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Blue & Gold magic: the Champion Royal XV of ’78

RUGBY HITS OF THE ’70S

Blue & Gold magic: the Champion Royal XV of ’78

By Sujith Silva

The 1970s was a remarkable decade for Royal rugby. In this period, the Reid Avenue college managed to revive its fortunes against traditional hill-country opponent, Trinity College in the annual Bradby Shield. An encounter, until then much enjoyed by the Trinitians with a higher winning percentage (16 wins against nine wins from 25 encounters between the period of 1945-1970).

Royal not only turned the tables, especially after the mid-‘70s but they produced some champion and unbeaten sides, with some of the finest players who went on to represent Sri Lanka and also heading blue-chip companies, making their alma mater proud.

Rohantha Pieris

I had the pleasure of meeting up with legendary Royal and Sri Lanka ace sprinter, ruggerite and a mentor to many Royalists (to date, at the spritely age of 90 years) Summa Navaratnam alongside with his able student, Rohantha Peiris, former Royal College First XV Captain (1978) who later went on to lead CR & FC and then represent Sri Lanka. Summa, who we featured in our third issue as he celebrated his 90th birthday, still continue to coach young Royalists through his Rugby Academy and Rohantha, who was the chief guest at the first leg of Bradby this year, is still an integral part of Royal rugby. We met at the Royal Sports Complex and started the journey down memory lane – reminiscing “good ole” rugby and life.

Summa first picked his best side of the 1970s: “For me the best season was 1976. Under Manik Weerakumar, we managed to produce an unbeaten champion side. They had the flair, the skills and the commitment. It was so nice to watch them play, fast and open rugby. Likewise, training them was an experience. I had Malik Samarawickrema as the assistant. He came up with tactics and I did the drills. Unlike these days, we did it not as a profession but purely for the passion for the game and college. We had stiff opposition too like Trinity, S. Thomas’, St Peter’s and even Isipathana played really good rugby.”

Summa Navaratnam was the coach of Royal College from 1973 to ‘79 and before his tenure, it was another legend who was at the helm of Royal rugby, and that was the late Mahesh Rodrigo (from 1970 to 1972).

Royal Rugby 1978-1980 Reunion 2003

Summa continued: “Malik did all the planning behind the scenes and he came up with strategies for each game. I would come to the grounds and get on with fitness routines and then we would do the drills. We perfected the ploys, not just keeping the ball but running, passing and kicking.”

 

For Rohantha, a hard-running centre-three-quarter it was a time for mastering skills under the tutelage of Summa and Malik. Rohantha was in the First XV squad since 1975 and played through ‘76 and ‘77 before captaining in 1978. Rohantha reminisces: “Weerakumar was such a fabulous captain. Always talking to the team. Cool and calm and he never gets excited. I learnt lot from him. I was the baby of the side (‘76) and at times you get excited with the sheer prospects of facing some strong opponents and in front of large crowds. With the seniors around and with their encouragements and support I managed to settle in well. At the same time, it was our (as freshers) responsibility to protect the senior players as they are targeted by opposing teams. So we gave our best to the team.”

 

Royal’s third-row combination of Ajit Gunewardene, Saman Jayasinghe and Ashoka Siriwardena were regarded as the best among the schools in ‘76. Also, Royal College dominated the scrums and lines-out with a much heavier and taller set of forwards such as Weerakumar, Liyakat Ali, Charith, Seyyed, Anudhaththa and Mayan. The threes combination was lighting fast. With Ching feeding from the base, the backline had Skandha, Rohantha, Sukumar, Senadi, Errol, Shehan, Sheik, and Hosney.
Rohantha spoke with much gratitude about the grooming he received from Weerakumar and the rest of the seniors. ‘Weerakumar would walk up to you and give you advice, even when I was at fault he would have a word of encouragement. We looked up to players like Ajit Gunewardene, Ashoka Siriwardena, Skandha and Sukumar who were so supportive.”

