The secret’s out …. Did you know that the first school rugby team was formed as far back as 1891? From that year, the game has developed a rich history, with great contests and all the traditions of key inter-school encounters. Quadrangle writers Lohit Ranasinghe and Sujith Silva spent countless hours, poring over historical records and newspaper clippings to bring you this special report and exclusive statistics on the birth and exciting growth of school rugby.
By Lohit Ranasinghe and Sujith Silva. Cover : Cassandra Vanheer
The commencement of schools rugby
Kingswood College, Kandy, has the honour of being the first to introduce rugby to school. The following is a list of the schools playing rugby and the year in which they started playing the game.
School Year commenced
Kingswood College, Kandy – 1893
Trinity College, Kandy – 1906
Royal College, Colombo – 1916
Zahira College, Colombo – 1924
St Peter’s College, Colombo – 1932
St Joseph’s College, Colombo – 1955
S. Thomas’ College, Mt.Lavinia – 1955
*St Sylvester’s College, Kandy – 1955
*St Anthony’s College, Kandy – 1956
Wesley College, Colombo – 1956
Dharmasoka College, Ambalangoda – 1957
Thurstan College, Colombo – 1958
*Vidyartha College, Kandy – 1959
Isipathana College, Colombo – 1963
St Benedict’s College, Colombo – 1963
St. Mary’s College, Dehiwela – 1963
Richmond College, Galle – 1965
Ananda College, Colombo – 1966
*Dharmaraja College, Kandy – 1969
Nalanda College, Colombo – 1972
*St Sylvester’s College, Kandy: There were references to the Sylvestrians playing a few friendly games between1955-1956, but was forced to give up the game by end of ’56 due to a lack of facilities. It was revived in the mid-1980s.
*Vidyartha College, Kandy: Though there was a reference to Vidyarthians taking on the sport in 1959, the college first started to play against the leading school sides only in 1966 (first appearance in the official schools’ fixture list).
*St Anthony’s College, Katugastota: The Antonians started playing in 1956, but until 1961 were given mostly Second XV matches by the established schools during that period and played their first full season in 1961.
*Darmaraja College Kandy: Had a brief start to rugby for a few years between the 1950’s and 1960’s, but no record of playing inter-school games until the late 1960’s as stated on the list.
The early years up to the 1940’s
Inter-school rugby in Sri Lanka has a long history, with Kingswood College Kandy, being the first school to play the game as far back as 1891. The first inter-school game was played in 1906 between Kingswood College and Trinity College, with the game ending in a 6-all draw.
Kingswood College gave up rugby three years later, with Trinity remaining as the only school continuing to play it until Royal took to the game in 1916. Trinity played its first game against Royal College on July 20, 1920, winning by a comfortable margin of 26-0, and continuing to win the games over the next few years. Zahira entered the rugby field next and played its inaugural game against Trinity in 1924. Zahira continued to play against both Royal and Trinity until St Peter’s joined the fray and played its first game against Royal in 1932.
By the 1930s, rugby was very popular and drew large crowds. Many of the players representing the clubs were expatriates. During this period, as school rugby had become very competitive, a league tournament was introduced in 1932 and was known as the “little league” as they referred to the club championship as the main/ big league. This school tournament was tightly contested by Trinity, Royal, Zahira and St Peter’s, and they had a points system to determine the winner, based on the wins and losses of each of the teams. Trinity had a near perfect rugby record until the 1932 season, having won all games except for the first game that had been drawn against Kingswood.
In the first competitive season of 1932, Trinity lost for the first time, beaten by Zahira College. Zahira also won against Royal for the first time since their inaugural game in 1925 and beat St Peter’s for the first time in their inaugural year of rugby. Zahira emerged champions in 1932.
The league championship continued to be tightly contested throughout the 1930s and up until 1941. In 1942, in the midst of World War II, Zahira and St. Peter’s were deprived of their premises and had to abandon the game for the next several years resulting in Trinity and Royal being the only schools playing rugby. As a result, two games were introduced for the first time in 1943 between Royal and Trinity to compensate for the absence of the other two teams. One game played in Kandy and the other in Colombo. This tradition continued, and in 1945 the Bradby Shield was introduced.
Royal and Trinity continued their annual encounters when St. Peter’s returned to rugby in 1948 and rejoined their rivals. The Peterites continued their games against Trinity every year but did not play Royal from 1950-1953. There were no competitive tournaments other than the individually contested games from this period up through 1954.
