It’s A Three-Horse Race As League Hits Final Stretch
WITH just two more weekends remaining before the completion of the first round of the Dialog Inter-Club League, three of the four qualifiers for the Cup competition can be inked in: Kandy SC, the defending champions, Havelock SC and the Navy.
As at last weekend, the identity of the fourth qualifier remains an intriguing mystery. Although it appears to be a three-cornered fight between the Army, debutantes Upcountry Lions, both on 18 points each, and the Police, two points less with a game in hand, the prospects of seventh-placed CR&FC, with 11 points and two games to play are by no means dead and buried – though it’ll be a miracle if they do succeed.
How CR might get there is to pick through a labyrinth; explained simplistically, though, this is how: the CR must win both their remaining games and the three closest rivals lose all of theirs – an eventuality that would leave CR with 21 points, three more than the tally of the presently fourth-placed Upcountry Lions, one of whose two remaining opponents is Havelocks, undefeated and second placed and the other, CR. The debutante Nawalapitiya club conceding their two remaining games isn’t quite in the realms of the impossible. On the other hand, the prospects of the Longden Place club winning both their remaining first-round matches are far more hopeful. The reward of winning over Upcountry Lions will be motivating enough for the CR, while their next opponent is the CH&FC, winless and last on the table. Far-fetched wouldn’t be the right description of CR’s chances of winning their remaining games, but to secure fourth place, they would’ve prayed for Army’s defeat at the hands of the Police yesterday.
The outcomes of this weekend’s (July 27-29) matches will likely unveil the fourth Cup event qualifier, but don’t bet on that. Given the many mathematical possibilities before the four vying for the fourth slot, it might not be until the final week of first-round games are over that the four-team Cup lineup can be confirmed.
That a tussle for the less-significant fourth place in the Cup event should generate such suspense tells of a quality of competition unseen since, perhaps, rugby’s halcyon years, 60s through to the mid 90s, the time when underdogs’ conquest of the champions wasn’t uncommon. You know what the competition was like following those rousing years. Sure, over the past two decades there were close races for slots 2, 3 and four, but Kandy SC were so far in front of the rest that the league championship was as good as locked away in the Nittawela locker room, rendering a good portion of the Cup competition superfluous. It was the era that became to be known as the seasons of the one-horse race.
If there’s a struggle this season for the fourth slot, the battle for first-round leadership is decidedly intense. Clearly, from the outset there were three frontrunners: defending champions Kandy SC, the Navy and the Havelocks, last season’s nos. 1, 2 and three. All three clubs, at different times so far this season, have briefly resided at the top, separated by the bonus points gathered on their respective undefeated runs.
Last weekend, pugnacious Navy might’ve been brought down to earth by the Havelocks and so had their previous week’s six-point lead shrunk to a point. But the sailors’ secure life at the top is anything but ended. Despite last week’s defeat Navy remain no.1 as the race enters the final stretch. In fact, the battle for the first-round’s no.1 position provides fascinating alternatives. But before discussions on the possible scenarios, let’s set before us the remaining fixtures of the top three: 1/ Havelocks: v. Kandy SC (yesterday) and Upcountry Lions (Aug.4); 2/ Navy: v. Kandy SC (Aug.5) 3/ Kandy SC: v. Havelocks (yesterday) and Navy (Aug.5).
Havelocks haven’t won at Nittawela for as long as one can remember, and though currently enjoying a hugely successful season, it’ll still be a remarkable feat should Havelocks have bearded the Lion in its own den yesterday – an achievement that would virtually confirm their no.1 status going into the Cup competition. But frankly, the defending champion’s many virtues, especially those of their skilful and imaginative back-division, and the lusty support of a passionate home audience, would likely have overcome the Havelocks’ spirited challenge in what was certain to be a game of high quality rugby.
Even if Kandy SC had won yesterday, the no.1 position is far from guaranteed – a state that’s a distant cry from the times when the perennial champions had, by mid-season, pretty much run away with league prize and deposited it in their trophy cupboard. Next weekend they confront their growing nemesis, the Navy at Welisera, a venue which in the past two seasons has been the champion’s Waterloo.
Should the ghost of Welisera return to haunt Kandy SC for a third year next week (and the Havelocks’ undefeated run brought to grief yesterday), then what two months of sweat and labour couldn’t decide, the calculator would have to be put to use to work out which teams takes first round’s no.1 position. Havelocks losing out to Upcountry Lions in their final first-round game is a chimera, and should Navy continue its dominance over Kandy SC in Welisera that would mean the top three teams will end up with the identical record of 7 wins and one defeat – leaving the accrued bonus points of each to decide the first- round leaders.
The first round, however, doesn’t decide the league champions – it’s the second round, or the competition for the Cup, that determines the title’s destiny. So with the first-round being solely about deciding the four qualifiers for the Cup event why, you might ask, all this fuss about first-round leadership. The reasons are two-fold, the more significant being that points accrued from the first round are carried forward to the Cup competition score sheet. The other reason is less discernible: psychological.
The competition’s honours, as explained before, have always been a race among the top three teams, and their meetings in the Cup event is surely going to be a no-holds-barred encounters. And in ferociously contested encounters, having a first-round win over any of your closest challengers does provide psychological help. As well, home venue advantage. Havelock SC is assured of playing host to two of its three second-round opponents: v. Navy SC and the fourth qualifier, whoever – thanks to six of its eight first-round matches being away. The Navy is certain of one home second-round game: v. the Havelocks, same as Kandy SC: v. the Havelocks.
It’s been a long time since such mouth-watering fare was laid before fans – and they’ll surely respond in their thousands, as indicated by the over three-thousand attending last week’s spine-chiller between the Havelocks and Navy. The Union has wisely decided to fly out referees from overseas to officiate in a majority of the Cup competition games. After all, you don’t want such exciting fare to be botched by sub-standard refereeing, a fear harboured were the local referees asked to do the job.
Rugby’s good times are back.