Summa added: “In those days, coaches were not allowed on to the field, not even on the bench or during breaks. We sat and planned with the team before a game and then allowed the captains to take decisions in the middle of the field. We got to follow the game from the pavilion. Unlike these days, where captains and players look for directions from coach for every decision.” Rohantha chipped in, “That responsibility helped us, helped the game to flow. Whether right or wrong, the captain had to take decisions in split seconds. So we rallied around the captain, we followed him and became responsible and these on field learnings, and especially what I learnt from Weerakumar helped me much later in my life as I went on to lead CR & FC (in 1984).”

 

1976 Royal

Summa recalled the 1976 season: “I remember the Bradby that year – we won the first leg quite comfortably in Colombo (36-0) and Trinity got Kavan Rambukwella, who returned from Japan, to coach the side for the second leg, replacing Bertie Dias. I knew Kavan well and his usual tactics would be to target the opposing fly-half; put pressure, give some hard tackles and take him out of the equation. I told Skandha Fernando who was our fly-half to pass the ball no sooner he got it in his hand and put his arms up and shout ‘No ball, no ball!’ This way he could avoid being tackled and the Trinitians had to chase the ball down the line. He did this during the entire first half and in the second half he started kicking and running. By then the Trinitians had given up on him.”

Royal won the second leg in Kandy, 25-6, and Rohantha scored a couple of tries. It was a record aggregate for both legs in the series (61-6) which stood strong till 2002 when Zulki Hamid’s team bettered it for Royal with a thumping 83–0 aggregate (44-0 and 39-0). In ’76 Royal beat all their opponents by convincing margins, but were held to a draw by Stefan D’ Silva’s Thomians who also retained the Michael Gunaratne trophy. S. Thomas’ were coached by Quintin Israel and the side comprised Michael Jayasekera who earlier crossed over from St. Peter’s (in 1974), P.L Munasinghe, Shane Pinder, and Rienzie Fernando. Apart from this drawn game, the Royalists remained unbeaten that season and were crowned unofficial champions.

 

From ‘76’ to ‘77

After retaining the Bradby for two consecutive years, Royal stepped into 1977 under Seyyed Hashim, with ace flanker Ajit Gunewardene as his deputy along with nine coloursmen on board. This side also included Susantha Ratnayake, a double coloursman for cricket and rugby from Trinity College (represented the 1975 Trinity First XI under Rohan Perera and First XV under Rohan Sourjah). Incidentally, Ratnayake is the current chairman of John Keells Group (JKH) with Ajit Gunewardene being his deputy, and the latter is tipped to be the successor for Susantha at the helm of this Sri Lankan blue-chip conglomerate. Susantha took over from Ken Balendra, who also played for Royal College First XV from 1958 to ’60, as chairman of John Keells Holdings PLC.

The Royalists were tipped to be the favourites with their unbeaten run in 1976. However, the season was a mixed bag of success. The Royalists were held to an 8-all draw by Angelo Wickremaratne’s Peterites before the Bradby. Royal lost to S. Thomas’ led by Pat Jacob (3-7) as Thomians retained the Michael Gunaratne trophy for the third consecutive year and then lost the Bradby to Trinity who went on to remain unbeaten under Lion Ravi Balasuriya. The Bradby first leg at Bogambara is well remembered for a somewhat controversial incident when a mock whistle was blown by a spectator, bringing the game to a halt, and amidst the chaos Raba Gunasekera scored a try under the post unopposed off a move initiated by Ajit Gunewardene, with Susantha Ratnayake converting it. However, Trinity went on to win the encounter 12-6 with tries coming off Kemel Deen and Janaka Kiridena. Both tries being converted by Ravi Balasuriya. Trinity had a narrow escape a week later when they ended the unbeaten run of the Peterites, winning 9-7. Royal College lost the second leg in Colombo at Longdon Place, 4-10, with Raba Gunasekera scoring a try for Royal and Y.C. Ching and Mohan Bibile scoring tries for Trinity; the last try being converted by Janaka Kiridena.

Rohantha recalls: “We had a good side in ’77, with at least five senior players from the ‘76 side were in the starting fifteen. However, we lost to Trinity in both legs and then lost to S. Thomas’ and drew with St Peter’s too. Looking back, we could’ve done better and it was not a good season for us.”

