BY NEIL WIJERATNE
Joes slow to kick-along to rugby conversion
The 37th Annual General Meeting of the Ceylon Rugby Football Union (now SLRFU) was held in 1954 during the famous “Annual August Week” at the GOH facing Colombo Harbour. The local custodians of this British sport representing various planting areas such as Dimbulla, Dickoya, Uva, Kelani Valley, Kalutara and also Colombo and Kandy gathered to discuss all matters concerning rugby football in the island.
Firstly, they confirmed and approved the minutes of the previous AGM and also the statement of accounts. And then came the election of office-bearers wherein Mr H. Richardson was elected president for the ensuing year. The next item listed in the agenda was the “proposed tour of Ceylon by a junior club team from New Zealand”.
Thereafter, the discussion was centered on topics such as the revival of the game in the Kalutara district, territorial boundaries applicable to up-country clubs, standard of sportsmanship, importance of having equal representation of up-country and low-country on the CRFU committee and the eligibility of players of the affiliated clubs for selection for Capper Cup match etc.
When it came to the “any other business” item on the agenda, Mr Richardson tabled and read out a letter addressed to the union by his predecessor, Mr E.F.N. Gratiaen. It was all about schools rugby. In this all important letter, for the first time, Mr. Gratiaen revealed that “St Joseph’s and S. Thomas’ colleges are definitely taking to rugby next season (1955) and appealed to the clubs to provide coaches and grounds, to assist these newcomers to the game”. According to the president, with the inclusion of these two schools, “six schools will be playing rugger next year (1955)”. In his letter he also remarked, “—-at present there were too few players figuring in too much rugger. That was why more schools were needed to take part in this game”.
With due recognition of the governing body of the sport, it marked the official entry of S. Thomas’ and St Joseph’s into the school rugby arena.
The Blue & White magazine of 1955 remarked: “It was decided in September 1954 to introduce rugger into St Joseph’s and by the beginning of October that year we had a group of about 30 boys training under Mr Ewart of the CH & FC. Soon, Mr Ewart had to leave us due to pressure of work and our boys were taken over by Mr Percy de Silva.”
Incidentally, Mr E.N. Ewart, who represented CH & FC was the low-country representative of the Ceylon Rugby Football Union, while Percy de Silva, the legal draughtsman, represented CR & FC and the Ceylonese XV. Practices were held at the CH & FC grounds and also at the college grounds, with arecanut tree trunks as goal posts.
Mahendra Dias was the first rugby football captain of St Joseph’s, and in the inaugural year (1955) they played against Royal (0-18), Trinity (0-28), St Peter’s (0-3) and S. Thomas’ (6-8) but could not achieve success. Although they were defeated in all four matches, they received encouraging comments from the press. When they lost to Royal it was reported: “It would be unfair to criticise the Josephians for their indifferent display. Despite their scant knowledge of the fundamentals of the game, they fought back as best as they could.”
On the clash with St Peter’s, which turned out to be a thriller: “Considering the fact that they were playing this game for the first time, they put up a splendid show against the more experienced Peterite side.” The following comment was on the Thomian encounter: “Displaying a little more knowledge of the game, S. Thomas’ beat St. Joseph’s and was grimly contested from start to finish.”
A few more such comments were:
“Josephians fight bravely but lose.”
“Although beaten by Peterites, three points to nil, St. Joseph’s were not disgraced in the first Joe-Pete encounter” (Ceylon Daily News).
“They (SJC) fought back as best as they could, often frustrating promising Royal moves” (The Times of Ceylon).
Tony Perera was the first scorer for the Josephians. He achieved this feat on July 25, 1955, during the SJC-STC match played at Longden Place. The Times of
Ceylon reported the outcome of the match under the headline “Grand place-kicking by Novices”. It added “The winners (STC by 8-6) led 3-0 at half time. This was the first rugger match between these two schools and was grimly contested from the start to finish. Good place-kicking was seen in the match, Tony Perera for St Joseph’s and Cader for S. Thomas’ shining in this department of the game. S. Thomas’ opened scoring a few minutes before the short whistle when Cader converted a penalty from a difficult angle. Tony Perera equalised when he put over a penalty from about the same angle … S. Thomas’ gained the lead again when Hewawasam, their hooker, broke through to touch down on the extreme left. Cader converted again, though the angle was difficult. Then Tony Perera kicked a penalty from nearly 35 yards out to reduce the deficit, but as happens often, he missed an easier penalty a few minutes later. “
Even in the 0-3 loss to St Peter’s, at Bambalapitiya in 1955, it was the same story – so near yet so far. The Times of Ceylon reported the match. “For a team that has played rugger before, St Peter’s gave a disappointing performance. They were defending for the major part of the game, and had the Josephian three-quarters more thrust, the decision would have been reversed. Arendtsz, the Josephian stand-off played very well, never slow in opening up the game while Dias (Mahendra Dias, skipper of the side) and de Mel (Lalith) impressed among the forwards. … The Peterites scored in the first half when Serasinghe ran through on the blind side off a scrum in the Josephian “25”. Both sides failed to make use of the penalties”. In its match report, the Ceylon Daily News mentioned the names of Arendtsz (stand-off), Berman, Tony Perera and Lalith de Mel for their outstanding performance for St. Joseph’s.
However, the Josephians were denied any such praiseworthy comments from the press in their inaugural encounter against Trinity College, on July 2, 1955. The match was originally scheduled to play at Bogambara but later changed to University grounds Peradeniya, “following the Municipality’s decision to ‘rest’ Bogambara for a month”, as it was reported. By then Trinity had rugby links with Royal (1920), Zahira (1924), St. Peter’s (1932) and S. Thomas’ (same year – 1955).
