By Naveera Perera
Rugby, a game revered so much around the world by sports enthusiasts and held in the hearts of many school boys in Sri Lanka. Considered as the 2nd school to start rugby in Sri Lanka in 1906, Trinity College is the oldest school to continue playing the game for more than a century today in Sri Lanka. Holding immense respect, passion and reiterating the power of camaraderie and team spirit, Ravi Ponnambalam and Nihal Gunawardana recently took us back to the year 1981 – an important year for the Trinitians and also the last year Ravi and Nihal would play in the red gold and blue jersey for their alma mater under astute leadership of Ravi Bandaranayake.
In 2018, at the 02nd leg of 74th Bradby encounter Ravi Bandaranayake as the Chief Guest handed over the Bradby shield to Royal captain Sabith Feroze at Pallekelle. However Ravi Bandaranayake himself enjoyed the glory of leading Trinitians to win back Bradby after three year wait in 1981 which Ravi Ponnambalam and Nihal Gunawardana also played in.
Popularly known as ‘Ponna’ and ‘Gunda’, Ravi and Nihal had been part of the school rugby team starting from under 15 to under 19. Inspired by the 1969 Trinity rugby team, which was captained by Shafi Jainudeen, Ponna recalls the first rugby match he watched as a Matron’s dorm boy. As a renowned former Trinity rugby captain, Shafi Jainudeen is an honoured figure, not only in school, but also in Sri Lanka. Identified with the famous ‘Number 15’ school jersey, Ponna remembers watching in awe as Shafi played along with his team and brought glory to school. With that in mind, as Ponna was selected to the team in 1979, under the captaincy of Jan Tissera, he became the very person to win the very same jersey number Shafi represented, which was a very proud moment that Ponna treasures up to date. Commenting on winning the number 15 jersey , Ponna stated ‘I was very honoured not just in receiving the jersey, but also being able to play with a team full of distinguished rugby players including Lalin Sourjah, Ravi Ratnayeke, Michael Richardson, Tikiri Ellepola and more. To this day, we all have goose bumps when we recall winning the school jersey and wearing it for the first time. I think that’s what drives every Trinitian to want to play rugby.’
As any school rugby player would know, attaining the school jersey is one of biggest passions a boy has in their school career. It was not ‘just’ a jersey for them, but a symbol of achievement and strength, as it is something received once you prove yourself worthy to play the game. The most sacred and priceless memory one can hold would be receiving it for the first time, and everything else was just secondary. Gunda too firmly agrees the paramount significance the jersey holds and expressed how it will always be a symbol of glory for any school boy. That, coupled with an authentic passion and respect for the game is what a true rugby player is all about.
Starting from under 15, with Coach Mr. Maurice Perera, this team had always performed well and won numerous titles. Trinity College went on to become the 1st holder of the C. E. Simithraaratchy Trophy played against Royal in the Under 17 age group. Ponna, Gunda and the rest of the team were almost unbeatable, and even had a continuous streak in winning the Simith’s Cup. During their Under 19 year, under Coach Bertie Dias, the team went on to win all of their matches, except the 2nd leg of the Bradby encounter.
Now, the Bradby encounter played between Trinity and Royal College is the most important encounter for both schools and it is regarded as the Blue Ribbon Schools Rugby encounter in Sri Lanka. Celebrated its 75th encounter in 2019, while the legacy of these two institutions put together holds more than 300 years of a story, the much adorned Trinity-Royal rugby saga is now almost a century as both met for the first time in Colombo (then Serpentine Road) back in 1920. Since the trophy introduction in 1945, the Bradby encounter played uninterrupted is looked forward to by a large number of rugby fans and the ultimate goal of each of the schools is to either secure the shield or win the shield back. Fairly or unfairly, the greatest players, the brilliance of the captain and the coach is judged by whether that particular team won the encounter. And regardless of how well the team played in the encounter, we cannot change the general perception. For instance, in 1980, under Captain Tikiri Ellepola Trinity won the De Saram Shield against S. Thomas’ who had great players like Thambapillai, but unfortunately lost the Bradby shield. Commenting on the loss in 1980, Ponna and Gunda stated:’ Tikiri’s year as captain was good, we did have a strong team and the winning against S. Thomas’ proves that. However unfortunately during the Bradby encounter, there were a number of players who got injured during the 1st and 2nd leg and so some of our best players couldn’t play. Nevertheless, we cannot determine 1980 to be a completely unfortunate year for the Trinity ruggerites as we did win many titles against other schools.’
