Rugby uncovers daughter of the East | Sunday Observer

Rugby uncovers daughter of the East

18 April, 2021
School children in Batticaloa come together at a maiden rugby camp
School children in Batticaloa come together at a maiden rugby camp

In a dramatic turn of events, what pompous Sri Lanka Cricket officials have failed to do, rugby has succeeded by making an invasion of the country’s eastern province that its keepers contend has given the sport a new horizon at a time when it is being written off as a dead game for more than a year.

What has made Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) go over the moon is that it had discovered a brand new ambassador in a former national women’s cricket team member Ida Nobert Johnson, a native of Batticaloa and a true daughter of the east.

Sri Lanka women’s cricketer Ida Nobert Johnson now turned rugby messiah

A onetime fast bowler, the dusky Johnson was a member of the Sri Lanka women’s team at the T20 World Cup qualifier in 2013 and toured South Africa and has now given her word to rugby that she will do everything within her image and scope to promote one of the world’s fastest growing sports among girls.

“It was a very interesting experience for me. I enjoyed the classroom sessions and then the opportunity to practice the skills that gave me the confidence. I’m excited to introduce rugby to girls schools in the near future,” Johnson declared.

Her conversion from cricket to rugby took place when officials of Sri Lanka Rugby with the blessings of the Ministries of Sports and Education made a tour of Batticaloa last week looking for new followers at a time the game suffered a crippling blow when internal politics moved in to stifle the inter-club Sevens.

“I saw it in the eyes of the children who came to learn rugby. It was fire power,” said Sri Lanka Rugby chief Rizly Illyas. “This girl (Johnson) was a big find for us and we want her to be a leader, a coach and educator”.

Illyas said he felt being at home at the other end of the country that he described as “neglected and unattached,” from the rest.

“Sport unites a country and rugby can play a major part in that process to connect people. This is the platform,” said Illyas who last month saw his plans for a re-start of rugby sabotaged by club and commercial politics just days before the annual inter club Sevens in Colombo.

It caused frustration and hurt in the ranks of players and their followers who were the hardest hit when the tournament was cancelled.

But in Batticaloa, scarred by a 30-year old civil war, more than 150 boys and girls from as many as 20 schools were caught with one fling of the dice as rugby officials believe they have unearthed a whole new world by-passed by many.

The hunt for new rugby converts also raised curiosity among educationists and parents of the budding rugby players in a part of the country that has been adversely left to fend for itself.

But seeing the potential that lies in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka Rugby is hoping that it can entice and sustain new commercial partners in a region that they say has shown a desire for social change through sport.

Not only does Sri Lanka Rugby contend it has found a fertile ground in the east of the country, but also sees the potential for new commercial godfathers to enter the scene given the region’s resources for agriculture, fisheries and leisure.

Illyas has a reliable and loyal commercial partner in a shipping and freight forwarding multinational company known as Expolanka Freight Logistics (EFL) that funds women’s rugby.

Probably the first head of a major sports association to patronize Batticaloa on a promotion mission, Illyas claimed they could start a junior rugby event within the next three months having received assurances from one of the region’s most influential figures, former chief minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan now the Co-Chairman of the Batticaloa District Development Committee and Dr Chandrakantha Mahendranathan Ammani, the incumbent president of the Sports Association of the University Grants Commission.