Crown Sits Nicely On Kandy
LET’S first be clear on this: not good fortune or god played a part in Kandy SC taking the League championship this season – full stop. In the critical encounter against no.2 Havelock SC last weekend, the defending champions came away much the better team, superiority over rival title-contenders as emphatic as the final score-line: 26/11; not quite, as the scores might suggest, twice as good as the Colombo club, but good enough to be assured of victory.
Clearly, Kandy SC was far too an accomplished outfit for Havelock SC to combat, a fact demonstrated not once but twice this season. In the first-round meeting, the Kandyans’ scored six tries to the Park Club’s three; the disparity, Sunday night, was four to one. The total points scored by each in the two meetings: 65 to 41, in the champions’ favour. The numbers tell the story as regard which team of the two was deserving of the title.
With the statistical difference between nos.1 and two as large as it is, any rational reasoning would say Kandy SC ought to have not been kept waiting till as late as the penultimate week to wrap up the championship, for a third straight year. Like they’ve done so often in the past, the title should’ve been in the champions’ locker much earlier.
The delay in conferring the Kandyans’ League champion status, as you know, was the shocking first-round loss to no.5 Air Force in Week 2. The defeat, of course, inspired all sorts of dooms-day theories about the fate of the defending champions, theories which, in essence, concluded Kandy SC was in disarray and the enthronement of a new champion was nigh. But Kandy SC’s recovery was so compellingly masterful that, with benefit of hindsight, one believes their two first-round losses, to Air Force and Navy in the space of three weeks, were mere aberrations, forgivable for a team that hadn’t lost a match throughout last season.
But back to last Sunday night. It had all the trappings of a championship final – the spectator-turnout was the biggest seen this season, outside of course Nitawella; firecrackers heralded the teams’ entry into the arena, after which a section of the stands sent pink balloons wafting into the night sky. The stands behind the touchlines and goal posts might not have been packed cheek by jowl, unlike during rugby’s halcyon years, but that all four sides were inhabited at all was a sight to warm the cockles of the hearts of administrators. The message: given equal competition, the fans will come in droves. Or, to say it in another way: one-horse races don’t bring the crowds. But I digress.
The closing phase of the Sunday encounter might’ve been rather tame, but, it has to be said that not until late in the third quarter did the course of the game take a decisive turn Kandy SC’s way. The first-half proceedings were anything but one-way traffic. In fact, the signs were that a hellishly fierce battle climaxing in a storybook finish awaited us in the second-half. Kandy SC might’ve been 8/6 in front at the interval [thanks to a breakaway try, originating from a crafty midfield punt towards the left wing by the sagacious no.10 Fazil Marija], but it was Havelock SC that held territorial advantage for much, if not all of the first half. For some ten minutes early in the first half, the hosts launched assault after assault on the visitors’ goal line, but the firmness of Kandy SC’ s defence was of inflexible texture. Kandy SC’s rearguard action during this passage of play was outstanding – proof of the absoluteness of Kandy SC’s competence.
Havelock SC pretty much threw the kitchen sink in their effort to break open the visitors’ defence. And the longer it took the Park Club SC to break the opponent’s resistance; tougher was the task going to be of securing the lead, psychologically. Some will argue that in those ten minutes the home team laid siege on the visitors’ goal line, they ought to have settled for taking the penalties, all within conversion range, rather than opt to quest for tries. But with star kicker Dulaj Perera rendered disable and off the field with a serious knee injury, the Park Club really had no option but to go in search of tries. The issue was far from settled at first half’s end.
Post-interval, however, Kandy SC’s scored twice in quick succession; the second try, the deepest stab of all in the heart of Havelock SC’s challenge. Had it been a year ago, the will o the wisp sweeping downfield towards of the right-flank goal line, might’ve been in the pink jersey of the Havies, but this season Dhanushka Ranjan was in Kandy SC uniform. The irony of it all wasn’t lost. Ranjan’s try, the night’s most enduring memory, put Kandy SC 18-6 ahead, but the story was not quite over yet. Havelock SC made it 11/18, a goal away from levelling the score – a promising platform from which to launch a comeback on home ground.
But a penalty put the Kandyans back in safe zone again, and Havelock SC, trailing 11/21, was drained of resolve and resources to score twice more, and time receding. With the Park Club in that state of mind, not surprisingly, it was Kandy SC who scored again, their fourth try, earning a bonus point of inconsequential value.
For a team that held the leadership for ten of the competition’s 14 weeks, last Sunday’s defeat must surely hurt. It was the closest the Park Club had come to regaining the League title they last won five years ago, in 2012. But there’s much merit in Havelock SC finishing second-best. They didn’t have the sort of budget that could’ve bought them star class players – and so settled for re-recruiting some of their returning ex-players, the more notable returnees being Sharo Fernando and Chamara Dabare. And it goes without saying the Park Club was in no position to match Kandy SC’s bid for their last season star Ranjan.
Despite these handicaps, that the Park Club conceded defeat to only the champion side and overcame the rest of the field to finish runner-up speaks complimentarily of the spirit of the Dushmantha Priyadarshana-led team and the contributions of new coach, Ronnie Ibrahim, a quiet achiever. And having Lal Silva, an outstanding Havies’ winger of the late 60s, in the President’s chair too proved helpful. He knew the needs and minds of the players. But as it transpired, these weren’t enough to take the title from a wealthier club. Period.
And so now it’s on to the Knockout competition, in which all but the League champions will be hell-bent on avenging for their failures in the just concluded competition. The smart money of course will be on Kandy SC, not only by virtue of their championship form, but, more crucially, the quality and quantity of their bench strength. The same cannot be said of no.2 Havelock SC; Dulaj Perera’s absence is a confirmed fact, and whether other players on the casualty list would’ve recovered after last Sunday’s rib-roaster, time will tell; the Knockout begins this week. The Navy will, as ever, be a major threat. As for CR; since injury put out the immensely talented Ratwatte about a month ago, the club has been floundering, losing thrice in succession, to Army, Havelock SC and Navy. CR will be praying Ratwatte’s fractured hand would’ve mended by this week. Don’t discount Army, Air Force and Police, all potential banana skins on which the more superiorly ranked teams can slip and tumble, as did Kandy SC did against Air Force in the League.
Two of the four Knock out quarterfinals are confirmed: Kandy SC v. CH and Havelock SC v. Police. Navy’s and CR’s quarterfinal opponents will be either Army or Air Force, depending on the league standings after the final round of league matches are concluded today.
The rules of KO competition state that all of the matches are to be staged at neutral venues. So, the decision to allow Kandy SC to play its matches on home ground at Nitawella and to not extend the same privilege to other teams smacks of partiality. All of other three quarterfinal are to be staged at the old Colombo Racecourse. The argument for making an exception for the defending champions is that Bogambara, Kandy’s customary neutral venue, is under reconstruction. But Colombo clubs might well as ask, if not Bogambara why not Pallakalle. Ah well, but controversy and rugby is inseparable – and this spat won’t diminish the coming Knockout’s appeal, a legacy inherited from an eventful 14-week League.