Coming back to the year 1981, the team that had continuously won numerous matches since their junior year, was now the senior team. With their past achievements, everyone had a feeling that there will be a positive outcome in the Bradby encounter later that year. Although as individuals not everyone was a perfect rugby player, as a team, the Trinity rugger team was unstoppable. Coach Dias especially played an integral part in preparing the boys to win. Although he was a man of very few words, the few points or advice he gave the team were noteworthy. In order to up the team’s standard Mr. Dias knew he had to arrange a match with Isipathana College, who was at their peak in Schools Rugby by then. For the first time, after 15 years a match was fixed between Trinity and Isipathana. As it was the beginning of the season, no school wanted to lose so early in the game. With that in mind, the 1981 Trinity 1st XV rugger team went on to defeat the best of the best, thereby gaining the confidence they needed to not only play against the rest of the schools left for that season, but most importantly, it gave them the boost of confidence they needed to win against Royal.
Speaking on the team’s improvement, Ponna and Gunda stated: ‘Although only 15 boys would play the match, we had around 25 players in the team who were in the same standard and able to deliver exceptionally well. Each one of us knew we had a role to play and even if a player in the top 15 was taken out of the team, there was always someone who would step up and match the required standard. And that’s what we think was our strength: having a well built unit. Yes, coach did play a role in the rise of our standard, but by the time we became seniors in 1981, we were the team that played together in under 15 and under 17 as well. And over the years, we had won and lost together, that now we knew each other so well that we were almost telepathic. You make a pass and someone will be there for sure to catch it. We gelled so well together and we think that consistency was the most important factor that drove us to win almost everything.’
Although the team knew it had the depth required to win any match, instead of getting carried away with their winnings, they took one game at a time. While Ravi Bandaranayake, the captain of the Trinity rugby team in 1981 led by example, Ashan Ratwatte, A. Wickramasinghe, ‘Lord’ Byron Fernando and Ravi Ponnambalam were some of the best players in the team. In addition, from 1-8, the team contained some of the best forwards including Hassanally (Boozan), Dilip Adhihetty, Roshan Ratwatte, Devapriya Perera & Firdowzi, Suan, Bulathsinhala, Pradeep Adhihetty & Byron, Ashan and L.S Pilapitiya. It was the trust that each one had in each other that helped the team to secure every win.
Recalling his teammates strengths, Ponna stated ‘If you throw a ball to L.S anywhere, he would catch it and Ravi Banda led us strongly from the front. From the get go Ravi was a leader, he spoke less, but he played by example and was an inspiration to all. The other two fastest guys on their feet were Gunda and Ana, you give them a ball and no one will be able to catch them. And they scored two fantastic tries in the first leg. In our reserves, we had Kehel, Padeniya, Bassa, Fazari, and they were always there to step up at any given time, and perform well. So like I said previously, our team always gelled together very well and that played a central role in each game.’
Sharing some of the best memories and his view on the difference between rugby in 1981 and in the modern generation, Gunda stated: ‘It was an absolute pleasure to play with this team, not only did we have a tight brotherhood while on the field, but we also had a strong friendship with each other off the field. During 1981, rugby at school and club level was colourful, there were players with more flair, more passion. Rugby in its essence was running away from the defense and that made the sport very attractive, there’s the long-kick, maul, ruck, scrum, touch and the crowd would go wild for any one of these actions. Ravi Ponnambalam for example was a towering strength in defense and attack in our team, on the opposite side, a similar example would be Johaan Muller, but having said that both were different in their level of strengths. Other great players with unique traits would be Ravi Wijenathan who played for Royal, CH & FC and Sri Lanka, Gobi Kandaiha, Hiran Muttiah, Seevali Jayasinghe, Sriyan & Sujeeva Cooray, from Isipathana we had the opportunity to play with Dilo, Sallay, Ifthikar, Hisham, from St. Peter’s Rohan Paulas and Keith Nugegoda.’
Coming back to the all-important Bradby Shield Encounter, for three consecutive years (from 1978-1980) Royal secured the shield. As a result, at this point the Trinitians were hungry for a win and were determined to bring the shield back home. Royal College 1st XV under Sujeeva Cooray with 11 coloursmen were unbeaten. However having defeated Royal in their previous age groups, the team strove to play a fair game and play to their strengths while having a great respect to Royal. With the advantage of holding the 1st leg at Nittawela, Kandy, Trinity College scored a terrific 16-3 win with wingers Ananda Wickramasinghe and ‘Gunda’ Nihal Gunawardana scoring two tries, and flanker Kumar Bulathsinhalage scoring the third try. Coming down to Colombo for the decisive 2nd leg, things turned out to be different. Royalists were declared winner of Noel Gratien Cup, the ‘Official Tournament for Under 19 Schools Rugby’ which Trinity did not take part. Bradby 2nd leg was played at Longden Place in front of a capacity crowd as Royal were billed to win it and retain the Bradby. Royal College put up a grand fight and scored a fantastic 10-3 with Captain Sujeeva Cooray and Dushantha Kumar scoring two tries. Though the Royalist put up a strong opposition, Trinity College finally regained the Bradby shield with a better aggregate, thereby ending their three year losing streak.
