Rugby Violence:Outcome Of Win-At-Any-Cost Ways
Crowd iolence is an unwelcome visitor to sport, anywhere and at all times. Apart from putting lives and limbs of innocent spectators at risk, the thuggish interloper inflicts shame and notoriety that harms sport’s good name, and its’ future in peril. Hence, the nasty eruption at Nittawela last Sunday that caused injuries to more than a few spectators is unforgiveable, and begs a stern reaction from the SLRFU.
For the sake of rugby, it would’ve have been nice were it possible to proffer an argument in mitigation, theorizing, perhaps, that crowd eruptions aren’t premeditated or intentional but more a display of the unbridled emotions of partisan fans, which, albeit last week’s outbreak being too excessive for comfort, make the offence less unpardonable. After all, when a sport enjoys huge popularity, as rugby does, crowd disturbances are to be expected now and then. Besides, how does one legislate against emotionally-sparked behaviour flaring up without warning?
But such generalization is inapplicable to the Nittawela mayhem of last week. It is not the first time that matches between the Navy and Kandy SC at Nittawela have been hit by crowd violence. Two years ago it got so bad that the game was abandoned following a section of the crowd setting upon Kandy SC star Fazil Marija during the game. “Our home matches against Navy in the past three seasons have all been marred by crowd disturbance – which is far too frequent an occurrence to be the spontaneous reactions of partisan fans to events on the playing field. Obviously, there’s more than what the eye can see for the recurring violence,” said a Kandy SC official.
The reasons, however, aren’t all that obscure. It’s no revelation that over the past three seasons no team has challenged the champion side’s long-held dominance quite as threateningly as the Navy has done. It is so only natural the rivalry between the two should grow increasingly sharper – more so as neither team has been able to establish superiority over the other by winning both, the home and away, games in one season. Since the 2010 season, each has won their home-game, but not the away-encounter.
So, the ambition of both teams has been one of conquering the other on rival turf. Achieving that ambition, understandably, means a great deal more to the Navy than it does to Kandy SC, who, having reigned supreme for the better part of the past two decades, ambition’s hunger has been pretty much satiated anyway. For the champions it’s rather more a duty of winning one more match – and the championship. For the sailors, on the other hand, conquering the champions in their own backyard is the ultimate, the chance to bring home the champion’s Cup for the first time ever – a dream they’ll go out on a limb to make real. Which explains why loads of Navy’s supporters are bussed up to Nittawela to boisterously gee up – and do a lot more – to help achieve the elusive dream.
Kandy SC supporters will no doubt claim that it’s Navy’s frustration over the failure to overcome the champion side at Nittawela that have triggered hostile reactions from its supporters. The Navy, perhaps, will either deny pointblank that their supporters (read: Navy personnel) were responsible for the troubles/ or claim their supporters reacted under provocation from the home fans. Either line of defence, however, does little help to stamp out crowd violence in future meetings of the two at Nittawela
It is worth to note that the longer history of matches between the two at Nittawela bears no trace of the unruly crowd behaviour seen lately. The Navy has been an A division competitor since the early 70s, though they did opt out of the competition during much of the three-decade war. Its re-entry after war’s end was remarkable: it ended Kandy SC’s long undefeated run, something that no other team managed for more seasons than one cares to count. Its team since reentry to competition, however, was not of the sort of old: it was largely composed of players from civvy street, and recruited from other clubs – not a team solely of its own personnel, as was the case historically. Clubs who lost players to the Navy cried foul, claiming the service team’s method of recruitment infringed the transfer rules – and protested to the SLRFU. But the union, then headed by Air Force chief Roshan Goonetilleke, turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the clubs’ clamour for an inquiry on the Navy’s rule-bending recruitments.
The recruitment of other clubs’ players by the sailors might arguably be illegal, but post-professionalism records show the Navy isn’t the only party guilty of encroaching on others talents. So accusations aimed at the Navy was much the story of the kettle calling the pot black, really; Kandy SC, the CR and the CH all ‘crimped’ from the other at different times. So, allegations of the Goonetilleke regime doing the Yoshita Rajapaksa-led Navy team favours didn’t quite cut ice.
That was initially. But with the sailors’ first conquest of the champion side, they, justifiably, believed the Cup is within reach – but champion side Kandy SC was a hurdle too high to clear, every time. The frustration of repeated failure (to win in Nittawela) sometimes can push a team to seek outside favours to accomplish what they can’t by fair contest. Quite some wild allegations – from influencing and threatening referees, offers of bribes to key opposing players to resorting to political influence – were directed against the Navy. All of which, unsubstantiated as they are, has to be disregarded as dross.
If all of those allegations were true, then, the Navy ought to have won the Cup by now. Those specific allegations might not be true, but there’s reason to believe that during the two-year regime of the Roshan Goonetilleke administration the Navy was accorded favoured treatment: complaint of the abduction of a player who re-joined Kandy SC after a season with Navy was never inquired into by the union nor was the call for a probe on the assault on Marjia entertained; the list of complaints is long.
It was against this back ground that Kandy SC last season publicly vented its spleen, declaring the SLRFU applies two sets of rules: one that favours the service teams and the other, discriminating club teams. Not coincidentally, about the time of Kandy SC made public their protest, there were moves by clubs to withdraw from the Union-run tournaments and play friendly matches among them.
Given the favoured treatment accorded the Navy, it is excusable to ask if the Navy has become the spoilt child of Sri Lanka rugby – the child who gets what he wants. And if not given, then, chooses to bring the house down. They didn’t get the win they so dearly wanted last Sunday – and their supporters brought the house down at Nittawela. So, it’s not difficult to assume that unless and until the sailors have laid their hands on the Cup, every defeat sustained at the hands of the champions is going enflame their supporters’ emotions, ignite violence – and imperil the lives of those assembling of an evening to enjoy a game of rugby.
So, what to do? The union could duplicate the English FA’s reaction to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster when the behaviour of a restive crowd killed nearly hundred spectators before the start of the match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest: it decided to stage the match on a later day in an empty stadium. The BCCI too took the same precaution for a Test match against Pakistan in Calcutta – after crowds had rioted in the previous Test, in early 90s.
The Union, however, is not likely shut out spectators from games, mindful such a move would only reverse the ongoing recovery of rugby’s popularity. The competitiveness of this season’s league has appreciably improved attendance, the count now being made in thousands, from the hundreds of not long ago. So, banning spectators for crucial games is pretty much consuming cyanide.
Anyway, as the issue concerns only the Navy and Kandy SC, there’s little the Union can do – except to compel the antagonists to work out a resolution between them, like, for each party to have a task force on the grounds to supervise the behaviour of their respective supporters at the match. After all, if the authorities of both clubs have the will to stamp out violence, measures taken jointly can hardly go wrong. Why such moves were not taken after the nasty intruder’s first visited Nittawela three seasons ago defies commonsense – and it makes you want to think that the Navy has been issued with a license to win the Cup, fair means or foul.