If someone was looking for a complete package, a complete Sri Lankan sportsman with brains and brawn and of course smart looks to go with it and an unassuming personality to win the hearts of all his admirers and opponents, if any, then one person stands out. He is none other than Priyantha Ekanayake, arguably one of the greatest sportsmen ever produced by St. Anthony’s College Katugastota and one who entertained and inspired many Sri Lankans for over three decades or more.
Priyantha, born and raised in a multi religious family with his mother being a devout Catholic and father a Buddhist and honed his skills in a multi cultured environment in the hill capital, Kandy. He had his education and most part of his life associated with St. Anthony’s College Katugastota and his favoured city Kandy. Priyantha’s brother L.V (Lakshman) Ekanayake was another outstanding sportsman produced by the hill Capital College and he went on to represent Sri Lanka in Rugby. Both of them enjoyed their upbringing, at times it had been a tough life being Hostellers at St. Anthony’s during 70’s. They had the luxury of learning values & principles from a Catholic institution in a Buddhist city with hostellers and friends coming from all corners of life be it Burgher, Muslim, Tamil or Sinhala. Priyantha represented St. Anthony’s College 1st XI Cricket teams, 1st XV Rugby teams, Senior Basketball teams and Athletics teams and was the captain of College Rugby & Basketball teams. He then represented Sri Lanka in Basketball and Rugby. In Rugby, Priyantha stamped his class and represented CH & FC and CR & FC and in 1990/1991 he Captained CR & FC. LV too went onto Captain CR & FC in the following year. Both of them were involved in reviving the passion for rugby in Kandy when they turned out for Kandy Sports Club in 1992. He led the Kandy SC admirably during the 90’s while captaining the National Rugby teams from 1986-1997 including four consecutive Rugby Asiads and at the prestigious Hong Kong 7’s (1989-1992) tournaments. Then as an individual his personal achievement was Captaining the Asian Barbarians in 1995 where many big names and big made Japanese, Korean and Hong Kong players whom he competed against on the field in the Asian circuit played under him.
Without stopping there he displayed his administrative skills when he went onto becoming the President of SLRFU and heading the regional body Asian Rugby Football Union in 2006. Whilst all these were taking place, he balanced his family front with his wife and raised two lovely daughters and struck a fine balance in career too by becoming Director Marketing at M & M Organisation.
To find out more about Priyantha’s illustrious sports career and his success in life, I met up with him and it was an easy task to get him to talk about his life to “Quadrangle”, leave alone posing for photographs as he preferred to stay away from limelight and engage in less talk about himself. He wants to remain as simple as can be and is a humble individual. Yet, I managed to get a Legend of our times to share his story.
We started by going back to his school days. Priyantha reminiscing his past said ‘I was at College between 1973 and1984, a period when the school and the country underwent many changes. A period of transition. My father was attached to Ceylon Tobacco and he used to travel a lot. So me and my brother LV (L.V.Ekanayake) were boarded at the College Hostel. For us, hostel life was tough, a regimental life. Everything had a time, even to eat sweets brought from home. We had to face so many restrictions also limitations, not only because of Government policies but also the rules of the Hostel. For reading, it was only the text books. I had one trouser and two shirts, wore the trouser on all five days and also played rugger during intervals and afterschool in that. We could have a shower only twice a week and that too even before you get your body wet, you have to apply soap and get out. But this lifestyle made us disciplined, strong and united as we have to depend on each other to share things and do activities.
Some of us became very close friends and we are still continuing that (friendship). Our sole leisure activity was sports; we were allowed to take part in sports, so me and my brother and most of the hostellers engaged in many outdoor sports. That helped us a lot to do well in sports later on. Unfortunately with Government rulings and change of School governance in the 70’s saw many talented boys leaving school, including those the burghers. With that the intake for the hostel also drastically dropped, which was the feeder for sports pools. Also standards of the College came down as subsequent Principals couldn’t maintain the high standards we had at College prior to the handover, including sports’.
‘One time our Principal was Fr. Stephen Abraham. He did so much for the College and was a strict disciplinarian and had an authoritative voice and tone. So we feared him but at the same time respected him so much. That made us highly disciplined too’. Talking about his sporting career, Priyantha says ‘I was fortunate enough to captain College teams in Cricket, Rugger, Basketball and Athletics at the Under 15 age category and I continued these sports till I left College, of course I managed to captain in some sports at senior level too but couldn’t play a full season of 1st XI Cricket including the Trinity-Antho Big match in my last year (1984) as I was representing Sri Lanka Junior National Basketball team’.
Priyantha firmly believes LV was far better than him during his school days as a sportsman. Going by the records, he must be correct as LV represented the College 1st XI Cricket team continuously for 05 years without missing any match and same with 1st XV Rugby where he represented College for 04 years, then in Under 19 Basketball he represented College in 1st Five for 5 years. In athletics, he held an All Island Javelin record for so many years. According to Priyantha, he managed to outshine his brother in sports only after leaving the school.