Commenting on the loss of Trinity College in the 2nd leg, Ponna stated: ‘I think we took our foot off the pedal after the win in the first leg. We already knew we had a 10 point cushion coming into the second leg, and maybe we were not as driven as the 1st, we were not hungry as they were. When Royalists visited Nittawela for the 1st leg, they were all out to beat us but we were at our best and never gave them the room to play their natural game. We rattled them. I think Royal returned the favour in the 2nd leg by rattling us. We knew players like Ravi Wijenathan, Hiran Muttiah, Seevali Jayasinghe, Sriyan Cooray, Johaan Muller can turn around a game. I’m sure I was heavily marked and so was Byron, Ashan and Ravi Banda. At any given time there were two or three players to counter us, spoil our moves. Nevertheless, kudos to Royal for a great turnaround game, it was indeed a very good match, a tough one. However, although we lost, we did stand our ground and this goes on to prove that it was our resilience that kept us up until the end.’
Gunda too stated ‘I did expect Royal to come back strong, not only because they are a very fierce opposition, but also because it’s natural for the underdog to come and topple the other. Bradby has always been an unpredictable game, the same scenario has happened to both schools many a time. Looking back at it now, I’m not so surprised, but as we focused on maintaining our defense, Royal lost 90% position, so there’s nothing much that could be done at that point.’
Recalling their memories of the Bradby encounter in 1981, Ponna stated: ‘I would say winning Bradby is very memorable to us, because we won against a very good and deserving team under Sujeeva. We too were not pushovers and I believe under Ravi, we all gave our best and played a fair game. One of the reasons why we remember everything in detail is probably because it was a worthy win, played with great spirits by the two schools. In addition to that, over the years of playing this sport, our bond, our camaraderie, that initiated with a game like rugby has continued for 38 years, and I think it’s only going to get better as we get older. We are very happy to see this encounter continue, Bradby itself is bigger than the two schools, or any individual, and must be played in a spirit of fairness, while embracing sportsmanship. Having said that, whenever we lose a match, we mustn’t lose the true essence of Bradby, and instead, we must strive to respect the sport at all times.’
Two weeks after leaving school in 1981, Ponna went on to join Havelock SC, which was doing exceptionally well in winning its matches. Under Angelo Wickramaratne, Ponna was part of the Havelocks team that became triple champions even though he stayed only for five matches. Ponna is also the only one to receive two major awards, one because Trinity College won the Most Popular School Rugby Team award, and the second, because Havelocks won the Most Popular Rugby Club award. Gunda recalls Ponna being out of the country at the time, whereupon his father collected it on behalf of him. Ponna expresses how deeply humbled and grateful he felt in being selected to play for Havelocks, with the likes of Frank Hubert, Len de Silva, Hisham Abdeen, Surasena , Orville Fernando, Sallay, Rienzie, Bharatha Mendis, Marco and a galaxy of stars.
Later on, Ponna moved to the UK in 1981 to pursue his studies and help out with his father’s business. During a visit in 1982 played a few mid-season games for Havies. In 1986, with the sad demise of his mother, Ponna returned to Sri Lanka and did his father’s business till 1989. During 1989 Ponna got married to his high school sweetheart and migrated to Canada after his father passed away. He now has two children, a daughter who’s 27 years old and a son aged 25.
Gunda on the other hand did not pursue rugby as soon as leaving school; instead he played when he started working at John Keells Group (now JKH) and Sri Lankan Airlines. Gunda too is married to his high school sweetheart and has two children, Nikhil and Sarah, aged 18 and 15 respectively.
Advising the younger generation, Ponna stated: ‘In my opinion, as school boys we come together as a group and it’s all about having fun, building friendships, being respectful, and playing the game in the right spirit, and that is what I think is most important. Now it has come to a situation, where a child is forced to play to win at any cost, and we were not taught to do that, because if we did, we wouldn’t have these friendships that have lasted for a lifetime. At the end of the day what matters is being humble about everything, so if you win, you take it humbly, if you lose, you still take it in good spirits.’
Adding to what Ponna said, Gunda stated ‘Bradby is the showpiece of Sri Lankan schools rugby, we need to look at the traditional set up that has been put in here, we need to follow them, we need to be passionate about them, we need to save them at any cost. You play to win, but never sacrifice the spirit of the game no matter what. I have no doubt the two schools will maintain the standard of Bradby and I wish them all the very best’. Gunda concluded ‘Bradby is important and is bigger than any individual. We need to treasure that. ’
Link to the Photo album of the 1981 Trinity Rugby reunion