Cup Venues: A Gathering Storm
AS of yet, all that the SLRFU has confirmed about the 2012 Clifford Cup Knockout tournament is: the competition begins on Friday, September 28 and ends Sunday, October 7. But just where the matches are to be played remains in the realm of the unknown, which, with the event barely a fortnight away, is pretty much, an all-dressed-up-and-no-place-to-go state of affairs.
It is an open secret that the delay in declaring the venues is due to disputes among some clubs over suggested locations – a wrangling sparked no doubt by the desire to secure home-advantage for oneself and deny same to the other. Dialog, sponsors of the tournament, as exclusively reported in our issue of Sept.2, had proposed that newly-reconstructed Havelock Park be the sole venue for the eight-team sudden-death competition – a proposal that was never going to go undisputed. Leading title contenders, Kandy SC and Navy, second and third finishers in the 2012 league race are up in arms against Havelock SC, the league champion, given such carte blanche.
More out of apparent resentment than good intention, some clubs proposed the polar opposite to the sponsor’s suggestion: all matches, quarterfinals through to final, are staged at neutral venues – a suggestion that raised Havelock SC hackles, and justifiably so. As 2012 league champion, the Park club argues, it has earned the right to host all its knockout tournament matches, just as Kandy SC did during much of its decade-plus reign as league champions.
The most reasonable formula seems to be the one that suggests Havelock Park and Nittawela/or Bogambara as venues for the quarterfinals and semifinals (although the Navy, who are expected to meet Kandy SC in the semifinal, can’t be happy with this arrangement). And what of the venue for the final? … Well, therein is the rub. For a decade-plus the final’s venue was as good as written in stone: by a Union decision, the league champions of that year, whoever, would host the final. But in 2006, when the then Union committee shifted the final to Colombo, Kandy SC, the league champions then too, pulled-out in protest, and the fare served up in the knockout was just about as tasty as omelets without eggs.
The pre-2006 status quo was, however, restored by the new committee helmed by DIG NimalLewke, and Kandy SC, as league champions, so hosted the Clifford Cup, 2007 to 2009 – and won on each occasion. In 2010, however, the Navy emerged a serious championship contender by ending Kandy SC’s seasons-long undefeated run in a league encounter. And notwithstanding the long-standing rule that the hosting rights to the final belong to the league champion, the Navy nevertheless went ahead and objected to conceding home advantage to Kandy SC– and with more than a little help from a pro-services SLRFU committee, headed by Air Chief Marshall RoshanGoonetilleke, the sailors’ objection was upheld. The upshot: the 2010 final, between Kandy SC and the Navy, was shifted from Nittawela to ‘neutral’ Bogambara.
Though Bogambara might’ve represented a technical victory for Kandy SC, signs were clear that future knockout finals would move to Colombo, even if Kandy SC were league champions. And so it did in 2011, when the final, again between Kandy SC and the Navy, was played at the Royal College stadium, the first in the history of the Clifford Cup to be staged on a school ground – an absurdity foisted on the country’s oldest tournament not by some calamity ravaging all of the eight A division clubs’ grounds. But when established rules are tampered with so as to pander to the whims of politically-influential clubs, then, the game does enter the theatre of the absurd.
It wasn’t like that back then, when the unwritten law was that Cup Finals shall be played at the SLRFU headquarters, which was the CR&FC, a choice that, initially, was based on the Longden Place club’s continuing dominance of domestic rugby, its possession of the country’s best maintained rugby ground and latterly, a spacious club house that was able to let out space to a Union office.
It will be recalled that Cup finals that didn’t feature the CR were played at Longden Place, for instance, in 1967 (Havelocks v. Police); in ’72 (Police v. CH); in ’73 (Police v. Army) ’76 (Navy v. Havelocks) ’78 (Kandy SC v. Havelocks); ’81 (Police v. Havelocks); the list is long. Kandy SC for most part of that period had only made up the numbers and wasn’t regarded a worthy location for a Cup final. In the early-80s, though, then SLRFU President Y C Chang, one-time Kandy SC captain, took all of the knockout quarterfinal matches to the hill capital, accommodating the Colombo teams in Kandy’s top hotels – all in the noble cause of uplifting upcountry rugby.
It was, however, not until Malik Samarawickrema, in the early 90s, took some half-dozen CR players to Kandy SC (over disagreement with the Colombo club’s captaincy appointee) that Kandy’s ascendency began – and then asked that it be respected like a champion club, like the privilege of hosting Cup finals. So, as Kandy SC maintained its supremacy unchallenged season after season, its right, as league champion, to host the knockout final became to be accepted as the norm, mid-90s through to the first decade of the new millennium.
Not surprisingly, any attempt to change that status quo was anathema to Kandy SC. As aforesaid, it pulled-out of 2006 knockout tournament, when the final was shifted to Colombo; and then, in 2010, it fought against moves to bring the final to Colombo, which would’ve favoured its chief foe, Navy. And although, in the end, Nittawela lost the final, Kandy didn’t: Bogambara was awarded the venue.
In 2011, Kandy SC might finally have surrendered its right to host the knock final – but not before it had extracted an undertaking from the Union that it would host the 2012 final, whether Kandy SC was 2012 league champions or not.
“As 2011 league champion we gave up our hosting rights to the final on the agreement that the 2012 final would be in Kandy, irrespective of whether we are league champions or not,” said Malik Samarawickrema, Kandy SC financier. “The issue is not solely about securing home advantage, but more importantly, hosting the Cup final in Kandy does make a significant developmental contribution to upcountry rugby, which, as everyone know has long been in decline, outside of Kandy.”
The decline, to be precise, began after the nationalization of the tea estates in 60s, prior to which rugby players were the preferred choice as planters. The absence of rugby players continues in the estates, and the old exploits of Dimbula, Dickoya and Uva remain distant memories yet. So, to claim that hosting a Cup final in the hill country would aid upcountry development is an overstatement.
But this isn’t an overstatement: any “undermining” of Kandy SC’s rugby can well remove the game’s last outpost in the upcountry.
It is patently clear that Kandy SC is determined to take the Union at its promise and insist the knockout final be staged in Kandy. The 2012 committee will probably counter by arguing that it can’t be held responsible for undertakings given by the previous committee – and make decisions in the light of events of 2012, which includes the emergence of a new league champion. That is the logical line the Union ought to take, but apparently is reluctant to do that at this point of time, assuming Kandy SC might resort to what it did in 2006: withdraw, an eventuality that the present committee finds loathsome, surely.
It isn’t difficult to get the sense that the Union would rather wait till the finalists are known and then decide on the venue for the final because should Havelocks or Kandy SC lose in the quarter or semifinal stage, the problem would’ve been solved by itself.
In the event, however, the present and past league champions are the finalists, which is the most likely prospect, and should the Union decide on Havelock Park as the venue, then you’re probably going to get a winner on a walkover – another production in the making, suiting the theatre of the absurd?