The Sunday Leader

Unmemorable Cup Final, But Kandy SC Won’t Mind That

The jubilant Kandy team celebrate winning the Clifford Cup

ON a day when the nation’s attention was undividedly focused on the T20 World Cup final, last Sunday’s Clifford Cup rugby final was destined to passby anonymously. And it did. The attendance at Bogambara of onlysome 2, 000 was remotely adrift of the 6,000-plus that Cup finals are wont toattract.
As well, a blanket of dark clouds that cloaked the hill capitalskies all day made watching the women’s T20 World Cup final on the home television a pleasanter way of spending the evening. But the more plausible reason why thousands of Kandy SC’s loyal fans went missing was probably becausethecall of the Premadasa Stadium was too irresistible.
Kandy SC has figured in countless knockout finals, butthe feverish atmosphere typical of a Cup final hadn’t been quite as uninspiring as last Sunday.As one Kandy fan put it: “If the fixture list didn’t say this is a Cup final, you wouldn’t have guessed it. After all an inconsequential league game fetches around 3, 000, and Kandy’s more important games, like against the Navy or the Havelocks, pull over six thousand.”
So, sans its deserved audience and ambience, the 2012 Cup final was anything but rugby’s Derby day,  as far as public perception went. Say this to Kandy SC and the reply is likely to run on something like these lines: “That it was a Cup final mattered less… it was more important that we settle a score with the team that took away the league title from us – it might’ve poured all day and not a dog might’ve been out there, but nothing was going to take away the drive and focus on getting even with the Havelocks. We did, and that made itmore memorable for us than taking the Cup.”
Memorable too, for the sheer relief victory brought. Had the outcome been different, Sunday, it would’ve converted Kandy SC’s trophy cupboard to Old Mother Hubbard’s fabled furniture – a bareness that, being the first in more than a decade and half, potentially, could’vehad harmful repercussions on its future, an uncertaintywhich the club’s financier, Malik Samarawickrema, admits Kandy SC faced were the Clifford Cup too lost.
“The competition is getting to be far more equal than it was two-three seasons ago, which is great for the game. But it brings us problems that we didn’t have inthe long years when we routinely took all of the trophies on offer – which meantthe club remained an attractive product as far as sponsorship was concerned,” says Samarawickrema, “obviously, a lesser success rate can only diminish our product value. So, you could say retaining the Clifford Cup (in 2012) was a relief.”
The product value Samarawickrema speaks of, in fact, had been threatened with diminishment before. It should be remembered that, whereas Kandy SC hadlong enjoyed undefeated seasons, of late their dominance was earnestly challenged: over the past three years Navy overcame the champions and then this season they succumbed to the Havelocks too:One defeat per season had become two.
Previously, at the first hint of fragility, the champion club had all to its own the hometown’s reservoir of young talents to tap into for replacements. That sole proprietorship, however, is now challenged.
Its rival in the upcountry players market are debutantes, Upcountry Lions. With no rugby-playing schools in the new club’s district, Nawalapitiya, to supply players, theNawalapitiya club was always going to purchase players from outside, especially from Kandy, a 45-minute downhill-drive away.
And if the debuting season is any indication, then thenew club are willing spenders, big time. It recruited as many nine past and present national players, as well as hired-and-fired seven foreign players, despite the law restricting utilization of foreigners to just two at any given time of the match.
Its’ last overseas signing was a top Kiwi no.8, Loco Tokakece,hired solely for the knockout round for a fee rumoured to be US$5, 000  (Rs. 600, 000) – i.e. Rs.300,000 per match,as Upcountry Lions were eliminated in its second knockout match. Splashing such huge amounts, of course, reflects the new club’s bullishness to hit the big times in its first year, which, though, admirable is debatable. It begs the question if the millions splurged on overseas players might not have been better spent on launching a program to introduce the sport to schools in Nawalapitiya?
But that is to ignore the fact that Nawalapitiya is the electorate of the Sport Minister – and with the philosophy of local politics being that victories, on playing fields or where ever,translate to votes, the new club will live by the credo: have money, will buy players. This obviously will have a chain reaction, as other clubs with title- ambitions too will be compelled to enlarge their player-budgets; a case of living up to the Rockefellers of the world.
Another politically-inspired club representing Kurunegala, electorate of Minister of Internal Trade, Johnston Fernando, is expected to join the A division ranks next season. Andas well, with the old racecourse grounds converted to a rugby stadium of breathtaking splendour, complete with floodlights and all, it’s a reasonable assumption that another new club team will enter the fray next year. And that would mean more diversion of big funds to strengthening club teams, and less investment for nationwide development, like the reactivation of Provincial Unions and provincial rugby.
Of course, it can be argued that spending on strengthening club teams represents development because national rugby is a direct beneficiary of inter-club rugby. But that’s true in the case of investments on local players. As for the foreign players, being the migratory birds that they are, no dividends will accrue at the national level. This much, though, is true: the presence of foreigners has made the domestic tournaments far more alluring, as vouched by the larger spectator turnouts.
Some would like to think that overseas players contribute to an uplifting of standards, but the truth is, given that foreigners are the preferred choice for the playmaker’s role, our own players consequently are denied that strategically crucial part, a denial that will undoubtedly have an impact on our performances on the international stage. But some officials don’t see it that way: bedazzled by the prospect of overseas players enhancing gates, they are suggesting the inclusion of three foreigners at any given time of the match; a myopic viewpoint, to say the least.
If anything, what deserves to be considered is the feasibility of reducing foreign players from the present two to one. Apart from the aforementioned reasonof local players being shut out from the playmaker’s role, increasing the presence of overseas players is anything but encouragement for school leavers to pursue the sport at the club level.
And with rugby-playing schools far outnumbering club teams, it’s not as if school leavers have an abundance of clubs to choose from. So, making whatever place there is in club teams for the school leavers makes sense.
With the inclusion of new clubs and a frenzied battle among clubs to sign up the better players, the emerging scenario clearly is a departure from tradition. Where the emerging scenario might lead our rugby to only time will tell. But this much is certain:discarding tradition and venturing into the unknown is fraught with danger. Basically, the future will be all about big budgets, and not all clubs are going to be able to raise the sort of capital that earns trophies.
So, are we heading to times when rugby’s riches are going to solely be for the wealthy?
Amidst all this dizzying changes (likeselling A division status to new clubsfor Rs.2m; opening doors to foreigners and the mushrooming of new A division teams), Kandy SC,seemingly, is the citadel of tradition, and for that, the independent traditionalists would surely have applaudedits triumph, Sunday, albeit its umpteenth.
So, at least for the more discerning fans, despite the T20 World Cup final, sparse Bogambara stands, the lack of atmosphere and the gloom enveloping the hill capital, the 2012 Clifford Cup final was memorable, more so because, the hill capital club had beaten the same team that only a month ago had savaged them and taken away the league title. For that show of character alone, Kandy SC will recall 2012 with pride.

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