November 2, 2016, 3:01 pm
Colombo (AFP) - Sri Lanka's heady dreams of becoming an Asian rugby powerhouse have faded as match attendances dwindle and allegations of corruption -- and even murder -- sully the game's reputation on the island.
Barely two years ago, with strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse's sons on the pitch and the First Family cheering from packed-out stands, Colombo's Racecourse rugby stadium was the place to be seen in the capital.
Teams were spending big, luring players from Fiji as club owners were encouraged by Rajapakse's ambitious goal of reaching the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
But rugby has hit hard times since Rajapakse's election defeat last year, followed by corruption claims and ongoing investigations into the killing of former national captain Wasim Thajudeen, whose body was found in a burnt-out car in May 2012.
There was a lot of hype during the Rajapakse years, but little action to really make it popular outside Colombo," says senior Sri Lankan sports commentator and journalist Ranjan Paranavithana.
"A lot of money came into the game, but it didn't really get spread around and there was no real attempt to grow the sport at school level or in the provinces so it could compete with cricket."
Sri Lanka, a cricket-mad and often sweltering island which lies at the foot of India, would at first sight appear an unlikely outpost for a game that has its origins on the muddied fields of central England.
But during Rajapakse's decade in power from 2005-2015, rugby enjoyed favoured status as the sport of choice for a presidential clan which ruled the island as something akin to a family business.
His two eldest sons, Namal and Yoshitha, both captained the national team while the third, Rohitha, skippered the army side.
Whenever any of the Rajapakse offspring turned out for either the army or navy first XV at the Racecourse stadium, truckloads of military personnel were bussed in to fill the stands while the VIP boxes were also packed.
As the colonial-era horseracing venue was transformed into a swanky rugby arena, the game's governing body was tasked with ensuring Sri Lanka qualify for the 2019 World Cup in Japan, the first to be staged in Asia.
But critics say an obsession with qualification for Japan, along with the hiring of foreign players on juicy contracts, meant money that should have been pumped into the grassroots was squandered.
"We had three or four foreign players coming here but that's not development," said Dilroy Fernando, a long-time evangelist for Sri Lankan rugby who still volunteers as a referee.
"Development is about taking the game to the rural areas and talent identification, so that was totally neglected."
Although Sri Lanka's last international in May saw them beat Malaysia 33-17, they have failed to attract international opposition to Colombo since Rajapakse lost an election in January 2015.
A 132-10 defeat to Japan two years ago underlined the gulf in class between Sri Lanka and Asia's strongest teams, with most pundits classing South Korea and Hong Kong as favourites for World Cup qualification.
"All this talk of Sri Lanka making it to the Rugby World Cup was a cock and bull story," said Daminda Wijesuriya, sports editor of the island's Lankadeepa newspaper.
The packed houses at the Racecourse are a thing of the past, with only diehard supporters still turning out now the Rajapakse family has faded from view. Another club in the Rajapakses' southern fiefdom of Hambantota has also gone out of business.
When Sri Lanka play World Cup qualifiers next year, Namal Rajapakse is unlikely to be allowed to travel abroad after being arrested on money laundering charges. He is currently on bail but has had to surrender his passport.
Among the allegations is a claim that the money from a TV deal which should have netted Sri Lankan rugby more than a million dollars ended up in an account linked to the Rajapakses.
Associates of the family have also been implicated in the killing of former national captain Thajudeen, whose death was initially dismissed as a road accident until his body was exhumed for a fresh autopsy.
The autopsy found Thajudeen had been brutally murdered before his body was put inside a car and set on fire. Colombo's top police officer at the time is now in custody accused of tampering with evidence.
A spokesman for the current government has said three of Rajapakse's bodyguards are suspected of direct involvement in the killing.
There have also been widespread reports that Thajudeen had boasted of an illicit liaison with Yoshitha's girlfriend, although the Rajapakse family has steadfastly denied any link to the killing.
Even if the family is on the ropes, Sri Lanka Rugby chairman Asanga Seneviratne said the game's followers should be grateful to the Rajapakses, and insisted the future was still rosy.
"Sponsors came in, things happened and it has also continued under this government," Seneviratne told AFP. "Rugby is on a good footing and things are looking very positive."