 

Magical ‘78

Royal College Rugby 1st XV 1978

It was Rohantha’s turn to lead Royal College in 1978. “When I took over captaincy, I had only four coloursmen in the side and had 11 freshers. None gave us any hope as we lost the Bradby in ‘77, we couldn’t perform well either. We had to build the team from scratch and we did a lot to groom the younger players. I remember that year, Trinity had 12 senior players in their side led by Janaka Kiridena. My deputy Dil Peiris, Raba Gunasekera and Iqbal Hassan were the key players and Sujantha Kumar came in as scrum-half. For me, the pick of the freshers were Wimal Epaarachchi. He was a soccer player, a tough guy. We got him into rugger. He picked up the game fast and soon became a star. He started as a full-back but also played as a wing three. He later went on to represent CR & FC and captained the club (1986) and also represented Sri Lanka.

From this young side Raba Gunasekera went on to captain Royal in 1979, followed by Sujantha Kumar in 1980.

Rohantha continued: The forwards were Padmin, Dil Peiris, Iqbal Hassan in the front row Seyyed (younger brother of ‘77’ captain Seyyed Hashim) and Raheel were the second row with Senarath and Jainudeen who was one of our third row came in as change, Vipula Dharmadasa, Jainudeen and Gihan Nanayakkara  were the third row. Sujantha was the scrum-half and either Lanil or I used to occupy the stand-off position. We also had Asantha de Mel who came to Royal for cricket and we took him for rugger too. He was good and he played as a centre. The rest of the three-quarters were Raba, Saldeen, Epaarachchi, Charith and Lalith.”

Summa recalls: “I remember when Asantha came in for training, I got him to tackle all the players as he was shamming. Then he lost his fear and started tackling everyone during practices. I also must say, Malik knew all the players well. He planned and then trained players for each position.”

Rohantha added: “Malik spent lot of time in planning at the beginning of the season. It was Summa who took us through the drills. Malik used to come and blast us when he spotted our mistakes but at the same time shared lot of knowledge while encouraging us. Once the matches commenced he spent lot of time with us. He analysed our opponents, he knew their strengths and weaknesses. We knew, every time he came and talked to us, that he would share something new. A new strategy, a new ploy. He used to say, ‘Play to your strength and capitalise on your opponent’s weaknesses’. He was a very inspirational coach.”

Talking about the pressure of captaincy, Rohantha said: “I captained college teams at under-15 and under-17 levels. I knew, and I was determined, that though we were a fresh side and relatively inexperienced that we could do well as we had the talent and skills to beat any side. I was really lucky to be under Malik and Summa, for three years. They groomed me and taught me. We had a good understanding, which gave me enough confidence to take decisions in the middle.

“In fact, once the game started, both would go missing – they are in the pavilion and they would talk to us only after the match.” Summa adds: “Unlike these days, coaches don’t get involved once a game has started. They have to sit inside the pavilion.” Rohantha added “I remember, Summa praying when we were playing, and sometimes he would run to St Anthony’s Church to pray and return just before the game was over.”

Royal began 1978 season with two big wins. First, they downed Ananda College, Colombo, 66-0, and then Vidyartha College, 76–0, in Kandy. Royal then met the Peterites at Bambalapitiya and won the game 12-3. With Rohantha Peiris, Susantha Ratnayake and Iqbal Hassen  scoring.

Their next opponent was S. Thomas’ who earlier lost to Trinity and the first-ever Canon S. De Saram Shield by 7-26 at Bogambara.

 

Tough Royal side take on S. Thomas’ today
(The Ceylon Daily News, 23rd June 1978)
Royalists led by centre Rohantha Peiris possess a splendid and fast three quarters and a set of forwards that can well turn the game in their favour.
The Thomians were unbeaten till last week when Trinitians tarnished their record with an easy win. 

