COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 25- It's a long way from England, the cradle of rugby, but steamy, jungle-clad Sri Lanka is a little-known haven for the sport in Asia, with even school matches attracting TV audiences of millions.
In a country better known for its cricket, tea exports and bitter civil war, Sri Lanka has quietly nurtured a large playing population with an aspirational bent which makes rugby a daily feature on both the sport and society pages.
President Mahinda Rajapakse, whose three sons play — including one who is a flanker for the national team — regularly attends games with his family, putting them firmly in the media and political spotlight.
And this year, Sri Lanka broke through into the elite Asian Five Nations tournament for the first time, raising hopes of further national successes.
The annual tournament between Saint Peter’s and Saint Anthony’s College, held this month in Colombo, illustrates how rugby has gone from colonial recreation to mainstay of Sri Lankan high society.
Like most school fixtures, the event has attracted hundreds of well-heeled spectators, turning the venue into a virtual family picnic.
As women pass around boxes of sandwiches and hot dogs, men down fizzy drinks or cold beer and shout advice as the game progresses.
Dozens of corporate executives loosen their ties, roll-up shirt sleeves, and sip cold drinks, while cheering their former school.
On the sidelines, press photographers shoot smartly dressed young women.
"Rugby is hugely popular at school level. Each game attracts thousands of spectators, much more than a top club cricket match," Chandrishan Perera, a former administrator, national captain and rugby coach, told AFP.
The Bradby Shield, a two-legged annual rugby fixture played between two boys’ schools — Royal and Trinity College — regularly draws more than 18,000 spectators. Millions watch it live on television.
"Bradby Shield attracts crowds second only to a Sri Lanka cricket one-day game," said Perera.
Sri Lanka has been playing rugby union since the British colonialists first introduced it in the late 1800s. It has now evolved into a full league structure rivalling the country’s first love, cricket.
"At first rugby was played by expatriates, the planters, traders and executives, and clubs were whites-only for a long time. After the expats left, the locals continued," said Perera.
Today, there are 103,000 players in Sri Lanka, according to a recent survey, making it Asia’s second-biggest rugby-playing nation behind Japan — and ahead of giants such as Australia and New Zealand.
Support is fed by generous television exposure, with home internationals screened live and one club match shown real-time every week during the rugby season.
Rugby remains the only sport that allows foreign players at club level, and is such a priority for Sri Lanka’s rich, private schools that they regularly splash out on overseas coaches.
But for all the players, enthusiasm and mass appeal, Sri Lanka are ranked a lowly 45 in the international listings, sandwiched between the Ivory Coast and Madagascar.
Results did not come easily in their debut Asian Five Nations as the Elephants managed just one draw — against UAE — and three defeats to Hong Kong, Kazakhstan and regional giants Japan.
Lasith Gunaratne, secretary of the Sri Lanka Rugby Union, blames the team’s poor performance on lack of funding to attract and retain players after they leave school.
The International Rugby Board (IRB) estimates there are more than 48,000 teenage boys and just under 1,000 girls playing rugby in Sri Lanka.
But the local governing body has no resources to conduct regular doping tests or maintain nutrition programmes for players, key elements of the modern international game, said Gunaratne.
"Unlike schools, clubs don’t have money," Gunaratne told AFP. "Only eight top division clubs which includes the military. They don’t have money to retain players. There are few openings for school-leavers. It’s a pity."
Dilroy Fernando, a coach, IRB referee and national team player, blames successive administrations for failing to put in the structure to nurture school talent and expand the number of top clubs.
"It’s important we catch the interest while players are young, improve their school game, and hope that some of them will pursue to represent the country eventually," Fernando told AFP.
At a rugby academy run by Fernando, dozens of young boys attend Saturday training sessions, coming from mixed socio-economic backgrounds.
"That’s the good thing about this sport, we bring people from all walks of life and play as one big family," he said.
Gunaratne said there are plans to use the military — which finally quashed a bloody, decades-long separatist war in May 2009 — to train children in over 8,000 schools, after rugby was included in the national curriculum last year.
Security forces have significant manpower and infrastructure, especially in far-flung areas, after establishing bases in remote towns during their campaign to overrun the rebel-held north.
"With the war over, the military is now free to help us promote the game and unearth talent specially in the north and east, which did not have a rugby culture during the war," says Gunaratne.
And without a better club structure, Fernando believes Sevens rugby — which will feature at the 2016 Olympic Games — could be better suited for Sri Lanka to expose players to high-level training and international competition.