The Sunday Leader

Let Not Local Referees Spoil Second-Round Sizzler

FEW will argue against the claim that the fare served up in the ongoing league season has been exceptional, far and away more riveting than those seen in more than a decade.

The end of the first round is just a fortnight away and, unlike in many seasons before, fascinatingly, no clear winner has emerged yet. As at close of the seventh week of the14-week competition, only two teams, remain undefeated: leaders Navy and defending champions Havelock SC. The race, however, is not confined to only the pair of yet unconquered teams, though the outcome of their meeting last night might make the future a tad clearer.

Should the sailors have triumphed yesterday, as was the popular expectation given home advantage, being the solitary undefeated team is no guarantee theywould clinch their first ever league championship title in history.The advantage of an undefeated record, approaching the second round,from Jan 24 to Feb.23, goes only so far as providing confidence in the knowledge they’ve defeated all of the other five second-round qualifiers: Kandy SC, CR&FC, Up country Lions, the Army and Havelock SC, if overcome yesterday.

The second-round, though, is going to be hardball in a way the first-round can never be. Unlike in the nine-match-per-team first round, the prospect of recovery from defeat in the second round is minimal, if not non-existent. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the second-round field is made up of the competition’s six top teams, and, as the first round showed, no great chasm separates no. 1 from no. 5 no matter what the win/loss sheet may say. The top five: Navy, Kandy SC, Havelock SC, Up country Lions and CR&FC, an order that’s likely to be static till first round’s close.

The CR’s four defeats so far and the Lions’ three losses might have put both out of serious championship contention, but they are potential banana skinson which the top three teams can slip– CR being the slipperier skin.  After all, the CR caused quite some palpitations to the Navy and Havelock SC before succumbing. In its 23/29 loss to the Park club, it held the lead some five minutes from the end; so it was in their encounter against Kandy SC; leading 9/7 early in the second halfbefore eventually losing, 15/29. Against the Navy; a controversially awarded try defined the outcome, in the sailors’ favour.  Their opening game, though, was a disaster, losing 12/45 to Up country Lions, away, but since then they’ve transformed into quite another outfit – young, virile and utterly combative.

The Up country Lions might not have achieved as much as they’ve threatened, but if last season is any indication, then, the Nawalapitiya club is known to reap its best harvest after the first round. In their debut season last year, the Lions stunned Navy to defeat in the second round, and, had a final-minute front-of-the-post conversion not been fluffed, the Lions would’ve overcome Havelock SC in the Knockout semi-final. This season, apart from routing the CR, the Lions caused Navy quite some scares before succumbing, 15/24, whilst last week, they harried Havelock SC in a way their 25/36 loss doesnot suggest. Any of the three front runners assume their chances against the Lions at their peril.

The Navy by virtue of their record of seven wins out of seven so far must be considered title favourites, especially as they enjoy home advantage in their second round meeting with Kandy SC. Welisera is something of a graveyard to Kandy SC, losing successively on Navy turf over the past four seasons, three as league champions. The Navy, having defeated Kandy SC away in the first round, will no doubt want to complete a double; equally, Kandy SC, who hasn’tbeen beaten twice in a season by the same team since the beginning of their championship reign in the early 90s, wouldn’t wish to cede that treasured record to bitter rivals, Navy.

But recent history won’t be on the side of the sailors’ in their second-round meeting with Havelock SC. The Park club has proved to be the sailors’ biggest bug-bear, with the defending champions winning their last three meetings. Should the Navyhave preventedyesterday a fourth successive defeat at the hands of Havelock SC, they’ll need to repeat that win in the second round to sustain their title quest – and achieving that at Havelock Park is no mean task. No better illustration of Navy’s difficulty in winning away-games against Havelock SC was provided last season: the sailors had as good as wrapped up the game in the first half, leading 20/6; in the second half, however, they wilted before an intense comeback challenge by the home teamand conceded defeat, 20/21.

Havelock SC’s prospects appear to be not nearly as rosy as it should given their status as reigning champions. Sure, they’ve remained undefeated for seven straight weeks, but clearly not on the virtues of fluency– the upshot of a lack of togetherness on the field.