 

6 all at Havelocks (The Ceylon Daily News 23rd June 1978)
It was case of being so near and yet so far on Friday at Havelocks Park when S. Thomas’ (Mt. Lavinia) retained the Gunaratne Trophy for the fourth consecutive year by holding Royal to a 6 all draw.
The Thomians played at their best and two minutes from half time winger Umesh Idippili broke through the Royal defence for Christopher Thambipillai to score. Supramanium converted as S.Thomas’ were sitting pretty at breather 6-0. 
Twelve minutes to time, Royal achieved the break which they badly needed. Skipper Rohantha Pieris scored under the posts after Royal won the possession of the ball from a five yard scrum. Asantha De Mel put the finishing touches with an easy conversion to bring the scores level 6 all. 

Rohantha recalls: “It was a tough game against S. Thomas’. We drew with them in ‘76 and lost in ‘77. My good friend Shane Pinder was Thomian captain in ‘78. They were the better side but we managed to hold them to a draw. However, at the end of the season both teams toured Thailand to take part in an Asian Schools Tournament, and we met again in the semi-finals and we managed to beat them convincingly.”

 

BRADBY SHILED RUGBY
Titanic battle on Saturday for rugger Blue Ribbon (The Ceylon Daily News, 29th June 1978)
Led by tireless Janaka Kiridena a flank forward, Trinity with their run and pass attitude towards the attacking game should come on top. The weather too is ideal for this type of game and they have a better and faster back division.
The Trinity forwards have given a fine performance this season. They are fast on the loose and also help the three quarters in attack as well. Ravi Ratnayake, though on the slow side Kiridena himself and Ravi Balasuriya will have a tough time on their hands in the lineouts to counter Royal’s Hashim and Jainudeen and possession will play a vital role in victory. The scrums too, will be closely contested with Alagaratnam (Trinity) and Dil Peiris (Royal) showing good form throughout the season.
Royal on the other hand has played extremely well this season. Their back division has a set of fast runners in Susantha Ratnayake, skipper Rohantha Peiris and Asantha De Mel but they tend to run across the field too much and also kicking far too many times.
It has been Royal’s forwards that have shown great performance this season. They are like terriers in the loose with Hassen, Jainudeen, Hashim, Fernando, Dil Peiris and Darmadasa outstanding.

 

 

 

ROYAL VERSUS TRINITY – BRADBY SHILED ENCOUNTER

Both teams unbeaten, but Trinity have the edge (The Ceylon Daily News, 1st July 1978)

Trinity and Royal are both unbeaten this season, but where the Trinitians have won all five matches including that against S. Thomas’, Royal have won four matches and drawn their game against the Thomians. Thus going on performance alone, Trinitians are the favourites.
According to coach Mr. Maurice Perera, Trinity will be without one of their start players – Ravi Balasuriya – who is away in India and three other regular players due to injuries. However, scrum half Jan Tissera is back in the team and they are confident of winning todays match.

On Bradby’s first leg at Longdon Place, Rohantha commented: “Trinity were the favourites under Kiridena, with 12 coloursmen including ‘77 captain Ravi Balasuriya in the side and we were the underdogs. On the eve of the Bradby, we were anxious, stressed and pumped up, dreaming of glory, but most of all proud of the Blue and Gold jersey we wore. Expectations were always high in all quarters when it came to the Bradby. Especially in 1978, because we had surrendered the shield to Trinity the previous year, and there was pressure to bring it back. The first leg was a well-fought game; both teams countering each other’s ploys. We missed some scoring opportunities. I think being underdogs helped us. Junna and Seyyed did a wonderful job. Iqbal Hassen, the work horse, did his usual duty upfront and Sujan kept on feeding us with clean ball. I remember for Trinity, Kemal Deen, Tissera brothers Jan and Andre, Lalin Sourjah, Kiridena and Tikiri Ellepola played really well.

