Lack of understanding by Sri Lanka at Asian Sevens
By: Vimal Perera
After many years, reviewing the fall below 4th place in Asia requires an analytical mindset than talking about our times. We returned in 2021 to rugby restricted by COVID in 2020. One domestic and an Asia Sevens; it is time to plan and plot the path we want to go. It is essential to look at the game compared to modern sevens rugby and not what it was ‘when we played’, or what it would have been if the Kandy players played, or said that we lacked experience. What does experience mean, and is it different to seniority? Are we talking of people who have seniority, having played the same rugby over the years and inferring it as experience? So, is playing two sevens at most in a year experience?
The reality is to ask what type of rugby we played to deserve to be among the best in Asian Rugby. We took to Dubai the experience of the one domestic sevens, a variant of fifteen a side rugby with semi drifts to a sevens game. That, together with conceding penalties, losing possession, and no ball retention, was taken to Asia Rugby.
A repetition of the mistakes we made in the domestic is not good enough for the international scene. So, if we prefer to brag about the club or school, and a happy ending is what we are looking for, then forget the international stage and play the way we like to play.
The ‘Warrior’s Cup’ sevens was good to start but not adequate, as the mistakes and sins of the local circuit was taken to the Asian circuit. How often were the Sri Lankan players penalized for not being on their feet and not releasing the ball at the breakdown? How many times can you afford to get punished in sevens and expect to win a game? Once they were repeatedly penalized, the players stood near the breakdown, afraid to join and then driven off as the other side advanced. Seniority does not teach that, but the experience of more sevens and review will. The continuation of the way player is coached to play and not been penalized in the local tournament?
In sevens rugby, possession is essential, and you need the keep the ball longer than the opposition would. The three sources of possession are: scrum, lineout and restarts. How did Sri Lanka perform in these areas?
Sri Lanka, at most times, were not steady in their scrum and failed to unsettle the oppositions ball. As a result, we lost not only the opposition scrum but ours too. The times we won, we were unable to continue and go forward. Sevens may have three to six scrums a game. If you concede three and get three and lose a majority, you will not move forward on even distribution.
In sevens, you may not have a line out a specialist as there may be around three in a game. So, you need to keep it simple and focus on the lift and throw. We performed pretty well in this area and proved you need players who can win a line out through the practice of good throws and timing the jump. There are only two players of the opposition at ten meters within which your players can shift and be in a position to win the ball. Not many teams competed for the line out, and a two-person lift and throw to the front was good to win the ball. However, a one-person lift in defence can create pressure, an area where Sri Lanka can contest for more possession. We did get fairly good ball, but what happened after that to retain possession and continuity was undoing the won ball.
A primary source of possession is the restart. We failed to get possession from their kick as that contest seemed alien, or when we got our hands, it was a knock on - a tap to the opposition hands. The opposition often beat us to the ball with a short high kick, while we never had much pressure exerted when it was our turn to kick.
For our kick, a good kicker is crucial, as is the timing and skill of the restart, and the practice of kicking deep in the domestic did not help.
Recycling the ball taken in contact and secondary possession is essential. This requires the ball carrier and support player to be strong and do the core skill correctly to retain possession or steal the opposition ball. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka went into unnecessary contact, like in a fifteen-a-side game, and that was what we played in the domestic tournament.
A pundit said on social media that kicking was because players were not fit. My simple mind is asking me if you are not fit, why kick and chase faster to get there? Often the ball was kicked and gave possession away. The opposition then advanced and scored. Review the Philippines match, which was won after a scare, and check on scores again. More important is how the Philippines got close to beating us, capitalizing on mistakes, including the counter-attack and scoring by collecting the kick ahead.
As fatigue or pressure sets in when in contact or the ball on the deck becomes available, at most times players got tired, but it is not the same as not being physically fit. If we were not, how did Lanka run well over fifty meters at most times to score? If we did not, we did not have ball retention or a support player on hand.
Once the ball is in hand, you need to concentrate on the catch and pass and ball retention in open play and the breakdown. Retention of the ball is essential, and you don›t kick unless it is 100% that we will regather it or score from the kick. In reality, they kicked the ball many times, and the opposition moved to better attack territory.
Our defence was a question as most teams played the width unlike in the domestic game, and we extended the same practice and left gaps.
The tackle without relying on a teammate to assist is essential, and the ability to be back on the feet and prevent the ball carrier from getting on his feet and running away was absent. It is not about whether you tackle below the knees, but how you execute to win back possession or not let the ball carrier run away
Working off-ball is not running around like a headless chicken; it means knowing where you should be as a support player to the ball carrier or working back for width and depth.
The difference between fifteen and ‘Sevens’ is time, space and speed. Translated, it means quick ball at the breakdown, creating space and speed of attack. In the concluded Asian Sevens, did the SL team show that difference or play the way we played locally and fail to reap the benefit of getting close to scoring? The player behaviour around the breakdown and the set pieces becomes important in Sevens. More often, the players slowed down the game by holding on or going over to slow down and got penalized.