IT’S NOT a bad idea to stage a few club matches at the Sugathadasa Stadium in the weeks approaching the Asian Rugby Championship in November. The Stadium, after all, is where much of action in the 12-nation showdown is expected to take place. And so, the frequent prior usage of the premises can only go to help fine-tune arrangements at the main venue of Asia’s most prestigious
rugby tournament, a biennial with a 36- year-old, 19-tournament history.
Providing useful organizational drills apart, there are other reasons why a few dry runs at the Stadium are desirable – for instance, the plight of the Sri Lankan players. As far as they are concerned the Stadium down old Prince of Wales Avenue might as well be in old Zanzibar. For, it remains as strange and unfamiliar a place as it will to the foreign teams: the Stadium isn’t in the network of local
rugby venues, and so goes unvisited. To have home advantage and not feel it isn’t funny at all. So it makes good sense to play a few matches there so that our players might derive all of the advantages available from playing at home.
But speak these reasons into the ears of Kandy SC officials – and it’s likely they’ll smoke anger out of their nostrils. Match rehearsals at the Sugathadasa might serve national interest, but if it’s going to hurt the interest of a club, forget country. If you think this is ridiculous reasoning, then, I am afraid you’ve spent too long a time away with friaries and gnomes and have missed out on the
ways of rugby’s real world. Lesson one to be learnt from this real world: politics and commonsense are as incompatible as partners in a bad marriage. Any old bone is good enough to pick on to start another flaming row.
It’s not any old bone, though, that will set sparks flying this time round. The issue is far more explosive. Kandy SC are furious that Colombo clubs want this season’s Clifford Cup knockout final staged at the Sugathadasa Stadium – and not at Nittawela, as has happened for 14 long years. The SLRFU tournament committee has approved of the shift and the Council, later this month, is to debate and decide
on the issue – no cordial meeting that’s going to be.
Before we delve into the whys and wherefores of the coming crisis, a prologue is necessary. The venue of the Clifford Cup Knockout final was assigned to Nittawela, home grounds of Kandy SC, back in 1992 – on the recommendation of the then National coach, Jeff Matheson of New Zealand. The Kiwi’s theory was that the concentration of rugby in Colombo alone remains an impediment to development. About that
time, Kandy SC were getting to be a formidable force – inspired by a defection of some top CR players to their ranks in the late 80s – and so, it was decided to assign the Knockout final to Nittawela.
Any moves designed to develop the game in the provinces is both sensible and noble and ought to be applauded. But, typical of the bitter rivalry that blights the game, the SLRFU decision back in 1992 hardly won unanimous approval. The CR and CH persistently objected to Kandy being awarded the Cup final venue, and when the majority decided otherwise, the dissenting duo boycotted the tournament. In 1998 too
there were moves to change the venue, but rightly or wrongly, the case was brought before the then Sport Minister, S B Dissanayake. The final stays put in Nittawela, he ordered.
You’d think that after 14 years and two failed attempts to change the final’s venue the issue might’ve been laid to rest – nope, that sort of good sense isn’t a rule of conduct in local rugby’s book. Hence, to no great surprise a third attempt is now made to take the final out of Kandy. Whether that will succeed, only the deliberations of the Council members at month’s end will tell. This much
is certain: there’s going to be one hellu’va fierce tug-of-war between Colombo and Kandy.
Now for the whys and wherefores: The first question to ask is why Kandy SC should resist a proposal that is primarily in the interest of Sri Lanka rugby. Champion clubs, more than others, are especially obliged to fulfil national responsibilities, including helping in SLRFU’s efforts to successfully host the premier Asian tournament. After all, it’s not always a country gets the chance to host this
event. The operating 16-year rotation brought the event to Colombo twice before, in 1974 and 1990. That was largely because the ARFU for long had been an eight-member body, all eight being the founding member-countries. Not any more; at last count, ARFU membership stood at 22.