During the pre-war era, the Peterites won most league championships with Trinity in second place. A lot of information regarding the games and the results were extracted from the school annual magazines at the time, and articles.
Years from the 1950s-1990s
S. Thomas’ and St. Joseph’s commenced rugby in 1955 and then other sides such as Wesley, Dharmasoka, Thurstan entered during the late 1950s. Zahira restarted rugby in 1957 and played its first inter-school game in 1958. Therefore from 1955, rugby became competitive again within the playing schools and although there was no official tournament, an unofficial champion was decided based on the best record during the season though it was never officially declared. From 1955-1957 it was Trinity that dominated rugby, winning all games in this period other than a drawn game against Royal in 1957. Royal dominated rugby from 1958-1959, remaining unbeaten and drawing two games with Trinity in 1958 and St Peter’s in 1959. Interestingly, Royal’s goal line was crossed for the first time in two years in 1959, by St Peter’s in their 6-all draw.
By the 1960s, more schools had become very competitive again and we saw schools such as Zahira S. Thomas’, St. Peter’s and Isipathana producing some champion teams, along with Royal and Trinity. During this period, a points table was introduced but was never used consistently each year. As an example, Zahira with one loss to S. Thomas’ were awarded the championship in 1962 with the aid of bonus points, even though the Thomians were unbeaten, with two draws versus Royal and Trinity.
In the 1970s, Royal and S. Thomas’ won most unofficial rugby championships, in addition to Trinity producing a couple of invincible sides. During the ‘70s, rugby was keenly contested and there was a points system in place in certain years during the early 1970s such as in 1972, when St Peter’s topped the points table to be declared champions. During the latter years, it was unofficial and it was not very clear who was the winner based on the seasonal win-loss record.
In 1980, an official league tournament was introduced after many years – the A Division Gratien Cup tournament, and B Division Tyrell Muttiah Cup tournament. These tournaments required certain matches to be played in each division for a points system that would determine the winner. This was the deviation from the previous few years where the champions were decided based on the school having the best record during the season.
In the tournaments’ inaugural year, Royal and Trinity declined to participate as it meant they would have to reschedule their traditional fixtures. As a result, even though both schools had a better overall record, the league championship was won by S. Thomas’ – the Thomians having lost to Royal and Trinity, and Sathisara who were not in the A Division. Royal participated in the tournament in 1981, and won the championship even though they lost the Bradby to Trinity since the Trinitians did not participate in the tournament again. The Thomians won the tournament again in 1982. In 1983, the Gratien Cup league tournament was discontinued and the league became unofficial again.
By the mid-1980s, Isipathana started producing some great teams during which time an annual knockout tournament was also introduced as the Premadasa Trophy. Isipathana was the first winner of that tournament in the inaugural year in 1985and went on to win the triple, which included the league, knockout and the sevens championship. During the late 1980s we saw the invincible sides that were produced by Trinity and Royal, and by the end of the decade S. Thomas’ started an unbeaten run in 1989, which was only ended in 1992.
By the mid-90s, after many years, a points table was introduced again in 1995 to crown the champions. In 1995, with the change in government the knockout tournament was renamed as the President’s Trophy. In 1996, the format was changed and they introduced a league system whereby the best teams at the end of the first round qualified for a league quarter final, semi-final and finally a league final to determine the champs. Both these years Isipathana went on to grab the championships. The league play-offs were discontinued the following year in 1997, as Isipathana went on to win the championship which they repeated in 1999 for their sixth title that decade.
During the 2000s, we saw two Kandy schools, Kingswood and Darmaraja winning the league championship for the first time. Additionally St. Anthony’s won the official league for the first time in 2001, though they had the best schools record jointly in 1971, when Isipathana were disqualified. Like the 1980s, in the early 2000s Trinity declined to participate in the official tournament as the school decided to play only their traditional encounters. As a result, when Trinity finally decided to take part in the tournament in 2004, the team had to start at the lowest division “D”, which took them four years to come up the ranks of winning the lower division tournaments until they reached the A Division in 2007 after many years.
During this period, all top teams were demoted to the lower division at least once such as St Peter’s, the 2002 champions, due to poor performances in 2003 ended up in the B Division in 2004. The Peterites came back to the A Division in 2005, securing third place and then becoming champions in 2006 and 2007. After a poor performance in 2004, Isipathana slumped to the B Division in 2005 and 2006, but came back to the A Division in 2007 and secured the runners-up position. After a disastrous season in 2005, Royal was in the B division in 2006, but was promoted to the A division in 2007. The Thomians were demoted to the B Division after a poor performance in 2011, but came back to the A division in 2014.
