Splendour in the grass
By UL Kaluaratchi
It is now decades since I handled a rugby ball. So, the kick-off at this stage of our life is difficult, yet it always is considered very important. I would like to kick off these random reflections by paying a warm tribute to a group of dedicated “rugbyphiles”.
Among them are M.T. Thambapillai, Royal’s erstwhile rugby master of more than two decades (who also tried to start rugby at S. Thomas’, without much success in the early 1940s, while on the staff there); Summa Navaratnam, the indefatigable athlete, double international in rugby and athletics and one time rated as the fastest man in Asia; Mahesa Rodrigo, also a double international in cricket and rugby, and the first Sri Lankan to captain Sri Lanka (Ceylon) at rugby; Geoff. Weinman, the first to represent Ceylon at rugby as a schoolboy, and Stanley Unamboowe, a triple coloursman at Royal in cricket, rugby and athletics, and who wore a national tie for the country in rugby football.
They, and those who followed, gave ever so readily without any form of financial reward for the cause of rugby, especially at Royal, that their charges may derive unmitigated joy from this great and noble game, and revel in the splendour in the grass.
Yes, we did savour that splendour. Not for Trophies alone, though we did play to win, but for the sheer joy it brought us, while ensuring the inviolate undertaking that the game must be the ultimate winner. True. There was slush at times. And there was mud. Indeed, there were unpalatable decisions, which may have helped the sundry antagonists to record unwarranted victories for posterity. But that did not deter us from revelling in that splendour in the grass.
Of course, the first burst of joy, the first taste of that splendour must surely belong to that maverick, William Webb Ellis, who, way back in 1823 with football under his arm, a sudden turn of speed, and vivacity of mind, dashed through the milling herd before him, surprising everybody, to “score”, what could probably be described as the game’s first “try”; immediately followed by a heap of motley bodies on top of him in an enthusiastic endeavour to retrieve that football, thereby signalling, perhaps, the game’s first “pile-up” as well.
Ellis’s historic, yet outrageous, dash made the elements of surprise, creativity, innovation and determination, almost genetic features of the game from its very inception. His was also a splendid exploit in the grass, which was to later create space, so to speak, for generations to come, in as many countries as they are varied, to enjoy that splendour.
When we played this wonderful game at school and thereafter we were fortunate enough to imbibe all the great traditions of the game, handed down to us freely by those who learnt the way before us. Hence, the tribute to those whose efforts gave us the opportunity to enjoy the best that rugby could offer: courage, determination, innovation and most important of them all, the freedom to think and develop our total being through this great game.
The late Carwin James, that rugby guru extraordinaire, who moulded Llannelli, the Welsh rugby Club, and the invincible British Lions of 1971 into brilliantly dynamic and innovative units once said: “Rugby Football is a player’s game. He is the warrior, who mattered … he takes the field; he does the actual thing and should have qualities of honour, courage and pride in performance …” to play it as it should be played “like living a life; fun and fury chivalry and enjoyment …”
In the history of the game at Royal (as indeed it must be in other schools) examples abound, which amply illustrate these qualities; these features. One example that comes ever so readily and vividly to mind is that scintillating try scored by Lorenz (Lollo) Pereira, in the first Bradby Shield game of 1958, played at Longden Place. I was a privileged spectator, as an “under-seventeener”, watching that try in awe and wonder. Surprise, innovation, courage (to be different), pride in performance, enjoyment, all this and more were entrenched in that try. Lorenz, the right winger, skirted behind the three-quarter line, ever so furtively, from around the Trinity 25, while the ball was being transferred swiftly and elegantly from hand to hand – from scrum-half Raja Potuhera to fly-half Maurice Anghie, to centre Tony Rankine, to co-centre O.G. Samaratunge, and over to the left winger Lal Senaratne from whom Lorenz accepted that ball with glee to cross over, unopposed, for a magnificent try.
One couldn’t have hoped to see a more joyful ride for that rugby ball. It was splendour all the way. And before Trinity could say Bradby, Royal had scored. As Carwyn James would have so readily acknowledged: it was not only a case of “sniffing the wind, but also creating it”. This try and the one that followed by an alert and determined scrum-half Potuhera not only virtually sealed the Bradby for Royal that year, but also fulfilled the promise of resilience of Royal rugby demonstrated in the previous year’s (1957) Bradby return played at the same venue.
That return Bradby game of 1957 was equally memorable for many features, the chief among them being the manner of Trinity’s superb comeback. Royal had a deficit of eight points from Nittawela in the first game. It was sheer delight to see two splendid tries by Lorenz Pereira and Ralph Wickremaratne, both playing in hitherto unaccustomed positions of centres in this game (Lorenz usually played on the wing and Ralph was a first-class flanker). Within the first five to seven minutes, Royal had wiped off the deficit of eight points incurred in the first game. The Trinitians were attempting to move the ball down the line from inside their 25 when Lorenz neatly intercepted a pass meant for his opposite number and dashed to touch down with the Trinity line looking around in total dismay.