Bradby 1978 - team introduction to HE J.R.Jayawardena

BRADBY SHILED – FIRST LEG
Hard fought game ends in a scoreless draw

(The Ceylon Daily News, 3rd July 1978)

It was a game that never reached expectations. The normally trustful Trinity back division just could not make any attacking moves as the Royal forwards and three were keeping a close watch on their opposite numbers.
Even such swift runners Kamal Deen and Lalin Sourjah both centers found it difficult to go with the ball. To add to their worries, fly-half Andre Tissera was rarely given clean passes from the base of the scrum by his younger brother Jan.
Trinity’s forwards really missed the service of last year’s skipper and superb No.08 Ravi Balasuriya who is away in India.
In the scrums and loose mauls Royalists outplayed the Trinitians. Royal gave a splendid account of themselves as underdogs on Saturday. They pulled every trick in the bag to rattle Trinity and rattle they did, but just could not penetrate Trinity’s solid defence.
Skipper Rohantha Peiris and Asantha De Mel made some fine breaks. They could have scored in two occasions but bad handling and ‘lobbed’ passes put paid to their chances. Among the forwards Hassen, Dil Peiris, Jainudeen and Perera played extremely well.

Red-hot rugby at Kandy today

(The Ceylon Daily News, 15th July 1978)

Red hot rugby is expected today at Kandy where Trinity play host to Royal in their second leg confrontation for the Bradby shield at the Bogambara Stadium today at 5.00p.m.
The first leg of this encounter ended in a draw with neither side scoring. Thus fans look forward to today’s game to see which side will make it and who remains unbeaten in this season’s schools rugby.

“We came with lot of confidence for the second leg. Lalin scored first for Trinity and then we equalised and during the last stage of the game we scored and managed to beat Trinity, 8-4, and won the Bradby. We frustrated them by countering all their moves and kept up the pressure and they cracked. That win was my most memorable as we won back the Bradby. In fact, we went on to win the Bradby for three consecutive years – 1978-1980.”

In the second leg, for Trinity Lalin Sourjah scored first after a 40-yard dash and then scores were equalised by a try through Royal’s Sujantha Kumar. Royal sealed the game with a try from Saldin during the last 10 minutes.

“We ended the ‘78 season unbeaten. It was a record-breaking year as we also won the Philip Bultjens Trophy by beating Isipathana in the Schools 7s finals,” Rohantha said.

The Royalists toured Thailand and took part in the Asian International Championship in Bangkok for the first time. They emerged runners-up after beating the Thomians in the semi-finals.

Royal wins the fierce Bradby shield battle

(The Ceylon Daily News, 17th July 1978)

Royal took back the Bradby Shield defeating Trinity by 8 points to 4 in a fierce and rousing battle which gripped the capacity crowd at Bogambara on Saturday in suspense throughout.
When referee Barsenbach blew the final whistle, Royal’s outbreak of joy was understandable. A happy mass of humanity spilled down the terraces waving Blue and Gold flags crazily to engulf their 15 heroes and chair them to take what has become school rugby’s most prestigious prize. 
Royal fought through the despairing experience which comes from conceding the first score. So, determined were Royal that they equalized while Trinity’s euphoria was still visible and then launched a bitter counter-offensive to finally snatch the lead and the shield in the final 10 minutes. 

Rohantha added: “Soon after the season we played against the touring English schools rugby teams. One was Dulwich College from London and they played and won against Trinity, S. Thomas’ and Isipathana before they met us. After a tense and exciting game, we managed to beat them 4-0. Then the SLRFU picked a Sri Lanka Combined Schools team to play against touring Loughbourgh School, England, and I was appointed as captain. We won, and the team had nine Royalists.”

The nine Royalists were (from 1978 Royal First XV): Rohantha Peiris, Dil Peiris, Iqbal Hassen, Rahim Junaideen, Seyyed Raheel, Raba Gunasekera, Sujathakumar, Haroon Musafer and Eparachchi.

Rohantha with Summa

“That 1978 Royal First XV can be labelled as one of the best as after the season 12 players played club rugby and from that seven players went on to play for Sri Lanka and then four players captained Clubs.  Epaarachchi and I captained CR & FC and then Sujan and Haroon went on to lead CH & FC. Then, from this team there were national level contributions to rugby, with Vipula Darmadasa becoming a well-known referee and gaining selection in the Asian panel, Iqbal Hassen was involved with SLRFU for a long time and went all the way up to becoming a vice-president. I and Iqbal also served as national rugby selectors,” Rohantha enthused.