That they had encountered less serious oppositions in the first seven weeks is perhaps why the Havelock SC has managed to keep a clean slate so far. The CR and Up country Lions did, however, cause quite some anxiety to the champions, but yesterday was their sternest test.

If odds were defied yesterday and the defending champions prevailed over the sailors, that’ll be just one of many obstacles overcome in their quest fora second successive league title. The next obstacle: Kandy SC in their final first-round match, at Havelock Park, the venue at which Kandy SC suffered last season their worst defeat this century, losing by a margin of nearly 50 points.

Their pride hurt, Kandy SC set their minds on making amends –and a few weeks after the annihilation the Kandyans turned the guns on the league champions to win the 2013 Knockout final. That was in Nitawella, but nothing can be sweeter than paying back the champions in their own backyard. For proud Kandy SC, the driving motive will be to seek revenge at the scene of their shaming a year ago.

Having to overcome the two toughest challengers apart, Havelock SC’s second-round prospects are hindered by a lack of home matches: they play away in all but one of their five second-round engagements: Army, CR, Up country Lions and Kandy SC. Their solitary second-round home game: v. Navy.

The disadvantages of playing away areharsher for Havelock SC in ways that can never be for their opponents. Reason: Havelock’s is the only team that play home games under floodlights, beginning in the cool of 6.30 p.m. and ending in cooler 8.30 p.m.As well, it’sof little help that all of Havelock SC seven games so far have been at night, questioning their durability in day games, the first of which was yesterday. So it wouldn’t be wrong to assume their effectiveness yesterday, enduring the heat and humidity, is going to be a harbinger of what awaits them in their fiveaway games in the second round.

The prospect that there won’t be a single undefeated team at the conclusion of the second round is a realistic one – meaning that Navy, Kandy SC and Havelock SC could well finish with one defeat each. In such a situation, the calculators will be worked hot to workout points scored, conceded and what have you. Havelock SC’s have scored less prolifically(211 points) – albeit with a game in hand – and conceded more (90) than its rivals and could lose out to the calculators. So, arithmetic will likely decide between Navy and Kandy SC. The hill capital club might trail the sailors in win-count, but are ahead in the aggregate of points scored: 353 points to the sailors’ 271. The two run close in the aggregate of points conceded: Navy conceding two points fewer than Kandy SC, 85/ 87.

How the level of competition has changed from times when the winner was revealed long before the end of the first round, rendering inconsequential the second round. Now, the competition is so close that mathematicians might well have to be summoned to decide the league champions; fascinating stuff.

For aforesaid reasons, the second-round has all the stuff that thrillers are made of. But the first round has shown there’s one snag that might spoil it all: sub-standard refereeing, none more horrendous than that seen in the Navy v. CR game. The Longden Place club has every reason to complain they were deprived of victory, with the Navy’s match-clinching try awarded as an after-thought. The referee had blown for an infringement but Navy continued playing to score the winning try.

The referee in awarding the try had, thus,committed the cardinal sin of going back on his decision – a reversal that some construe as favouring Navy, which in turn, inevitablyopens a can of worms of a political kind.The grapevine abounds with nasty stories of political interference in refereeing and of referees influenced by union officials with powerful political connections. As tales of the grapevine are, all of this is pretty much hearsay. Butthen it doesn’t help rid suspicion surrounding present-day refereeing, though the true reason could be the sheer incompetence of some referees.

Referee Nizam Jamaldeen’s handling of last week’s Havelock SC v. Up country Lions game shows how much competent refereeing can enhance the quality of a match. This was the veteran’s first game this season, and arguably it was season’s only game in which the flow of play was least interfered by the whistle. But Jamaldeen is the last of the breed of referees who was one-time national player.

That most other referees lack Jamaldeen’s pedigree is a plausible reason why present-day refereeing is riddled with controversy. It will be a shame if the promise of an enthralling second round is killed off by poor refereeing. That promise deserves the protection of foreign referees.

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