By Lohit Ranasinghe
Nineteen eighty was the start of another decade for schools’ rugby after the highly exciting competition during the 1970s that produced some scintillating matches. Royal had a very successful decade, winning the Bradby Shield six times out of the 10 years (1971, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979) and being the unofficial schools champions five times (joint champs in 1973, 1975 and 1976 champions in 1978, 1979).
After the success of the previous two years in 1978, under Rohantha Peiris, and 1979, under Raba Gunasekera, there were high expectations for the Royal side, with Sujanthakumar appointed as captain in 1980, to retain the Bradby for the third successive year.
Sujanthakumar was one of the best scrum-halves to be produced by Royal during the late 1970s. He was first drafted in to play in the Royal First XV side at the age of 15 when Raba Gunasekara, the regular scrum-half in the 1977 side was hurt in the final practice session before the vital St Peter’s game. Under pressure as a youngster for the first time in the First XV jersey, he made an immediate impact for the side in a highly fought out battle with Angelo Wickremaratne’s Peterites, Royal holding on to draw the game with the score reading 8-All. Based on his performance in this game Sujanthakumar was retained for the next game against the Thomians with the return of the regular scrum-half Gunesekera.
It was a unique debut with an incident in which Sujanthakumar sent the referee to hospital with a dislocated elbow. As he recalled the incident: “Halfway into the game, referee Denzil Kobbekaduwa, a stocky colonel in the army ran into me, and then landed on the ground howling in pain. For a moment I was in disbelief that I had in fact injured a fit, muscular army officer who was almost double my size. In a sense that unfortunate mishap also served as a morale booster and made me feel that I was strong enough to withstand the First XV pressure with the older boys.”
Then as the regular-scrum half from the 1978 season onwards (Raba Goonesekera shifted to the flanker position) Sujanthakumar represented the Royal side that went onto beat Dulwich College of London, the only school to beat the visiting team that year and were the runners-up in the Asian schools rugby tournament in Thailand in December. During this same tournament, Royal beat the Thomians 19-9 in Thailand, which was a great satisfaction after a drawing in the Gooneratne Trophy that year and losing in the Centenary knockouts. The team that played was the virtual Royal team that would play the 1979 season when the annual Gooneratne trophy encounter was not played as the Thomians wanted the game played between the Bradby Shield matches, a request that could not be accommodated.
Sujanthakumar also represented the combined schools team against the visiting Loughborough Grammer schools team. In 1979, Sujanthakumar was the vice-captain of the Colombo North schools’ rugby team that won the Gratien Cup. The same year whilst still at school, he represented the CR “Bees” in the “B” division knockout tournament – the side ending up as champions.
After captaining Royal through another successful season in 1980, he went on to represent CH & FC in the Clifford Cup “A” Division tournament in the same year. He then represented Sri Lanka for the first time as a 20-year-old in 1982 in the Cathay Pacific “Seven a Side” tournament held in Hong Kong under the captaincy of Saman Jayasinghe.
The Maitland Crescent side won the “A” division championship for the Clifford Cup in 1982 for the first time in 20 years. Then, in 1983, Sujanthakumar was appointed captain of CH & FC, the team going on to become unbeaten champions and retaining the Clifford Cup for the second successive year. In 1984, the club ended the season as runners-up in both the league and knock-out tournaments, and in his final season in 1985 CH & FC went onto win the knock-out championship and Sujanthakumar represented Sri Lanka at the 9th Rugby Asiad in Fukuoka City, Japan.
Sujanthakumar migrated to the United States in early 1986, and he has been a keen follower of school sports especially cricket and rugby. He has also been an active participant in the Sri Lanka schools rugby and cricket tournaments held in the US east coast cities.
Sujanthakumar learned to play rugby and pretty much every sport at the Peterson – Cooray Park with about 20-30 childhood friends, who represented their respective schools, clubs and some even proceeded to play in the national team at rugby, cricket, soccer, basketball and athletics. After being encouraged by the family to take up to all sports at early age, with rugby being first, at the age of 10 in 1971 alongside 15 to 20-year-olds at Fredrica Rugby & Football club (FR & FC), a predecessor to current Petersons rugby team against the Fraser Avenue team in Dehiwala by the sea. He would tag along with the older guys and be the regular touch judge for the games and be called upon to play whenever the team ran short to make up the 15th player for FR & FC.