“All credit to our lovable coach Summa, who was responsible for grooming us, and Malik who was our strategist. Masters-in-charge during our time were Mr Abu Hanifa and Mr Weerasinghe. We are grateful to them for tolerating our waywardness with unbelievable patience and understanding.”

Rohantha went on to play for CR & FC and captained the club in 1984. He also represented Sri Lanka in both fifteens and sevens formats. His finest moment in rugby was playing in the Sri Lanka 7s team at the Hong Kong 7s in 1984. Sri Lanka, under Hisham Abdeen, clinched the Bowl Championship, which is to date the country’s best performance in international rugby. The side comprised Hisham Abdeen, Saman Jayasinghe, Chula Darmadasa, CP Abeygoonewardena, Rohantha Peiris, Len de Silva, Chandrishan Perera, Hubert Rayen and Nalin Silva. The team was to be coached by Summa Navaratnam but as he went overseas Jeff Ratnam took over the role as coach.

 

Rohantha has two brothers, Nilhan and Premraj, both Royalists who played for Royal College First XV, and his father Dante Peiris represented Royal College in athletics in the 1940s. Rohantha is Managing Director of Ace Cargo (Pvt) Ltd and he has been with the Aitken Spence Group since 1979, that’s 37 years of loyalty and dedication to a single employer. He is married to Salika Peiris (John Keells Group) and has a daughter (Ayanthi), who is now domiciled in the US, and a son (Asvin), who also played rugger for college up to under-18, and who is studying in the US. Rohantha also is a proud grandfather and he says: “I’ve been telling my daughter to bring him (grandson) down and if so, I will get him to Royal College and would love to see him play rugby.”

The 1978 team and the subsequent teams under Raba Gunasekera (‘79) and Sujantha Kumar (‘80) managed to bring glory to Royal as they retained the Bradby for the first time for three consecutive years. They had a grand reunion in 2003 to celebrate 25 years of their vintage rugby at Reid Avenue. One member of the ‘78 champion side, a close associate of Rohantha & Co, Raba Gunasekera, who also excelled and won College colours in athletics and rowing made a trip for the celebrations from the US. Little did they know it was Raba’s final trip to scrum down with his mates as he passed away soon after the celebration in Sri Lanka. Rohantha and the team rallied around and with Raba’s family they set up a scholarship fund in memory of Raba at Royal College. Now they are providing four scholarships annually to deserving sportsmen at Royal College.

Rohantha said: “We were really shocked and saddened by Raba’s demise. We felt the best way to keep his spirit alive was to set up a fund for his memory and support a deserving athlete at college. We got support from all over and now we provide four scholarship.”

Looking ahead, on schools rugby, Rohantha had this to say: “Schools put in lot of effort. Money, time and resources spent on schools rugby is so big now the game had evolved to an unprecedented level. It has been commercialised but at the same time we need to retain the values of the game and as a school. Players need to know there’s so much that goes in and they should do their duty. Parents and old boys need to realise this and should know their roles and the boundaries. Not to get carried away but to understand and support the boys to play the game. This is a sport and we should uphold the values.”

Talking about success, the teams’ and his, Rohantha said: “It’s about preparations and commitment. As an individual, a lot goes in. You got a role to play, either on the field or off the field. Even in your career, do it well with focus and dedication. I value simplicity and discipline and believe in teamwork. Thanks to rugby, I learnt all these. Sports and Royal College groomed me and helped me to be who I am today. By inculcating leadership skills, working and sharing responsibilities as a team and supporting each other. At the same time I received fabulous support from home. My father, mother and brothers helped me a lot during the school days. They were supportive and understanding and so do my wife and children. I’m really grateful for that.

“We had a great camaraderie among players; also with the opposing teams. The bond built between three Royal sides, ‘78, ‘79 and ’80, is a lifelong one and it continues to grow. In fact, this close friendship of teammates is now passing to our kids too.”

Once former US Secretary of State and retired US Army General Colin Powell said: “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”

The 1978 season for Royal Rugby was about learning from mistakes, preparation, commitment and dedication to be champions. They achieved it by turning an average side into a champion outfit. May the story as told by these two legends bring some happy memories and inspire the next generation.

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