Priyantha further says ‘In Cricket, I played as an all rounder who can bat a bit, bowl a bit at a decent pace and I was a good fielder. I played along with Marlon Von Haugt, Angelo Wickremasuriya and S.A.Perera. We had a very good side in 83/84. I remember putting up a long stand with S.A at Kotahena against St. Benedict’s College. In rugger, Kalu Perera was Coach and he too was a regimental type coach unlike these days it was not scientific and there was no strategic thinking when it comes to Rugby. It was hard training, for hours we had to do wheelbarrows on the road or the duck walk. No short cuts. I never felt I was a good rugger player. In 83’ when Channa De Costa captained, we had a very good side. We beat Royal and St. Peter’s and almost beat Trinity if not for the missed opportunities.
I never realised that I was that good or would come this far in Sports. thought I’m just an average player
College. In rugger, Kalu Perera was Coach and he too was a regimental type coach unlike these days it was not scientific and there was no strategic thinking when it comes to Rugby. It was hard training, for hours we had to do wheelbarrows on the road or the duck walk. No short cuts. I never felt I was a good rugger player. In 83’ when Channa De Costa captained, we had a very good side. We beat Royal and St. Peter’s and almost beat Trinity if not for the missed opportunities.
We had strong self belief and confidence too apart from talent which helped us to do well in that season’.Talking about his love for Basketball ‘I did put lot of effort into Basketball, as I was tall and could jump really well and at the same time this helped me in rugger where I played as a 2nd row player and expert line out jumper. I saw the opportunity for me to progress in Basketball. I even used to practice individually at College Basketball courts for hours, I was committed and passionate about Basketball but at the same time loved playing Rugger. LV inspired me to take up this game and then Fr. Bernard Ramanathan helped me a lot to do well in Basketball’. Talking about his memories ‘I still remember, when All Island Basketball tournaments were held in Colombo, we used to come and stay at least for a week at St. Joseph’s College. We were given class rooms for lodging and they were not comfortable and not covered too. With plenty of mosquitoes around we had sleepless nights. So we played cards throughout the night and stayed up and then played matches in the morning. Then we slept during the day time and played matches again in the late afternoon. Some of my team mates were Asoka Jayasinghe, Jeeva Jayasuriya, Bathiya Abeysinghe and Sellamutti. We loved travelling though it was not a luxury journey. Then when we were senior hostellers, me and my friends used to unofficially rule the rest. We used to sneak out in the night to watch Midnight Movies at New Sigiriya Cinema. We wear sarongs and jump out of hostel. At times either on our way to the Cinema or when we were heading back, if we came across staff members or someone whom we knew we used the sarongs to cover our self and then sleep on the payment like beggars. We’ve had wonderful memories, for obvious reasons I can not reveal many stories. Some of the school friends which comes to my mind are Percy Kotuvila, Majeed, Christopher Joshua’. As per Priyantha, he started to improve after leaving school. ‘I never realised that I was that good or I would come this far in Sports. I thought I’m
just an average player and I enjoyed playing whichever sport I undertook. May be I was lucky to get so many opportunities. Looking back, I feel so and how things turned out. In 1984, soon after I returned from the Junior National Basketball tour to South Korea, I was invited to play for Kandy SC as a 2nd row and L.V was my first captain at KSC. Then end of the season when Jainudeen and Sridaran left CH & FC and I was invited to play for the Maitland Crescent Club as they didn’t have a line out jumper. I moved and was given a job too at Fairline Travel as an executive. Then their No.08 retired so I was asked to play as No.08 and at the same time Sri Lanka No.08 retired so I was drafted in to the Sri Lanka squad as No.08’. Priyantha belongs to a very rare breed of sportsmen who represented Sri Lanka in two sports, when asked about this Priyantha narrated ‘I was not picked for the Sri Lanka senior side immediately (in 84/85), but back in 1985 a US Naval ship docked at the Colombo Harbour with some Basketball players on board. Sri Lanka Basketball Association on invitation put together a team to play some friendly matches with the US Naval team. Most of the players opted out due to fear and risk of getting injured.
I was young, straight out of school and never had fear as I was coming with a rugby background, so I jumped in and took the opportunity and went for practices. I ended up playing all matches and played well too which was noticed by the National Selectors. Then they invited me to come for the National Basketball squad and I was selected for the National side which toured for the Asian Games and I was in the first 5. That tour was a disappointment with us faring poorly mainly due to our poor techniques, lack of proper preparations and our tactics. Francis De Almeida was our coach when we toured with Sri Lanka Youth Basketball sides and then Malsiri Perera and Sam Lavelage were the senior coaches at Senior National team. Late Vishva Mohan was the captain of that side’.
