Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Enigma of a Sri Lanka Rugby President
I don’t want to tarnish the image of the game I love by contesting, says Gunaratne
He used to hurtle himself using his hulking frame as a battering ram to grind the opposition into submission providing opportunities for his team mates to hog the limelight. He was willing to put his body on the line relishing the challenge of crumpling the toughest defenders. But he was not all brawn as he blossomed from a prop forward into a number 8 turning out for Royal, CR&FC and Sri Lanka with distinction displaying the tenacity of a heavyweight boxer especially when the chips were down.
Sri Lanka Rugby ( SLR) president Lasitha Gunaratne remains an enigmatic figure who doesn’t seem obsessed with power or craves to be in the limelight but determined to execute what he deems fit for the love of the game and not become a pawn in a political chess game. Even his detractors are wary of what goes through his mind as he disarms those who confront him with a wide grin displaying tactical nous to keep them at bay. No wonder he kept everyone on tenterhooks on whether he wanted to remain or not for another term before breaking the ice in a candid interview with the Sunday Times.
During his short term in office which was affected by the deadly Easter attacks last year, he managed to display his leadership qualities by rising above club politics and steer rugby safely to port during difficult times long before the COVID-19 effect. It was evident during interactions with him that he was genuinely committed to uplifting the welfare of the players, restore rights to the main stakeholders of the game, raising the bar when it comes to refereeing and above all ensure SLR functions as an independent body without strings being pulled from any quarter. A man of gentle demeanour which belied his tough physique, Gunaratne stood his ground when the traditions and principles of the sport were challenged displaying rare integrity for someone in the seat of power.
He reiterated on several occasions during this interview that he was willing to serve the game but not at the expense of tarnishing the image of the sport in Sri Lanka which has rich heritage and smooth transition at the helm traditionally without a contest. He is willing to step back without pulling the rug from under anyone who takes over from him but instead offered support to his successor in a magnanimous gesture. Having represented the country at the highest level, he wants to safeguard the trust and honour bestowed on him than abuse it by showing his greed to cling onto power by overstaying his welcome. His only wish is to see the unfinished business of the rights of founder clubs being restored among other proposals.
In a scathing attack on the prevalent system in the country where sports bodies are concerned only about elections when the annual general meeting (AGM) is round the corner, he said: “Even the sports ministry or anybody, when they talk about AGM, people are talking about elections. It is only one item in the agenda of the AGM. The whole system is such when there is an AGM, they are thinking of votes. There are better things you can discuss at the AGM where you can bring resolutions, constitutional amendments, etc. People are not interested to do that. The only interest is about elections.”
At the outset he clarified the suspense created regarding a contest for the SLR presidency, attributing it to a miscommunication and misunderstanding between him and deputy president Rizly Illyas.
“From day one my stance is that if there is a contest, I will not come forward. Rizly has already spoken to me and informed that he is coming forward. My stance is that I won’t contest. I don’t want to bring the game into disrepute because it has never been like that. We have worked together and he ( Rizly) has a good vision. He knows the current situation both financial and performance- wise where we (SLR) stands now. He is not an outsider. He knows how we should go forward. It is best that a person who is in the system can continue because he knows our position today,” explained Gunaratne.
“Definitely it’s a misunderstanding. Now it’s very clear. He has indicated he is coming forward. I have told from the beginning that if anyone is contesting, I am not coming forward. Not only Illyas, if anyone wants to contest they are welcome. I was only interested in continuing for a second term if I was uncontested,” he reiterated.
“Initially I was thinking of coming forward ( for a second term) because six Provincial Unions have signed and given me the mandate. Based on that I was planning to continue in March when the AGM was originally to be held in May,” said Gunaratne wh o shrugged off the understanding he had with Illyas to step down after serving for two years.
“We had an understanding to do two- year terms but as the Provincial Unions wanted me to continue, that’s why I came forward. But we didn’t have any communication because were not meeting each other since March. When I got to know that he is coming forward, I have respectfully given him to continue,” he said.
“I have done my term. In my rugby career I have been a player, administrator, ( SLR) secretary, vice president and even CEO. If any rugby body wants my support, I am willing to give. These are not things we should be fighting abo u t , ” said 5 1 - ye a r- o l d Gunaratne.
Nevertheless, he could not conceal his disappointment of not being able to continue for a second term which was truncated having begun in August 2018 and ending in March 2020 before the viral outbreak delayed the AGM now scheduled for August 29.
“There is disappointment. Why I came forward was because provincial unions had given their consent,” he reiterated.
“It was a misunderstanding. He (Rizly) did not know that they have given me a mandate. I didn’t know until I saw his manifesto that he is coming forward.”
“That is why we love this game. We fight but at the end of the day we walk out as friends. We have differences. That’s what we have to learn from. Now I feel that type of relationship is not there. Win at any cost or by hook or crook is the mantra,” he lamented.
“The important thing I learnt from rugby is how to take up defeat. What I have learnt more than winning is when I have lost matches. It is how you come out and face that situation that is important. In life or in business or anything, it may not go the way you want. But playing rugby helps you stomach defeat and fight back through hard times,” he said.
Asked why he delayed announcing the decision not to continue, he said: “I have to tell at the ( SLR) Council meeting. I wanted to inform our members in the Council which is the supreme body. I wanted to show I have got these presidents had signed and given me a mandate.”
Gunaratne wants to be keep a legacy of being above board and humbly step aside.
“I have no enemies. May be people don’t like my style. I go for matches, even to the Sports Ministry canteen to drink tea. I am a peoples’ man. I wish them to do better than all of us. It could be the change of the decade. If it doesn’t happen, we all have to get together to support. It’s not that we pull the rug from day one, waiting to for mess ups to happen. Whatever happened, whatever misunderstandings we had, we have to forget. In life we have to meet, greet, eat and drink and enjoy our life. This is what God wants. I am straight forward and I am not a pawn of anyone,” he guffawed.
He certainly has no regrets but is proud of what he has achieved during his short stint as SLR president.
“I have made cert a i n administrative decisions. I managed to change the tournament format which was there for several decades. Earlier, before the season we know who is going to be the champion. We created competition for bottom and top teams. Now the bottom sides can look forward to be Plate champions after second round because we have a Super Round. I have proposed to council to contract referees directly with the Union (SLR). We want to have six to 10 referees based on availability and quality of standard. Promote them by sending them overseas or get down trainers here,” he said.
He also managed to secure a ground exclusively for rugby at Diyagama Sports Complex.
“There was a rugby ground originally there. That has been converted to athletic tracks. I managed to convince the sports ministry and get a plot of 4 to 5 acres for rugby. My plan is to hand it over to the Army as their home ground because of maintenance issues, for which the Council agreed,” he revealed.
His message to the incoming SLR Council is to get all stakeholders involved in developing the game and getting quality people from the clubs into the system.
“We have a long history. People love this game. Get all the stakeholders involved and also get quality people into the system. Even get referees involved. Whoever comes, get them into system and work with them. If you try to sideline any stakeholder, it won’t be good for the game,” he said proudly boasting that SLR is the national association which has three representatives from the schools association in the council.