The rise of the third sector of Rugby

Can Sri Lanka University Rugby be a force to reckon with?

Inter-University Rugby Finals 2014— University of Moratuwa vs University of Peradeniya. (Picture courtesy www.thepapare.com)

The history

Sri Lanka Rugby has a long history, dating back to the days of British colonialism. The first party to introduce Rugby to Sri Lanka is Kingswood College in Kandy, with the first club, Colombo Football Club, being established on 28 June 1879.

Currently the local Rugby Arena is mainly dominated by Schools Rugby and Club Rugby which attract a huge crowd and undoubtedly Rugby has become the second most popular sport in the island (of course it is Cricket at the top).

In the early days there was another category of Rugby which was really popular in Sri Lanka and that was University Rugby. University of Colombo, University of Peradeniya and University of Moratuwa have been the giants of University Rugby in Sri Lanka and at that time Universities have produced many national players as well.

University of Colombo (fondly known as UoC Rugby) had been dominating the Inter-University Rugby Championship in the past while other Universities were consistently trying to break their dominance. University of Moratuwa and University of Peradeniya were able to break the Colombo dominance in the mid 90’s and from there on, all these three teams have been consistent performers up to date.

But unfortunately the lime light has faded away from University Rugby in the recent past and the Schools and Club Rugby has over shadowed the Uni Rugby in the country. This is mainly because the top players tend to play straight to clubs after schooling as a profession and resources being cut down from Universities that restricted rugby in higher educational institutes from growing as a main force in Sri Lanka.

The awakening

In the recent past a rise in University Rugby in Sri Lanka was noticed again with the likes of University of Moratuwa (fondly known as Mora Rugby)and University of Peradeniya (fondly known as Pera Rugby) showcasing high skill sets in the Inter-University Rugby Championship in the last 10 years in both fifteens and sevens formats of the game which surprised many officials related to Sri Lanka Rugby.

Apart from the top 3 teams, it was noticed that University of Kelaniya, University of Sri Jayawardenapura, Sabaragamuwa University, Rajarata University and University of Wayamba have invested more in their rugby in the recent years because they posed a huge threat to the top three in the Inter-University Championship in the recent past. Those are good signs for University Rugby in Sri Lanka because good competition is what makes the sport grow.

The injection of top tier coaches to the University Rugby circuit can be taken as one of the reasons for this rise and the interest in the corporate community to sponsor University Rugby teams from where they can fulfill their recruitment purposes has also become one of the main reasons for the development of this sector of Rugby. But the main factor for this emergence is undoubtedly the commitment and the dedication of the University rugby players to the game.

One such good example of the rise of University Rugby is that University of Moratuwa Rugby have been organizing an Inter-Collegiate Sevens Rugby tournament for 16 consecutive years and this has brought the private and public higher educational institutes together. The tournament was made colorful with the participation of many club and national level rugby players playing for their respective Educational Institutes and Universities. Another good example is the Colombo Open Tag Rumble organized by University of Colombo Rugby team.

Achievers Rugby team winning the Mora Sevens in 2012 after a tight game in the finals against University of Moratuwa (picture courtesy www.moraspirit.com)

The talent

Mora fly half attempting a drop goal at Inter-University Rugby Finals 2017 (picture courtesy www.moraspirit.com)

Most of the University rugby players are starting their rugby careers at the University itself. Most of them have not played any rugby at all before joining the University Rugby team. In the recent past we could see a few players who have played rugby at school playing for the Universities and the other players learning from them and playing around them, which is a good sign for the development of University Rugby in Sri Lanka.

However University rugby teams have managed to play head to head with the schools and clubs and proven that if they are properly trained and coached, they can outplay any opposition in their league.

The barriers to overcome

The play ground of University of Moratuwa

Unlike the elite schools and clubs, most of the Universities do not get the necessary facilities that is required to play the game. The nutrition of the players, the physical training, recovery sessions, rugby gear and most of the expenses need to be self funded by the teams themselves and this is where the corporate sponsorship and the Department of Physical Education play a huge role. The Inter-University Rugby Champions of 4 consecutive years (2013,2014,2015 and 2016), University of Moratuwa, does not even possess a proper rugby ground or a swimming pool but they have proved that their heart is bigger than everything. In fact, they have started playing rugby on their regular play ground at the University premises only after 1996.

The way forward

University of Moratuwa and University of Peradeniya are the most consistent performers in the Inter-University Rugby Championship in the recent past. These two teams have been meeting each other in the finals of the last seven years (Mora winning 4 and Pera winning 3) and these two teams are the current trend setters of University Rugby in Sri Lanka along with University of Colombo. And whenever these two teams play, it attracts a huge crowd to the grounds.

The University Rugby supporters at the Inter-University Rugby Finals 2017 (picture courtesy www.thepapare.com)

The future seems bright for University Rugby. They have a good crowd base and they have the skills and commitment which are two signs of a bright future. Universities should encourage these players to join a rugby club after University or while studying at University if possible and that will be a huge boost for Uni Rugby in Sri Lanka. Most of these skilled players give up on the game soon after passing out from the Universities and focus on the professional careers which is a waste of talent and skills. If they are given a proper way of managing rugby and their professional career, we can have hopes of creating world class players from Universities again.

The day that University Rugby becomes a selection pool for National Rugby is not that far away.