Then again, Priyantha pursued in a glittering career in Rugby, leaving aside his passionate sport behind. I was inquisitive to know about the decision behind this and he said ‘I was disappointed with that Asian Games tour in 85’ as a player, I also didn’t play well. This was a time Rugby was drawing lot of interest from the public as well as from Clubs with foreign players and full houses at matches. I was representing CH & FC and Sri Lanka. I felt it was high time that I select one sport as I need to commit time and train hard and perform well too. On top of it, both sports required me to adjust my body to two different styles and formats of play, both were physical games. For an example; in basketball, I was staying upright and jumping up and in Rugby I have to go low and crouch and then push forward as a No.08. During that period, CH & FC was doing well and I was personally happy with my performances. So I felt Rugby would be my future and gave up Basketball.’Priyantha moved on, from CH & FC to CR & FC and whilst making headlines from CR to Kandy Sports Club in a sensational move that later paved the way for the resurgence of Rugby at Nittawela. When asked about these moves off the field, Priyantha shared this ‘I moved from CH to CR, and went onto represent the Red Jerseys for five years and Captained the Club. We had a very good side and my brother L.V too represented the Club. We had an issue with the appointment of Captain for 92/93’ season. Opinion within the team was divided and few of us decided to move out of CR & FC and we joined Kandy Sports Club in 1992.Looking back, it may be a decision we took for wrong reasons (to quit over a captaincy) but when looking at the success Kandy Sports Club achieved after 1992, it can be termed as a good decision in the interest of Kandy Sports Club.
I wanted to use my knowledge and skills and the experiences to assist the boys to do well on the field.
In 1992 Kandy SC won the Clifford Cup for the very first time and since then Kandy SC won many tournaments and become a dominant club.
I do not want to take credit for any of these achievements as there were a lot of individuals who contributed from behind the scene and out on the fields, and of course the die-hard supporters. Special mention must be given of Mr. Malik Samarawickrama for his untiring efforts, dedication and persuasionto keep the Club’s standards high for well over two decades now’.If another son of St. Anthony’s, Muttiah Muralidharan took Sri Lanka’s name on the International arena in Cricket then Priyantha did the same in Rugby. Priyantha’s take on this ‘I made my first International debut back in 1986 while playing for CH, in fact me and Rohan Abeykoon were picked for a Rugby Asiad. I was excited but nervous not knowing what to expect as Japanese and Koreans used to have big made players. As expected they were physically much stronger and tough opponents. We were beaten but gained valuable experience from my first outing. I got good support from senior players. I was then appointed as Sri Lanka Captain in 1989 and went onto Captain Sri Lanka till 1998. I personally believe our turning point of Rugby at Asian levels was the 1990 Rugby Asiad in Colombo where we performed really well.
That tournament gave us a lot of onfidence and self belief that we can compete with any top team in Asia. We gave South Korea who became the Champions a good fight before losing to them by a close margin. This helped me a lot while playing for Kandy SC and Sri Lanka. I used to brief the players and delegate their tasks according to the game plan and continue to be with them on the field and encourage them. Players are empowered and give their fullest and it’s encouraging. I did evolve with the game and learnt so much and gained valuable experiences. When the right time came, I felt I should step down and moved on with my life.’ Priyantha hung up his boots after a long Rugby career and then got himself involved with Rugby at his alma mater and also with Kandy Sports Club. He candidly shared this ‘After retiring from the game, I commenced coaching. I wanted to use my knowledge and skills and the experiences to assist the boys to do well on the field. Unfortunately, I failed in teaching and coaching aspect as I did not know how to transfer this knowledge and the art of reading a game. When I brought down George Simpkin to assist Kandy SC and later SLRFU and also I started to work with him both at Club and National levels, I realised that I don’t know at least 10% of what I should know to become a good coach. George helped me in this area, how to think as a Coach, to be objective and I learnt so much from him.’After a brief period of coaching Priyantha invariably got involved with Rugby administration and reached the peak of it too. Priyantha says ‘I was involved with Kandy SC and then SLRFU. I never wanted to pursue high positions, I just wanted to use my expertise to support the administrators to run and develop the game. Then whilst I was serving as a Vice President, I was appointed as the President of SLRFU in 2004/2005. This was as a stopgap measure with so many things going on behind the scene. I took it on as a short term stint. Since I vacated the post, I didn’t want to engage in Rugby any more as my life, my family takes priority now.’ Talking about his future plans as we were winding down the interview, Priyantha said ‘I don’t have big plans. I’m content with what I have. I enjoy every moment of life and spend lot of time on family and on my work related matters. Priyantha Ekanayake as the President of ARFU meeting the Governor of Punjab Province (ARFU Meeting in Pakistan – 2006) Also in the picture Dilroy Fernando and Neil Wijeratne representing Sri Lankan delegation. I have two grown up daughters and my family, especially my wife did lot during my playing days in raising the kids. They deserve a big credit and now I spend most of my time with them. As you know, money is not everything.
My message to the young generation would be, always be humble, value simplicity. Rather than trying to win prepare yourself to win. Be committed to whatever you take up’.