During this time, Sujanthakumar represented the Petersons Cricket Club in the Division 3 Daily News league as a wicket-keeper in 1977, where he played alongside Ashantha De Mel and Asanka Gurusinha who subsequently went onto represent Sri Lanka. Remembering his days at Petersons, “I am eternally grateful to my childhood friends at Petersons for including and encouraging me to play at a very early age that paved the way to smoothly transition into the Royal under-17 team at the age of 14 and then to the First XV side. I regret not having attempted to play cricket and tennis, in school to strike a balance with the academics and rugby.”
As Sujanthakumar recalls, “My brother Sukumar was my role model and he played as a centre three-quarter for the Royal First XV team from 1974-1976 and then for CR & FC from 1977-1982. Father Subramaniam played soccer for St Henry’s, Illavali and mother Selvarani played netball for Jaffna Ladies College, and they were a great source of inspiration. Sister Suji was a huge rugby fan who used to watch the games and she still is a fan coming down from Toronto to watch the 2017 Bradby.”
Back to the 1980 schools season which commenced with four seniors Sujanthakumar (captain), Raheeman (vice-captain), Rizwi Saldin and Sujeeva Cooray who had played the entire 1979 season. It was reduced to three early in the season with a near fatal injury to winger Saldin who was out for the rest of the season, and he thankfully recovered. In addition, the other seniors included Kapila Peiries, Sumitte Fonseka and Shanaka Gunaratne, all of whom had played a couple of games during the previous season.
With the exodus of senior players from the ‘79 team, there was a dearth of experience in the 1980 team. Due to this desperate situation, inter-house rugby games that hadn’t been played in a decade were revived to scout for fresh talent and yielded great success.
The team was coached by dedicated old boys, Mr. Summa Navaratnam, Malik Samarawickrama and Dr. Fred Perera, who coached their alma mater on a pro bono basis with great passion. Physical conditioning and fitness was handled by Alphonso Rodrigo, former Sri Lanka and army hooker, who drilled the team to be fit as the army commandos, making it easier for the coaches to stay focused only on rugby drills. The team is also grateful to the old boys who groomed the players at the under-17 level that time, Air Force Commander Harry Gunathilaka, Dr. V C De Silva, Raminal Samarasinghe and master-in-charge Abu Haniffa, assisted by Bawa Weerasinghe.
Eventually, six members of the 1980 team – Sujanthakumar, Sritheran, Ravi Wijenathan (CH & FC), Hiran Muttiah, Sriyan Cooray, Sujeeva Cooray (CR&FC) donned the national jersey. Sujanthakumar, Ravi Wijenathan and Leon Fonseka captained their respective club teams. Sritheran, Kapila Peiries, Seevali Jayasinghe, Kandiah and Johan Muller represented CH & FC. PG Martin Nimalasiri and Sumitte Fonseka represented CR & FC.
The expectations were high for 1980 after the success in the previous two seasons, with Royal being the unofficial schools champions and having won the Bradby Shield two years in a row. Royal had never won the Bradby three times n a row previously.
Before the season started, the SLSRFU introduced an official tournament for the school rugby championship with the Noel Gratien Cup being offered for the A division and the Tyrell Muttiah Memorial Cup for the B division. This was different to the previous seasons where at the end of the schools’ season the champion side was declared based on the best record during the season since there was no official points table.
Being the inaugural year of the official league that was organised relatively at a short notice, there were uncertainties with regard to the number of games that both the teams would have had to play that season in addition to the traditional fixtures and the impact on the Bradby games. This resulted in Trinity and Royal declining to participate in the official tournament and indicating their preference to play just their traditional encounters as this would impact on these games and scheduling of the Bradby. The tournament would require schools to accommodate additional matches. S. Thomas’, Isipathana, St. Peter’s, St. Anthony’s, Dharmaraja, Vidyartha, and Wesley confirmed participation in the A division championship.
