Despite disruption in the country, the men's and women's sides have built for the Games
How Sri Lanka have prepared for the Commonwealth Games
The reply is somewhat unexpected. As we ask Sri Lanka Rugby president Rizly Illyas if political upheaval in Sri Lanka has made Commonwealth Games sevens preparations for their men’s and women’s teams difficult, he replies: “I love this question.
“In Sri Lanka, whatever problems we have – we had the tsunami, we had the (civil) war, we had the (Easter) bombing, so many are political – sport still brings the people together. A good character example was the one day international (cricket) matches played against Australia.”
Earlier this month, a state of emergency was declared in Sri Lanka in the wake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing the country, after months of national protests and fury over an ongoing economic crisis, power cuts and fuel shortages. Images of protestors occupying the presidential palace flashed around the world.
Related: The Commonwealth Games Sevens Pools
At the cricket series mentioned previously, in Galle, there were some protests outside the ground and the players addressed the situation regularly. But cricket went on.
Illyas tells Rugby World: “The country is going through a crisis, but when you have a goal for yourself and the country like the Commonwealth Games, then it drives you. It puts a bit of fire in you.”
The union have found ways of accommodating players together when needed and facilities for the athletes has not been disrupted in the preparation window, Illyas insists. Despite any potential to make excuses, he adds, the athletes have demonstrated impressive resolve, drive and importantly availability. They are right up against it opposite elite teams and the president is realistic about the men’s and women’s chances against teams like New Zealand and England, but Illyas adds: “We go with the belief we can get under the skin of anybody.”
Since May, the teams have been training together, we are told – a task made easier for the women’s set-up with the team being selected out of the armed forces. There have been residential camps for five days at a time, and the big driver in the face of political and financial tensions in the country has been team unity.
Fiji men’s coach Ben Gollings has his commitments with the two-time Olympic champions, however the Sri Lankan rugby president sought the Englishman’s advice. They were met with some virtual, tactical help when needed and the sevens legend also told the Sri Lankans that “outbound training” would help them bond, and in turn make a difference to the rugby on the training paddock. World Rugby, sponsors and the national Olympic committee were a help to realise such excursions too, Illyas says.
Road running in teams around Colombo was part of the first “outbound” session. The next week they kicked things up a notch in Kitulgala, on the Kelani river, as players were encouraged to jump into the water or over a short waterfall clutching rugby balls, in order to promote “never giving up the ball in challenging times”. There was whitewater rafting too.
Week three meant high-altitude activities at World’s End cliff at the Horton Plains National Park. Over two days there were a range of physical activities like carrying team-mates and 6km treks, interspersed with a Q&A on team details up in the mountain conditions.
With their men in Pool A with New Zealand, England and Samoa, and their women in Pool A with New Zealand, Canada and England, that is some pretty rarefied atmosphere in rugby terms. They feel ready for the climb, their president believes.
Illyas says he will be in attendance in Coventry and Rugby World understands that he is entitled to attend to support his country but will not be attending in an official capacity as a result of an interim suspension imposed by Asia Rugby.
According to Rugby Asia’s official website, Illyas was “suspended on the 16th of June by the EXCO in line with Asia Rugby’s principles of equality, transparency, and accountability, as a consequence of investigations into a potential breach of Asia Rugby’s Code of Conduct by Mr Illyas. Due to this suspension, Mr Rizly Illyas will not be able to perform any duties, activities and responsibilities related to rugby within the jurisdiction of Asia Rugby until the pending investigation concludes.” A hearing is scheduled for 2 September 2022.
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