRFA) to develop a common strategy for rugby that would start at school level. How much progress has been made with that?
There was friction between Sri Lanka Rugby and Sri Lanka Schools Rugby Football Association when we initially tried to form a joint committee but now things are more or less okay. Lot of people say no matter how much we try the schools (association) won’t cooperate, but having all of us – like CEOs and High Performance Managers – is of no use if we are not going to handle schools rugby as well. National rugby is taken care of but when it comes to development it starts with schools. What we have to do is somehow find a mechanism to work with the schools association – not take over, but to work with them. We have the knowledge and they have the talent. If you look at it, the value in local sport is school rugby, which has a larger attraction than club cricket and rugby. We’re so used to working in isolation we need to try and bring everyone together.
With our development programmes we’re going into the schools now and we now have a footing. We’re working with the Education Ministry, and the secretary Sunil Hettiarachchi has been very helpful. The Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera has also been excellent and has supported us in every way.
Q Sri Lanka has struggled in the Asian Rugby Championships, falling out of the top tier and finding it difficult to even win the second tier - the Division I tournament. Is it fair to say there has been a decline in Sri Lankan rugby at international level?
Being a former player who is now in administration, it is a difficult question to answer, because I look at it differently. I think the professional approach didn’t work for us really. If you look at a country like New Zealand, they are much more educated and they are guided from the school system and are brought up, because of this, they get a lot of coaching even before they get to the provincial level or club level. So they understand the importance of the game, and that they have to play hard to get to the top level.
When they get there they have scouts and agents who help them get funding, contracts and money. Our players don’t have that knowledge, so they just play for money and when the money comes the motivation is lost. It’s not the case with everybody but it happens at the highest level. It is difficult for us as an organisation because we don’t control the players. Players are controlled by the clubs, who pay them and we don’t pay anything. Until we start paying the players and controlling them, it is difficult. At the end of the day, the clubs are like their parents, and we’re like employers. They go back and just do what has been told by their parents. It is a difficult situation for us with the national rugby. I would say yes, we have declined in the XV-a-side game, but the 7s I think we have taken a huge step forward. I have to say though, having watched the XVs team at the recent Asian Championships, they were very brave, they tackled well, they tackled the foreigners. I think we played reasonably well considering we had only three weeks to train, and then some of the top players were injured. We also lost Richard Dharmapala and Dhanushka Ranjan for that final match (against Malaysia) due to suspension.
The team played beyond our expectations, and credit to the coaching staff for that. I think Inthi did a fabulous job, working with Peter (Woods) and Fereti (Verebula) – the coaches did fairly well because we could see the players are enjoying it a bit more and there is more structure and we have a better plan. I must also say Sajith Jayalal of the National Institute of Sports Science supported us and worked with our trainer Nic Groube, sharing knowledge and helping the players.
We need to find a mechanism where 7s players can focus on 7s, but we can’t do that because it is only the clubs that look after them and we can’t take them out completely. If you look at Hong Kong all the 7s players are contracted and they only play 7s. That’s our biggest challenge. If we can market ourselves and get a bit more funding then we can do a bit more on that side. Centrally contracting players is our future plan, it’s just that we haven’t had funding. We’re doing it at a small level at the moment, but we need to improve that.
Q Why do you think it is difficult for Sri Lanka to beat teams like Japan and Hong Kong or even South Korea?
I think we can beat South Korea, at XVs level even. The biggest issue is we don’t play at the highest level. Our competition is not strong enough – We don’t have a provincial system. Most of the good clubs are only in Colombo. We don’t capture most of the players at school level, and we lose most of them. If we can look at contracting the players at 16 and at 18, we can bring them into the academies and develop them. Sri Lankans I find sometimes, mature late. If you can do that, then you see the talent before they leave the country. They understand that they have an opportunity to play for Sri Lanka.
Also I think there are more universities that are coming up in the country and we are now trying to introduce the game into international schools and also make universities’ tournaments more competitive.
Q Will Sri Lanka also look at incorporating foreign players into the national team, like we’ve seen some Asian countries do?
In my opinion, yes. We need to have expats, no question. We have to develop a system, especially considering that World Rugby is changing the regulations for eligibility for foreign players. We need to have expats, not just for the benefit of the national team, but also for club players. I played at a time when we had some really good foreigners in our domestic league and that helped us dominate the Asian game because of the experience of playing against these Fijians.
We were confident when it came to those international tournaments, because sometimes we were playing against better players at club level than national level. We’re going to come up with a plan this year, and seek the approval of the council whether we should play foreigners or not.
Q Is increasing the number of clubs, given the increasing number of players, and implementing a tiered system something that SLR is considering?
We don’t have the required clubs to do that (a structured tournament with promotion and relegation system). In the next three years we have to get at least two more clubs playing and we’re having discussions about that. But we also have to consider that there are teams in the system that are struggling, so the biggest challenge right now is to keep the clubs that are playing. One option (for new clubs) is old boys, because the old boys culture is very strong in this country, and also – for some reason it has not happened so far – Kandy should have another club.
There is so much talent there, and even if Kandy takes all the good talent, there are still enough players to go around. We need to ensure that if we start something, that they have the infrastructure, the players, and the knowledge.