The Sunday Leader

One Down, Two To Go

ONLY four of the League’s nine weekshave been completed, but one can’t quite remember a past seasonawakening public interest as early as this one has. Already there’s enough evidence to suggest that no team is safe from defeat in the remaining five weeks of the league; shocks lie in wait… the race is open. 

With the 2013/14 league barely half-over, just two teams remain unbeaten, and Kandy SC is not one of them.It is difficult to recollectthe hill capital club conceding defeat so early in the season, not in this century at least – brought to ground in only their fourth outing last week by an efficient Navy outfit.

But there was some consolation for Kandy SC: it banked a record Rs. 1.1 million from gate takings last Sunday,a testimony to the club’s popularity.

The night before Kandy SC fell, defending champions, Havelock SC’s unblemished slate, too, was all but smeared by CR&FC: young, spunky and virile, and, on the day, lookingnothing like the team thatwas run ragged by Up country Lions, 45/12,only three Saturdays before.It was nice to see again CR’s fabled old spirit; the spirit of refusing to bow to the old foe’s supposed superiority. Some fifteen minutes from the end, CR looked as good as buried, trailing 22/13.

But within six minutes, CR regained the lead, 23/22, for a third time, scoring two tries. Havelock SC, though, eventually won 29/23, the decisive try coming some three minutes before time.

So, with the defending league champions all but overcome and the 2012 Knockout champions brought to earth, you have to wonder if any team will survive the season undefeated – or to say it more precisely, whether Havelock SC or the Navy can continue their winning sequence till the end. Don’t bet your shirt on either team surviving unscathed.

Let’s first prospect the future of the defending champions. Going by the form book, Havelock SC were supposed to win last week without enduring the palpitation they did. CR, after all, was sixth on the league table, with two losses in three outings – as opposed to the Havelock’s third place, with two wins out of two. Granted, the defending champions delivered the win expected of them, but CR’s chances were at no stage rendered irredeemable, and had the champion’s clincher not come as late as it did, there was every chance CR would’ve obtained the equalizer, given the frequent fluctuation of fortunes between the teams. Honestly, a tie would’ve been a fitting finish.

Havelock SC can’t draw much satisfaction from this win. Given that CR’s two previous wins were against CH and the Air Force, the league’s last and one-but-the-last teams respectively, it won’t be wrong to say that the Park club’s struggle last week was unbecoming of a champion side.Not that their two previous outings were flawless.

Against the CH, the champions knocked up 51 points, but conceded 20, the highest any opponent has conceded to the season’s whipping boy so far. Havelock SC, against lowly Air Force, again fell short of the perfectionism expected of a champion side, albeit winning 48/8 thanks chiefly to bursts of individual brilliance.

The Havelock’s inability to establish authority over opponents, in a manner champions are expected to do, isn’t because of a depletion of last season’s talent. That they’ve won all their games despite their many imperfections isproof that players of high calibre are in their ranks. So, it’s obvious that an absence of togetherness is what’s retarding the champion’s potential.
This flaw has shown up vividly by the sight of players frequently setting off on adventures of their own, searching opponents’ goal line – and self glory. That flaw has had no serious repercussions so far, but with sterner challenges ahead, the champions will find lady luck less generous.

The road ahead of the champions is rocky to say the least. They would likely have facilely overcome Police, placed seventh, last Friday night – after which their journey on easy street would’ve ended. Then on begins Havelock’s stiffer challenges: fourth-placed Army (Dec.20); fifth team Up country Lions (Jan.4); high riding Navy (Jan.11) and Kandy SC (Jan.18).
The Navy, on the other hand, has already dispatched to the historians their successes against tough nuts, Up country Lions and Kandy SC. So of the five games ahead of the sailors, only two can be regarded as stiff hurdles: Army (Jan.3) and Havelock SC on the week following.

But in the CR game(on Dec.21), the sailors face a potential banana skinon which they might slip and tumble, just as the Havelock SC did and barely managed to break the fall.

If maintaining a graph tracing teams’ improvement, match by match, is possible, then, CR will rank well ahead of the rest. Consider their progress. If anything the 12/45 thrashing at the hands of the Lions has had the same effect of a red rag on an enraged bull. In the next game, they ran Kandy SC close, restricting the margin to 29/15 when the promise was for another hiding.

In their first two games CR hadn’t crossed their opponents’ goal line, casting doubts on their capability to win games. The doubting Thomases, however, were silenced in game 3 as they churned out 13 tries against the CH, the largest match-haul this season so far. And the Red Shirts’ stirring performance against the champions last week is warning that no more willthey be any team’spunch-bag.

Too much ought not to read into CR’s current sixth-standing. That they are team on the rise, there’s little doubt. Whilst three defeats in four outings isn’t a pretty record, it should not be forgotten that all their losses were against fancied teams anyway: the defending league and knockout champions and last season’s no.3, Up country Lions. With their to-play matches including the likes of lowly Air Force, Hambantota Sharks and the Police, an improvement in the standing of the Red Shirts looks imminent.

This is not to infer that they would’ve finished second best to the Army yesterday or that the outcome of their meeting against table leaders, Navy, is a foregone conclusion. After all but defeating Havelock SC, any team taking CR lightly do so at their peril.

The same warning goes out to the Army’s future opponents. The soldiers, with three wins in four outings, are placed fourth. The soldiers’ defeat was at the hands of Kandy SC, but as the 38/25 score line suggests, it wasn’t a stroll for the Kandy club. On their day, Army, like CR, can be, potentially, a banana skin to any formidable opponent, including the defending league champions (Dec. 20) or current table leaders, Navy, (Jan. 3).

The league has come a long way from its “one-horse-race’’days. The race now is three cornered: Navy, Havelock SC and Kandy SC. Much of the money might be on one of the front- three, with probably a side-bet on the soldiers, the outsiders. But, although mid-level teams like the Lions and CRwon’t likely be in theframe, theyhave what it takes to topple the front runners.
All of which go to make the Knockout,in February, a mouth watering prospect. That the eventual league champions, whoever, will take the knockout as well isn’t the guarantee it was during the decades of the “one-horse-race’’.

Ah, what exciting fare wait fans. As for the Asanga Seneviratne administration, the liveliness of the domestic competition is just the sort of gift they might’ve wished from Santa.

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