Lawrence Heyn was sports editor of the SUN and WEEKEND newspapers in Colombo in the 1970s and early ’80s. He migrated to Australia in 1984 and worked for 27 years as an editor and production editor for a newspaper group in Brisbane. He is a partner in a design company, HeynDesign.
BY LAWRENCE HEYN
“Maurice, the javelin has sold a dummy and gone straight through.”
THERE is a leafy suburb in Brisbane’s west named The Gap. It is fitting then that former Peterite, Havelocks and Sri Lanka centre three-quarter Maurice De Silva should make it his home, for he was a master at finding the gap on the rugby field.
Much of Maurice’s career has been chronicled but it is still a revelation to go one-on-one with the legend as I sought to interview him for the Quadrangle magazine. We ensconced ourselves in comfortable chairs on the veranda of the de Silva home, with a backdrop of gorgeous views over the tree tops stretching across The Gap; not too far in the distance the Brisbane city buildings framed in the V shape formed by two converging hills.
When you chat with Maurice it is like stepping into a time machine and you are transported to a period when giants strode the rugby field. Originally, I had planned a Q&A interview but quickly veered from this course and let Maurice talk. This was the right move as I was quickly riding a wave of reminiscences with him.
Maurice hails from a family of 13, his brothers and sisters showing prowess in a range of sports. A product of St Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya, he described his school years as “great fun”. They were the war years and the college buildings had been annexed for a hospital and the students were relocated to a makeshift school in a nearby seminary.
While rugby was his true calling, it was as a cricketer that Maurice had his name first etched in the record books. It was 1955 and Maurice was in the Big Match team with his brother, opening batsman Brian, along with another set of brothers, Ken and Russel Duckworth. A rare instance in the annals of Joe-Pete matches. For the record, St Peter’s won by eight wickets, anchored by good performances from Brian de Silva (79), paceman Maurice Salgadoe (5/18) and skipper Clive Inman (5/36).
It was in that same year, ’55, Maurice’s consistency and prowess as a ruggerite reaped rewards when he was called up to play for Havelock Sports Club while still a schoolboy. Expecting to play in his customary position as centre, Maurice was thrust into the scrum-half’s role instead. Totally perplexed, Maurice asked why he was playing in this position. It transpired that his brother Brian, the regular half, had jumped ship and joined Havies’ arch rival CR & FC, and had kept quiet about his move with even his own family.
“That was my baptism in club rugby, playing against some of the best wing forwards in the game,’’ he said.
Maurice’s career blossomed under the guidance of the legendary Dr Larry Foenander, a dazzling footballer, tactician and strict disciplinarian. Maurice and fly-half Nimal Maralande became exponents of the scissor pass first introduced to Ceylon by Dr Foenander. It is a move where the fly-half and centre criss-cross each other and the ball is passed to the other behind the back. But the “scissors” was developed into other variations.
Maurice believed he had the natural aptitude for this innovative style of play. “I was a thinker, in any sport you must think,” he said.
He recounted an instance where he did put his mind to work against some strong opposition, a Calcutta side that included brilliant centre Duncan Harvie. In that game winger Neville Shedden was injured and the gifted wing-forward (flanker) Sari de Sylva was shifted to the backline to fill the gap.
Sari, feeling a bit out of place, called out to Maurice: “Ado Silva, tell me what you are going to do.”
Maurice, seizing the moment, enacted a “solo scissor” where he crossed paths with Sari deSilva, dummied to him and shot through a yawning gap to score.
Maurice and the backline were soon to become synonymous with the scissors pass and his pairing with Maralande was a joy to behold. They were instrumental in bringing the premier club championship silverware, the Clifford Cup, to the Havelocks on a number of occasions.
While there were many influencers in his career, Maurice said his role model was his uncle Archibald Perera whose exploits as a player and coach are legendary.
“I watched him while I was a kid. Archie was a master of deception,” Maurice said. “He was a brilliant player, I learned a lot from him.”
He sought Archie’s counsel when he was approached by the Havelocks and CR & FC to join them. Archie just told him to do what he felt was right for him. He joined the Havies and Archie told him later he had made the right choice as the club with its relaxed membership was the best fit for him.
Dr Larry Foenander also played a big part in Maurice’s existence as a rugby player. It was a life and death situation in which Maurice was “an inch away from death”, as a daily newspaper reported the harrowing incident.
Maurice and a group of athletes were training on the neighbouring BRC ground. He picked up a javelin and threw it a distance and asked his friend Carl Fernando to throw it back. Carl did so and Maurice said his attention was drawn elsewhere and the javelin pierced his head under the right ear, exited through the throat and pinned him to the ground.
Maurice said another friend raced up and yanked the javelin out. Dr Foenander, hearing off this, raced to Maurice’s side greatly concerned irrecoverable damage had been done by the javelin being yanked out. Maurice was rushed to the hospital where renowned surgeon and Peterite Dr P R Anthonisz was waiting for him. Dr Anthonisz too was concerned damage would have been caused by the removal of the javelin so Maurice was placed under observation in hospital for a week.
It turned out to be good news as the missile had missed the major artery by an inch.
Maurice described how this news was given to him. “PR said, ‘Maurice, the javelin has sold a dummy and gone straight through’.”
Praising Larry Foenander who stayed with him all through this ordeal, Maurice said: “Larry was the man.”
Soon back on the field, Maurice served Havelocks faithfully for many years until he migrated to Australia in 1973. He widened his range by taking up coaching and successfully guided Isipathana through an impressive season in 1971, with many schools fearing to play the Isipathanians. He went on to coach Kandy Lake Club to successes, adopting a unique philosophy for coaching. “I picked the right people for the right positions,” he said.
In the near two hours of reminiscing, Maurice rolled out many anecdotes and the one worth enshrining in folklore is the tale where one of the club staff would bring him a “shot” of brandy before play on big match days and he was asked to wear what he thought was a charm to protect him from injury.
“I never found out what I was wearing, but I think it was a charm of some sort. They wanted to protect us as there were big bets made by club officials on the results of matches,” he said.
A little known fact about Maurice’s sporting life is that he was an accomplished boxer. He fought in the light welterweight division and was in the Peterite team when it won the Stubbs Shield, and he was awarded the most scientific boxer’s trophy.
Maurice was 36 when he left for Australia with wife Moira to start a new life. He turned down a number of approaches to coach rugby teams in Queensland so he could raise a family and concentrate on his job in marketing and sales.
Off the sporting field, Maurice has not rested on his laurels and has been involved in a number of community activities. He was one of the founding members of the Sri Lanka Society and is a past president of the Sri Lanka Sports Association of Queensland that has been very active in the local community to raise funds for overseas projects such as the Foundation of Goodness, Seenigama, and the CCC Foundation supporting the National Cancer Institute at Maharagama.
At 78, Maurice continues to keep his body active. Falling into golf “by accident” he keeps his hand in by playing competitively on Saturdays, and there is obvious pride on his face and voice when he talks of his 17-year-old grandson Zachary Fisher, who is excelling in golf and basketball. Much like his grandfather, Zachary already has a Most Valuable Player (MVP) award.
And what are his thoughts on Sri Lankan sport.
No fan of political interference in sport, Maurice says Sri Lanka has an amazing wealth of talent that has to be nurtured. This nurturing has been happening in cricket and other sport must follow suit.
He says the path to success starts with good coaching.
“There must be good coaches for the sport to do well. Start coaching camps and spread the word. The talent will naturally follow,” he says.
But he says the best times were the good old amateur days.
Note: This article was first published on our 2nd edition of Quadrangle Magazine, in 2015