Former England international Phil Greening is tapping into Sri Lanka’s sporting fervour to help advance rugby in the cricket-mad country, writes Ian Gilbert.
Sri Lanka’s push towards the higher reaches of world rugby will not be short of ambition, enthusiasm or support.
The Asian nation has enlisted the help of former Wasps and England hooker Phil Greening as national coach, with the first challenge being the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Division 1 tournament starting in the Philippines on April 15.
Greening’s remit ranges from the national side down to grassroots rugby and the Gloucester-born supremo is clearly relishing his latest challenge.
“They have thousands and thousands of people coming to watch,” admitted Greening, who coached at London Welsh from 2009 to 2011.
“Just the club games are supported by three to four thousand people and that just shows the sort of passion and the growth that could be adapted over there to rugby.”
The challenge of promoting rugby in a cricket-mad country may appear daunting, but Greening sees an opportunity to tap into Sri Lanka’s general enthusiasm for sport.
“Obviously cricket’s the biggest sport but I think that’s what the Rugby Union there wants to develop the sport to be even bigger – it’s so well supported and they’ve got a passion for it.”
Sri Lankan Rugby president Asanga Seneviratne recently announced that, for the first time, national players would be centrally contracted by the Union, and Greening’s top-level experience – he won 24 England caps – will be instrumental in the country’s plans for higher honours.
“They’ve got some great ambitions over there,” admitted Greening. “The new president, Asanga, he’s got some great ideas – he wants to get them up into the Sevens circuit, wants to be in the Asian Top 5 next year.
“That’s their plan and I’m more than happy to help them and spend some time over there to help develop a lower-tier nation, which I think is crucial and something the IRB really wants to do and I want to be part of that.”
Soon after his retirement from playing in 2005, Greening cut his coaching teeth with the England Sevens team, winning silver at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, and his knowledge of the abbreviated form will be put to good use in Sri Lanka.
At Delhi 2010, Sri Lanka finished without a win after being drawn in a tough pool that included England and Australia, but with Sevens featuring at the 2016 Olympics, this is another area where Sri Lanka can target international competition.
However, Greening will be concerned with every echelon of Sri Lankan rugby, not just the elite level.
“I’m looking at all of it from the schoolboy stuff to the Sevens, development pathways to setting up a national academy, looking at the national team who will play in the Asian Division 1 in April – it’s everything really.”
Sri Lanka kick off their dream of appearing in a Rugby World Cup on Sunday against Chinese Taipei at Manila’s Rizal National Stadium – the first Asian qualifier for England 2015.
Success would mean a return to the highest tier of the Asian 5 Nations, from which Sri Lanka were relegated last year in front of their home crowd after coming bottom in the Top 5 involving Japan, Hong Kong, UAE and Kazakhstan.
Once events in the Philippines are completed, Greening can begin developing other areas of Sri Lanka’s rugby vision.
“(I’ll be) looking at their school system, which is really well supported again and it’s a huge competition they have over there; looking at a Sevens tournament they’ve developed that’s going to be an invitational overseas thing.
“They’re really going hard on the rugby over there and I feel very privileged to be part of it.”