One other item of note is that in 2002, SLSRFU had a second A Division knockout tournament for the Premier Cup in addition to the traditional President’s Trophy. The Premier Trophy was also held in 2003, but due to too much rugby many leading schools were not keen on participating in two tournaments and therefore, from 2004 the tournament was not held for the A division, but was the standard knockout tournament for the B division to date. Isipathana won both instances of the Premier Trophy knockout championships when in 2002 they beat the league champions St Peter’s in the final by 16-11 and in 2003 they beat the league runners-up Wesley in the final by 24-0.
Champion teams from each year
Determining the champion sides within each year was challenging in many cases, where we needed to rely on newspaper articles which were sometimes contradictory. Therefore, we needed to review the results of each of the teams and then understand the context of the articles in some cases. In many cases, we spoke to some of the past players, obtained their scrapbooks, paper cuttings and validated the results published in the newspapers, college magazines of that year or other relevant articles.
During the 1930s and early 1940s, our sources were certain college magazines from those years as well as some old articles that were found describing the years and the results, some of which were verified through the national archives and through other college publications such as the 50 years of Bradby or the Trinity Centenary magazine. This is in addition to discussions that we had with some of the players from that era.
For the 1950s, 1960s and the 1970’s, the main source came from the national archives and old newspaper clippings in addition to any records that were retained within the schools. We found that in many instances even the newspaper reports were inconsistent and there were many discrepancies with the recorded scores or even results which needed further verification. There were certain years where the champions were very clear, and it was declared at the end of the season, and there were other years where there was no clear declaration of champions, in which case we compared the results of the teams during the year. We obtained all information we could obtain and then verified accuracy by comparing to actual results available of the games to come to our conclusions.
There were instances such as in 1970, when the newspapers declared Isipathana as unofficial champions after their convincing win over S. Thomas’. However this happened to be the only loss for the Thomians as they won their remaining matches, while Isipathana had lost convincingly to the Peterites which happened to be their only defeat. However, by the end of the season Zahira held Isipathana to a draw, which left Trinity, S. Thomas’ and Isipathana all with one loss and in this case we included all three teams as joint champions.
The year 1971 was a controversial year when Isipathana went onto beat all the schools including a massive 24-6 win over Royal but drew with the Peterites and were considered unofficial champions. However, based on a complaint, that certain players in the Isipathana side were overage they were found guilty and were disqualified for 1971 and subsequently suspended for the entire season of 1972. Since the suspension, no other team was declared as unofficial champions that year. Based on our review of the results of the inter-schools games, we noted that S. Thomas’ and St. Anthony’s, who had both lost to Isipathana had the second best record together with Trinity. Trinity did not have a fixture with Isipathana and had played fewer matches. All three teams had a loss and a draw each and won the rest of the games after the Isipathana game was awarded to the Thomians’ and the Antonians and we therefore considered them joint champions for 1971. We had a few similar situations such as 1975 and 1979, where one than one team had the same record, while in 1973 Royal, St. Peter’s and Trinity were officially declared as champions with the same record.
Following is a breakdown of our results from 1932-2017 with first a summary of the results with the number of titles won by each team. We have only considered the 15-a-side seasons and any knockout tournaments that were conducted for the A division during the year. At the time of writing, Royal just secured another league title for the year 2017 beating Trinity in the first leg of the Bradby Shield. Unfortunately for Trinity, the wait continues for a league title, which they last won under Tyrell Rajapakse in 1987.
Update: Royal College ended the 2010 decade by winning 05 League Championships, including 03 years in a row from 2017 to 2019. Schools Rugby league in 2020 was suspended after the 2nd week due to Covid-19 pandemic and no rugger was played thereafter until early 2022 as few schools opted to play friendlies for the 2021 1st XV team. Trinity College Kandy, S.Thomas’ College Mt. Lavinia, Dharmaraja College and Sri Sumangala College Kandy played their friendly matches. However, Schools Rugby Association hosted a 07-a-side tournament for Schools in Colombo and Kandy for the 2021 season. (No official 1st XV season for 2021)
Note: This section of the article was updated on 17th June 2022.
Number of league titles for each school by decade (1932-2020)
League, and knockout champions, unbeaten teams and all-conquering teams by year