Rugby an essential strand in Van Langenberg DNA
Many brothers have played rugby for many a school from the time the game was introduced to Sri Lanka’s schools (Ceylon then). This is true of those schools, Kingswood, Trinity, Royal and St Peter’s, that adopted rugby from the very inception, as well as those that successfully took up rugby since then, such as Isipathana, St. Joseph’s, Wesley, et al.
And among the many brothers who have played rugby for St Peter’s, the van Langenberg brothers were two such. Not to be confused with Glen Van Langenberg the Trinitian, Noel and Michael Van Langenberg played for St. Peter’s in the early 1970s. Noel, who was holidaying in Sri Lanka recently, was buttonhole by me on a Thursday evening at the popular Peterite Lounge. He was there as a guest of Jerry Anderson, the genial Old Peterite who is responsible for the running the Lounge.
The obvious first question was about his rugby at St Peter’s and Noel said he started rugby at the age of 15, which was quite a young age then as there were no rugby development squads catching them really young – at the age of 10 or so as happening now. He quickly added that he captained the Second XI cricket team also that year and so was one of those versatile sportsmen produced by St Peter’s taking part in rugby, cricket, athletics and gymnastics.
Speaking about gymnastics, he said he was able to walk on his hands – if walk is the right word to use when speaking about moving on one’s hands – and that once when doing so for a lark he was seen by the physical trainer at St Peter’s at the time, Malcolm Perera, who was impressed, and this laid the foundation for his career in rugby.
Noel reminisced: “My first year at serious rugby was in 1972, the year when Jeffrey de Jong captained and that was a champion team and we had three sets of brothers in that team. The de Jongs, Jeff and his brother Travis; the Wiratunga brothers, Rohan and Nalyn and the Van Langenbergs, my brother Michael and I. I should also mention that at some point in time I was captain of Nicholas House.”
For the record, he also mentioned that the following year which was under the captaincy of Rohan Wiratunga, the Peterites again produced a champion rugby team.
He recalled a rugby match etched in his memory against Trinity which St Peter’s had lost by one point. “Jan Van Twest conceded a penalty in the last minutes of the game right in front of the posts and the Trinitian place kicker put it over to win the game by one point,” he said.
So, why is this particular match still vividly remembered by him? That, he said, was because the Trinity place kicker was Stewart Wright, an ex-Peterite who changed colours from blue, white and gold to blue, red and gold.
In 1973, there had been seven Peterites, including Noel, who represented Colombo Schools playing against the Nomads from England. He had the names literally at his fingertips. He counted the seven, Shirley Thambinayagam, Rohan Wiratunga, Nimal Jayasuriya, Travis de Jong, Ronald Rodrigo and Michael (his brother) and himself. Six out these seven then had played in the Ceylon Schools team against the same opponents, the only one left out being Travis de Jong who had been injured.
Going back to when Noel joined St Peter’s he recalled: “My father was in the Excise Department and was serving in Jaffna and when he was transferred to Colombo in 1967 we, my brother and I, were admitted to St Peter’s. I joined Standard 6 or the Prelim form as it was known then and Michael entered Standard 5 in the Primary section.”
Recalling some of his classmates Noel remembered Errol Martenstyn, Bernard Lewis, Burt Saundranayagam, Claude Fernandopulle, Juripulle and Malcolm Perera. Speaking of being a member of the Board of Prefects at St Peter’s he had been happy to have Rohan Wiratunga, his rugby captain, as his Head Prefect.
Of the teachers, he recalled Sathurukulasingham (affectionately known as Half Soda), brothers Primson and Heracles Jayasekera, Archibald Perera (legendary rugby coach), Austin Fernando (Master-in-Charge), Rev. Frs. Mervyn Weerakkody (Rector) and Joe Wickremasinghe (Prefect of Studies and later Rector) and also Rev. Frs. Rufus Benedict and Chris Abeyratne (both Prefects of Games at different times). Speaking of Archibald Perera, Noel said, “Archie was a really good maths teacher and if you were good at maths, which I was, you got on well with Archie.”
Having left school, his first job had been as a sales representative at Lewis Brown and Company in 1974 and having joined the Havelock Sports Club, popularly known as Havies or Park Club, he said he was lucky that work was Colombo-based and he was able to attend practices and play for the club. His brother Michael, schoolmates Jeffrey and Travis de Jong, Neil Peiris, and stalwarts Royden de Silva and Desmond Harridge had been Noel’s Peterite teammates from Havelocks.
“Life moved on and I joined Walkers in their Sales Division and had to be based in Kandy which forced me to take a break from rugby but when I returned to Colombo in 1978 and joined Singer Sri Lanka as one of their District Managers, I found that Havelocks had a settled team and so joined CR & FC and played for them along with Travis from 1979 to 1981,” he said.
Having decided to leave Sri Lanka, he migrated to the US in 1985 and established contact with former teammates and batch mates, Rohan and Nalyn Wiratunga, Mark Gomes (now deceased) and “Bunja” Leonidas.
Speaking about his life in the US, Noel said, “I did well there and retired as Executive Vice-President of American Reprographics Company (ARC) a well-known and largest company in Reprographics in America, which was started by a Sri Lankan.”
While yours truly doesn’t know if it was because Noel was with his wife when we met, but when asked about his family he spoke with a glint in his eye when he mentioned his wife Marguerite (nee Cooke), who he had met at the Park Club. But both being parishioners of St Mary’s Church, Dehiwela, it had been a match made in heaven and they celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary in December 2017.
Noel and Marguerite have two sons, both of whom have their own children making Noel and his wife grandparents, though you’d hardly believe them to be grandparents when you see them. Their sons had served in different arms of the American military establishment, the elder one as a Westpoint Graduate had fought in the Iraqi war in Baghdad and the younger son as a Marine sergeant had fought in Afghanistan.
The entire family had trooped down to Sri Lanka in 2014 to spend a holiday with their Sri Lankan friends and relatives and had thoroughly enjoyed it. However, this time around only Noel and Marguerite had come to spend a quieter holiday.
Looking back on his school years, he said he really enjoyed the time at St Peter’s because he did well in studies and sports. Seeing the Peterites in the Lounge and listening to Jerry Anderson describing the support he gets from the old boys in administering the place, Noel said it was to be admired how the Peterites rallied around their college and that facilities such as the Lounge existed for the Old Peterites to get together.
Asked if he would like to leave a message for the present-day Peterites or the younger generation in general, Noel had this to say: “Be guarded against pride. Don’t let sports go to your head. Live a balanced life and understand that material things fade away; only knowledge and spiritual values would be the things to be valued and be cherished.”