The experienced Trinity team routed the Josephians in the inaugural encounter by a massive margin of 28 points (2 goals, 4 tries, 2 penalties) to nil. Try scorers were A.J.W. Balthazar (3), K. de Joodt (2) and D. Frank, and skipper M.G. Ratwatte converted two tries in addition to a penalty kick. The other penalty was put over by Odayar.
The Josephians were privileged to encounter some of the best referees at the time during their inaugural rugby season. Percy Perera refereed the encounters against Royal and S. Thomas’, whilst H.E.V. Metzeling of Havelocks fame controlled the match against St Peter’s, and R.J. Willet handled the away match in Kandy.
The Josephian rugby squad in the inaugural year, 1955, read: Mahendra Dias (captain), Lalith de Mel (vice-captain), Neville de Andrado, S. Botejue, Terrence Pereira, Brian Berman, Christopher Arendtsz, Tony Perera, Cecil Dharmaratne, Shirley Poppenbeek, C. Panambalana, Raja Senanayake, R. Don Bernard, E.H. Ohlmus, G. Weerasekera, Frank Sebastianpillai, Idiris Lye, Rushmore Wendt, Rex Stanislaus and Brian Symons. (Prefect of Games, Mr. Joe Ekanayake; coach, Mr Percy de Silva; master-in-charge, Annesley Abeysinghe).
It always puzzles me why the Josephians got on to a delayed start in rugby football compared to the Peterites. Although Josephian cricket, and even football, are almost as old as college itself, by the time rugby football was introduced to the college, Peterite rugby was well established with a history of 23 years.
For the purpose of record St Joseph’s College was established in 1896 and played its first rugby match in 1955, while St Peter’s College, originally named the Wellawatta (South) Branch of St. Joseph’s College and inaugurated in 1922, had taken to the game as early as 1932. Amazingly, it took another 23 long years for the Josephians to take the oval-shaped ball on to their playing field. What was the reason for this long wait?
Tracing the history of sporting activities of St. Joseph’s, the Jubilee issue of the Blue & White magazine, published in 1921, among other matters, focused on the popular games in the school and of the “Josephian football tradition”. It read: “Though cricket is certainly the prime department of sport here, it is football that is somehow the most popular game with us … Thus it is that football has ever been a favourite with us and we have turned out teams that have won the applause of the finest and most genuine critics of the game.”
Influenced by this growing popularity of football, the Josephians not only confronted the schools like Royal, S. Thomas’, St Benedict’s, Ananda and Wesley but also the elite club teams such as Chums (champion soccer team at the time), Bloomfield, Railways, Tamil Union and the Singhalese Sports Club. And they were the unofficial schools football champs for eight successive years before losing to St Benedict’s for the first time in 1928.
The first mention of “rugger” in Josephian sporting papers was found in 1928 when there was an imminent withdrawal of traditional football rival, S. Thomas’ from the football field. The 1928 issue of the Blue & White magazine summed up the situation: “Royal, they say, has dropped the game to which she seemed never to have taken kindly. She finds greater attractions in the rugby code. It is rumoured that S. Thomas’ also contemplates giving up soccer; if that be so, it looks as if the association game is passing through a crisis. Apropos of this, it is indeed true that the glamour of rugger is prevailing over the pure artistry of soccer among the general public.”
Under the item “Soccer”, the 1936 issue of the Josephian College annual commented: “Who said ‘rugger?’ would be a very appropriate title for a cartoon representing a movement that has been on foot for some time. The question would be popped by an ancient-looking old-boy footballer to one of the present. Some old-boy wiseacres have tried to introduce rugby football and failed. It is well that way, for sad would the day be when Josephians gave up the game which is typically theirs, and in which our lack of beef does not matter so much when matched against the burly European. It certainly speaks volumes for the grit of Ceylonese ruggerites who do so well in spite of their size against them; but it would be a great mistake to give up a game better suited to the Ceylonese soccer genius.”
More comments on this “unattracted game” were to follow and interestingly once again in the “Soccer” column of the Blue & White magazine of 1939, the following lines appeared. “When many schools are taking up rugger, St Joseph’s stands loyal to her first love, soccer. As no school has been able to beat our First XI soccer team this year, the side may style itself the Invincible Inter-Collegiate Champions, if it desires to do so!”
Eventually, thanks to the untiring efforts and enthusiasm of a few young Josephians, who formed the “Josephian Hornets” rugby team in 1954 and played some ‘friendlies’, the foundation was laid for a rugby culture at the Darley Road school.
Former Josephian sportsman Michael Berman, who I met a couple of times at his Sydney residence once remarked: “In speaking of the origins of Josephian rugby we must not forget the part played by the Hornets in introducing the game to the College.”
By the mid-1950s the unfavourable attitude towards rugby football had changed at St Joseph’s. In 1954, the school authorities “did not hesitate at the request of the Ceylon Rugby Football Union to introduce rugger into the college” as the college magazine summed up.
This prompted the school to admit and acknowledge at last, as stated in the college magazine (No. 48, published in 1955) that “Today in Ceylon, rugger has become one of the most popular sports in the island. Once rugger was introduced to St Joseph’s, the boys and many of the parents too realised that it is not the dreadful game which they imagined it to be. This concept was the result of the lack of proper understanding of the game and also the spirit in which it was played by those engaging in it.”
The Blue and White magazine (1955 issue) further added: “Prospects for rugger at St Joseph’s are very bright. The Rector has promised to lay out a rugger ground at the college, so that we will not only be able to have our practices on it, but even be able to play our matches. This ground is very essential if we are to rouse an interest for rugger among the smaller boys.”