The shocks were not yet over. Hardly had the cheers for that first try died down when almost from the same area on the field Harry Rasiah, Royal wing-forward, grabbed a pass from the Trinity scrum-half meant for his fly-half, found a gap and passed the ball to Ralph Wickremaratne, ready at hand, who went over for a brilliant, opportunist try. The score now became 8-0 in Royal’s favour and all was set for Royalists to score a historic win but Trinity upset all plans with that brilliant comeback.
The score read 8-3 when Trinity’s Ken de Joodt put over a penalty for an off-side offence by Royal just before half time. In the second half, in the face of grim and determined tackling by Royal, Trinity scored a try when fly-half Nimal Maralande worked the blind side to send winger Godigamuwa over. This try went unconverted to make the score 8-6 in Royal’s favour. All was not lost for Royal. At least they could save this match, if not win the Bradby. Then came that thriller of a try when Trinity dribbled the ball (alas, a forgotten art today) almost the full length of the field for centre Buultjens to score by the right upright. That dribble came off a dropped pass by Royal, who were very much in a scoring position within the Trinity 10m. So much for missing an opportunity and so much for picking one. The try went unconverted to give Trinity a memorable 9-8 win, and the Bradby.
This game was one of the finest one could hope to see in any class of rugby. If Trinity were determined to score off that brilliant dribble, Royal captain Ratna (Roti) Sivaratnam was equally valiant to quell it. He fell on the ball like a Trojan no less than three times to stem the attack in different parts of the field, without success. So did a few more of his team. Nothing could stop that avalanche of a try but this did not take away the pride of Royal’s performance that day.
In another comeback in 1970, the Royalists, having lost 3-19, in the first Bradby leg in Colombo, had gone down fighting in the second game, 12-16, from a 12-nil advantage obtained very early in the game. Brilliant rugby was played on that day by both teams and though one side won the game was the real winner.
In the 1960s, too, there were some exciting moments of courage, determination and pride in performance. In 1962, Royal won the first game at Longden Place (now Malalasekera Mawatha) with a good 5-0 win, which proved inadequate in the end. Royal surprised Trinity with a quick-silver heel off a ruck in the Trinity 25, the ball swiftly moving out from the scrum-half to the fly-half, who, when he was about to pass to his first centre was directed by the latter, with a sharp eye, to go under the posts because a gap had opened up. This try exemplified the importance of playing with the eye.
In the return game, Trinity surprised Royal, (playing against the wind in the first half at Bogambara) by scoring nine points rapidly within the first 15 minutes or so. In the second half, with the wind behind them, Royal did everything but score, allowing Trinity, coming from behind, to regain the Bradby. So we won and we lost, yet took pride in our performance.
The 1964 Bradby return in Kandy would be remembered, quite apart from the rousing rugby that was played, as the game of incredible drop-kicks. Lakdasa Dissanayake simply mesmerised everyone present at Nittawela with the splendour of his kicking boot, which sent soaring drop kicks over the bar to bring victory to Royal. The story has it that he had never attempted drop kicks neither before nor after.
In 1968, Royal, under the dynamic and ever-ebullient, C.R. de Silva (affectionately known as “Bulla” by all) had to re-establish their credentials as top-quality players, having suffered bad defeats the previous year. That team virtually rose from the ashes; from average, quiet beginnings early in the season to full-blown dynamism in the final reckoning. That was a story of a classic 19-0 win against Trinity in the first Bradby and a devastating 22-0 win against the Thomians soon thereafter. In the return game, played at the University Peradeniya, Royal’s courage, determination, qualities of honour and pride in performance came to the fore to ward off a valiant last-ditch effort by Trinity, led by that tenacious and brilliant No 8, Ajith Abeyratne.
That 5-3 win by Royal was laced with honour, courage and determination as it was played by a virtual Royal twelve against a courageous, no-holds-barred Trinity fisteen. In this game Royal’s winger Indrakumar Jayewardene, who played in lieu of D.S. Wickremesinghe, was injured in a previous game and was carried off the field rather early, while fly-half Harin Malwatte was playing in a daze, but valiantly carrying on – both victims of the persistently brilliant Trinity skipper’s resolute tackling. In addition, a third casualty, full-back Nirmal Hettiarachchy was hobbling along yet gallantly refusing to leave the field until the last call. There was no possibility of replacements then.
This game was reminiscent of Royal gallantry in the Royal-Zahira game of 1959, when four members of the Royal team were put on the casualty list by a resolute Zahira “Suicide Squad” – two of them were taken off the field, while the rest magnificently rose to the occasion. Skipper Maurice Anghie played in a perpetual daze and Potuhera, the scrum-half, played with a hanging arm, knowing very well that no replacements were possible those days. Royal thrashed Zahira 14-0 in that game.
These and many more memorable moments go to show how the warriors of yore enjoyed that splendour in the grass as others had done before and after them. They took pride in their performance, “sniffing the wind”, so to speak. Indeed, they became men by savouring of the best that the game had to offer in that splendour in the grass.