The season started with a win over Ananda College by a close 10 points to nil margin, followed by a convincing win over Wesley College at Reid Avenue in the first game played at home before they encountered a tough Vidyartha side. Royal was able to scrape through by eight points to nil in Kandy, which was the match they needed to prepare for one of the toughest games that season – versus Isipathana.
Isipathana had not beaten Royal for 10 years, with their last win coming in 1970, when Royal lost the game by three points to nil. Interestingly, Isipathana beat Royal convincingly by 24-6 in 1971 however Isipathana were found to have played overage players in that team and the SLSRFU disqualified Isipathana from the tournament and subsequently enforced a suspension for 1972. Unfortunately for Royal, 1980 happened to be the year Isipathana finally ended Royal’s unbeaten record over them.
The game started late on that rainy day at Havelock park when a spectator Gamini Fernando (a former Trinity legend and Sri Lanka player) had to get into a pair of shorts at very short notice to kick off the proceedings 20 minutes after the scheduled start of the game when the official referee failed to show up. Being well aware of the fact that four Isipathana players couldn’t play the rest of the season after the Royal game, due to age limitation rules in place at the time, Royal could have easily opted for a postponement of the game rather than agree for a spectator to officiate at the game. However, Royal agreed to play in the best interests of the tradition and the fact that Royal was one of the few schools to give Isipathana a fixture throughout the decade. If the game had been postponed, the 14-7 loss may have been reversed by the inexperienced Royal team that peaked towards the end of the season and the fact that Isipathana would have been without four of their senior players.
Royal won their next game against Dharmaraja convincingly by 41 points to nil at Reid Avenue which was in preparation for their next major encounter which was against the Peterites at Bambalapitiya. The Royal-Peterite games during the ‘70s decade had been very close encounters, with Royal having scraped through 11-10 in the previous encounter in 1979, a close 12-3 win in 1978 and an 8-all draw in 1977. After an exciting game of rugby, Royal managed to pull off a win over St. Peter’s by 10 points to nil.
Next was the Royal-Thomian encounter for the Gooneratne Trophy, which had not been played the previous year due to the dispute, which allowed the Thomians to retain the trophy they won in 1977 by a close 7-3 margin as the 1978 game was drawn 6-All. The Gooneratne Trophy had not been with Royal since the Thomians won 8-3 in 1975 as the 1976 game also ended in a 6-all draw. The Thomians had already lost two games during the season to Sathisara MV (now known as Science) and to Trinity prior to the Royal encounter. Royal finally took back the Gooneratne Trophy with a hard-fought 10-7 win over the Thomians at Longdon Place.
The next game with the Josephians was another hard-fought game for Royal to scrape through by 11-6 margin, which was the last game before the Bradby. In between the two Bradby encounter,s Royal also went on to beat the Antonians by 10 points to nil at Longdon Place.
Preparation for the Bradby was now taking place, with the Trinitians lead by Tikiri Ellepola having gone through the season as the only unbeaten side to date. It was going to be a tough ask for Royal to retain the Bradby Shield for the third year in a row, however Royal tamed the lions in both legs winning 7-3 at Longdon Place and then convincingly winning the encounter in Kandy by 16-6 margin – the Trinitians failing to cross the Royal line in both gamess. This was the first time in history that Royal had won three successive Bradby Shields.
At the end of the season, Royal had the best record having played 11, winning 10 and losing only to Isipathana. The Thomians had topped the Gratien Cup league points table to win the trophy after overcoming Isipathana and the Peterites, who took the second and third spots in the points table.
The Thomians had lost three games during the season to Sathisara MV, Trinity and Royal but as the latter two teams had not participated in the official tournament, these losses had no impact in the tournament. In addition, Sathisara was not part of the “A” division teams and even though the Thomians lost by a 0-16 margin it did not have an impact on the tournament standings.
The official tournament aside, Isipathana had lost only to the Thomians and with a drawn game against Kingswood College had the second best record. If the official tournament was not held, Royal would have been declared as the unofficial champions with the best record during the 1980 school season with just one loss and winning the other 10 games to cap a great start to the new decade.