by Maheel Kuragama
Some teams, perhaps because they were spectacular in the particular season, get remembered more than others. And so Royalists of an earlier era would be taken back immediately to the exploits of Manik Weerakumar’s record-breaking rugby team of 1976, for example, or the equally impressive team of 1988 led by Lasitha ‘Bonsa’ Gunaratne.
Such teams are remembered by the year and as or more often by the name of the captain. So we have Weerakumar’s Year/Team and Bonsa’s Year/Team. For many who followed Royal Rugby from the seventies to, say, the late nineties, 1984 was simply, ‘Agale’s team’. Agale, who sadly passed away a few years ago, saw it differently. As he put it in his typically self-effacing way, it was about fourteen players being ready to help the 15th score a try.
Being a member of Royal’s team competing for the Bradby Shield is special enough, but for some of the boys, 1984 was extra special. For the skipper, Sampath Agalawatta, Vice Captain Ajith Gunasekara, Feroze Suhaib, Lalith Samarawickrema, Ajith Weeratunga, Duminda Senaratne, myself and of course Dilshad Ahmed and Ajmal Arief, two robust and ‘ever-ready’ bench-men, it was the last chance to regain the Bradby.
The forgettable Bradby Shield encounters of 1981 (under Sujeewa Cooray) and 1982 (under Hiran Muttiah) as well as the painful experience of the previous year when Sriyan Cooray’s team was expected to but did not bring back the coveted trophy to Reid Avenue obviously left traces in our minds. All that was forgotten when training began under the new coach Uddaka Tennekoon who had the wisdom and strategic brain of Malik Samarawickrama to call upon throughout the season.
There was however a feeling that it was ‘our time.’ The aforementioned players knew each from Grade One and most of them had played together at the junior levels, Under 13, 15 and 17. The chemistry that years of togetherness produces helped gel the team.
It was technically my first (and last) Bradby appearance, although I had played in a few matches in 1983. However, having first played tap-rugger with Agale and others and later real rugby in the Under 13 and 15 teams, I didn’t feel ‘new’ to the team.
I was the hooker, Lalith Samarawickrema and the late Sanjay Sierra the props, Chiranjaya ‘Chiro’ Nanayakkara (who would captain the following year) and Duminda Senaratne formed the second row. Janaka Lenaduwa and Ajith Weeratunga were ferocious flank forwards while Mahendra Navaratne was a powerful No 8. The skipper, at stand-off, and scrum-half Jehan CanagaRetna formed one of the most potent halves combinations in the schools that year. Ajith Gunasekera and Feroze Suhaib were penetrative centres while Kamil Ousman, the baby of the team and an able place-kicker, and Krishan George were speedy wingers. Ahmed Cader was an indefatigable full back.
Sometime during the first days of training, we were told that a tour of Thailand awaits us should we regain the Bradby. At that impressionable young age, it could be counted as an incentive. However, the grind of training, the discussions about strategy and facing the real test of putting it all together in the matches didn’t give us any time to daydream.
The coaches planned, we had to execute. Agale of course was part of the planning for he had a well honed mind for strategy. Agale was an allrounder; he won college colours in basketball and rugby and might have even played in the Royal-Thomian had he decided to pick cricket over rugby. He was an astute leader, a clinical tactician and a strict disciplinarian. I remember getting late for practice one day along with Chiro. We both had to do ten rounds as punishment. These interventions probably counted, although we didn’t really think about it back then.
Today, almost 40 years later, the season is quite a blur; I had to check the Bradby souvenir for the scores. There were no runaway victories like in Weerakumar’s year or in Bonsa’s year. The shorelines speak for themselves: Royal scored victories over Ananda (10-0), Nalanda (19-7), Vidyartha (13-4), St Peter’s (17-3), St Joseph’s (17-6) and St Thomas’ for the Michael Gunaratne Trophy (9-3). The game against Isipathana was tough and ended in a scoreless draw which meant eventually that the two schools would be declared joint winners of the league championship.
And there was the Bradby Shield encounter. Trinity had a very good team and had lost only to Isipathana. We didn’t underestimate our traditional rivals but we were supremely confident. Nevertheless a 6-3 win in the first leg at Longden Place did not give us the cushion we anticipated. The second leg was played in Bogambara which was almost like a paddy field. This affected both teams. It was a hard fought game but we defended ferociously each and every time Trinity threatened to score. Krishan George made his speed count to stop what seemed to be a certain try towards the closing stages of the game. The 0-0 scoreline indicates how equally matched the two teams were. The extra penalty in Colombo secured the Bradby Shield for us.
Incidentally, Krishan George, who was Royal’s basketball captain (he would later captain Sri Lanka) and had colours in athletics, made it to the 1st XV quite by accident. Hartley House had just six boys for the inter-house seven-a-side tournament. ‘Jack’ Idroos had persuaded George to leave the basketball court just so the house could field a team. He had told George that he could feign an injury and leave after a few minutes. George had given a good enough account of himself to warrant a call to the rugby pool.
Regaining the Bradby Shield was certainly the high point of that season. In addition to becoming joint champs in the league, Royal bagged all trophies on offer that year, the Bradby Shield, Gunaratne Cup and also the trophy on offer for the sevens champions.
We played the ‘sevens’ without Agale, who was injured. In his absence Ajith Gunasekara led the team. Ajith Weeratunga, Janaka Lenaduwa, Mahendra Navaratne, Kimal Ousman, Krishan George and myself were the others in the team. We won the final against St Peter’s but the win against Isipathana in the semi-final was equally special. It broke the ‘tie’ of the regular season game in a sense, but more importantly, it was almost like a Colombo 5 home-and-home affair since most of those on the field for the game had known each other for years, i.e. from the tap-rugger playing days.
Sanjaya Sigera is no more. Agale, that outstanding sportsman and exceptional human being, our skipper, is no more. Incidentally, the Trinity captain, Dushyantha Wijesinghe also passed away after a prolonged illness. They lived well, all three of them.
We left everything on the field, as did our Trinitian counterparts. After all the cheers, the bruises and the occasional transgressions in the heat of the moment, we all recognised and came to terms with each other’s humanity. We became firm friends. Today we are not Royalists or Trinitians although we all treasure our jerseys and wear the school colours to the Bradby; we are all close to 60 years of age, we know that there are things larger than a game and a school. The encounters are warm, soft and eagerly looked forward to.
And so, we will meet perhaps after the match and raise a toast to all that is good about sports, all that was exciting in rugby and for our friends who are no more.