The Mad House of Sri Lanka Rugby

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Fans who troop to watch school rugby are grumbling about the high cost of attendance. They complain about the expenses, how the game is played, and the referees. However, reading social media posts, I wonder why they come at all.

Most don’t comment on how the game is and how different it can be. On the other hand, space is to comment on a match that may be twenty-five years ago. They also give the best expert views when a super league or similar game exists. For example, they are the experts on the time-wasting penalty of the Bledisloe Cup. An occasional post on an issue of school rugby has little or no analytical view.

Speaking to a veteran, he queried, “Who cares if a schoolboy comes on to the field again after a head injury assessment, and a red card decision changed after outside interference?” What does it matter if there is no system to embrace all red card discipline as applicable universally? The player is on the field in the next match, citing it as a classic non-tournament match. In the long run, this attitude is detrimental as you can seriously harm a player and get him to return next week. What does it matter if an assault on a referee is considered a minor incident?

In school rugby, there are bouquets for some areas and insinuation or condemnation for others. I asked them if they got value for money and an even contest. A cross-section of supporters, coaches and old boys opined there was the good, the bad, and the ugly in the season.

Parents (mother/father/sibling) felt the price (Rs.5,000) they had to pay to see their son play was exorbitant. The price includes the gate charge, transport costs, and the inconvenience of finding a mode of transport. Most parents disappointed were the Wesley College supporters who felt their children got the wrong end of the whistle. 

Despite the inconveniences and costs, the passion for school rugby is high. An old boy parent of a leading school lamented the stoppages that hamper the flow of rugby which mars the enjoyment. When asked about the pleasure, his wife said the latest hindrance is the time lost when the Television Match Official (TMO) is consulted. The spectators lose their enjoyment when there is a long delay until the TMO makes up his mind and the restart. 

The good and the bad are a matter of the mind. Did I ask how the performance of the players, coaches, referees and tournament organisers are valued? Yes, I did. The supporters of the unbeaten double champs, the green machine, believe that it was a journey of average to good to better and be the best. They are proud of having made it to the top twice after a six-year wait. So, why bother talking about what they can do to make rugby a game for all? Next year, the schools will have fourteen compared to the twelve now. As a result, will the competition be better, or will it get diluted?

How does Trinity feel to be lower ranked after winning four of the five games they played? How do you rate for next year when everybody did not play but played in two groups?

Wesley, the team above them, played seven games, including two super-round games they lost. In a published media report, there was a claim that Wesley was subject to issues of a wrong yellow turned to a red and a crooked throw which impacted their game. So, many say similar things. What action has anybody taken to correct a recurrence in the future? Others grumble and suffer in silence, but say the bubble will burst sooner than later.

Those in the vanguard of the school rugby comprising old boys accept as accurate that the Sri Lanka Schools Rugby Football Association has done well to finish the game. The bad is that there is no process to have a set of independent medical personnel on the field. Many areas of player welfare and on-field decisions need an assessment and guidance of rugby-qualified medical staff. Special attention and a duty of care for head injury management are required.

In an incident considered wrong, the home team medics cleared a player who staggered onto the field to be turned away by the referee who exercised his right under the laws of the game. The scene was too bad as the game turned ugly, arguing a head injury to be a tactical replacement. A Match Commissioner tried to justify a non-implement rolling substitution clause. They were not considering player welfare and a duty of care. The coach of a team asked, “What’s the problem?” Have a discussion outside and ask the referee to implement, like reversing the red. He said it could be a new domestic law and not talked of as match-fixing.

The coach said there is nothing unusual that referees make mistakes. Interpretation may be different, but these incidents should not remind us of the phrase ‘different strokes for different folks.’

The early season showed a dent in in-game performance. Coaches explained that many under sixteen players made it into the first team almost without any fifteen-a-side game experience. However, most groups pushed the game to better standards as the season progressed.

A word of praise for Isipathana players, who matured with each game to be double trophy winners whilst remaining unbeaten. Good hands, good tackling, and a decent approach to the season’s breakdown. Some did kick (punt) the ball with a purpose into space and being there to collect. Others kicked into the hands and or hoped something would happen.

 In the last match of the season, the last-minute drop goal that helped St. Peter’s beat St. Joseph’s by 25-24 saw the revival of the drop goal, which is a forgotten art.

 The most annoying, according to a supporter of the double champs, is that after such long pauses, the decision is somewhat inaccurate. They ask whether the TMO should have been consulted and taken back thirty metres. In summary, they thought the limited use of the TMO was not helpful to the game other than being a broadcast show. A tongue-in-cheek comment was that he does not say they have terrible eyesight. But that was not the only contentious decision by a man once dubbed a yellow card expert. Almost every match has over five yellow cards. A coach said that he once asked the referee why this happened. The answer was: they were told to issue cards to manage. According to him, the issue is managing or marching ten metres.

I will illustrate a couple of incidents.

Peyper Incident

Experienced South African referee Jaco Peyper was at the centre of the first incident. The South African derby between Bulls and Sharks was just under 30 minutes old when Peyper was tired of the endless verbal hostility from the two hookers. As an official with experience – he delivered a very calm lecture in which he asked them to show some respect. He reminded them of their responsibilities as role models in South Africa’s sport. “I know you’re both good players and Springboks, but please return to your values,” he said.

The Pearce Incident

Three minutes fewer had elapsed in the Gallagher Premiership clash when Pearce awarded a penalty to Exeter following their strong counter-ruck. Although the player – Vunipola – was marched back ten metres for commenting on the referee’s decision and continued to argue. The referee then advanced the mark a further ten metres.

Pearce told the Saracens’ captain: “This player has an option: if he does that again, he’s gone,” after which their No.8. was spoken to and calmed down.

The first point to make about these two incidents is their timing. Both matches were in the second quarter when the referees intervened, so the tone for the rest of the game is set.

By clearly putting down acceptable-behaviour-level marker and transferring responsibility and pressure to the players and captains, Pearce and Peyper gave themselves room for maneuvers later in the day and not been accused of pulling a yellow from the hat,

The coach said the objectives and guidelines had not been read in toto, which ended with a comment ‘English is not their first language.’

With almost every aspect of the laws and guidelines made available on the internet, spectators understanding of the game is at a high. Unless the knowledge reaches those watching through the lens, the technical support to improve the game becomes an unnecessary questionable element.

By Vimal Perera