With time, the new countries too would obviously want to host the Asiad – which, given rotation among 22 members, would mean that it’s possible the biennial event would come to each country once in nearly a half-century. The more likely future scenario, though, could be the discarding of the rotation system and instead, the host decided on merit – and the best qualification here would be past
performances. The 1974 and ’90 Colombo Asiads won encomiums from ARFU members, both for its organizing perfections and for the number of spectators unseen in other host countries. So, if anything the 2006 has to be an even better show.
Kandy SC, themselves host of the annual Singer/Srilankan Airlines Sevens, knows all too well the importance of putting on good show – which make their resistance to the proposal all the more strange, but, ironically, excusable, too. The president of SLRFU, Priyantha Ekanayake, is one of Kandy SC’s leading lights, and it is unlikely that the up country club is unappreciative of the reasons why the SLRFU
tournament committee wants the knockout final in Colombo this year.
The resistance, I believe, is not so much out of obstinacy as the suspicion of the intentions of their Colombo rivals. Kandy’s thinking, I suspect, is: should we concede the venue this year then our hold on the final might be lost for ever. This might smack of downright selfishness, but you can’t expect the Kandyans to react any differently. They haven’t forgotten Colombo’s attempts in 1992 and ’98
to take the event away from Nittawela. To them, the present proposal is, apparently, a fox-in-sheep-clothing ploy to deprive Nittawela the final forever.
It has to be said, though, there’s nothing written in the tournament laws to say that Nittawela is the permanent home of the knockout final. Even before the final was assigned to Kandy, the SLRFU, under the innovative presidency of Y C Chang in the early 80s, took all of the quarterfinals of knockout tournament to Kandy, using Nittawela and Peradeniya Campus grounds. The Union bore the cost of the
competing teams’ transport and accommodation. The changes in administration and, presumably, the emptying Union coffers brought about the demise of Chang’s scheme.
The point to make here is, the need to develop provincial rugby was felt long before Kiwi Matheson came along and made his declaration that, resultantly, gave Nittawela the final in 1992, the first to be staged outside Colombo. It has to be acknowledged that the shift to Kandy has had its desired effect. Kandy SC has proved runaway winners of the just about every tournament, and Kandy’s schools have arisen
to championship levels– all this dominance, not coincidentally, since the early 90s. Kandy SC will, of course, cite this supremacy as proof of development, the major condition for granting Nittawela its elevated status, and seek the retention of the Kandy grounds as venue of the Cup final.
Kandy SC’s critics, of whom there are many, will, of course, counter argue saying it was development in self-interest, meaning only the club benefited from it. There’s some validity in that argument. Though the supply of young talent is plentiful, Kandy continues to be represented by just one club, same as pre-1992. What sort of development is that, critics ask. It’s often said that Kandy SC’s
bench-strength is more powerful than the sides some A division clubs put out. And despite the riches available to Kandy, rivals lament, they yet poach players from Colombo’s clubs.
But it’s excusable to think that Kandy SC’s long reign of supremacy has got under the skins of Colombo’s clubs. Last season, though, that reign was threatened by the CR and the CH – and this season the city duo think they just might be able to conquer the champions. And playing the Cup final away from Kandy might help accomplish that feat.
This is not to infer that the part about the Cup final at the Sugathadasa Stadium being a useful exercise before Asiad is not a significant reason for the venue change. But Asiad year or not, the question whether Nittawela enjoys permanent hosting rights of the Cup final isn’t going to go away. The past 14 years has made the practice a tradition – and traditions have a way of evolving into permanent
fixtures. And that might well be what Colombo’s clubs want to guard against. After all, should Colombo clubs become the dominant forces, then, they don’t want to be trudging all the way up to Nittawela to play the Cup final.
All of which is reason why something definite ought to be written into the tournament rules as regard the knockout final venue. There are two options really: 1/ award the venue to the league champions of that season, providing they qualify for K/O final or 2/ a neutral venue. Legislate one of the two – and put an end to the bickering.
THE shock and sadness evoked by the recent tragic landmine blast in Wilpattu touched Colombo’s rugby clubs as well.
Among the eight lives cruelly cut down by the explosion were those of Chandy Asirwatham and his wife, Anula.
Chandy Asirwatham was one-time S. Thomas, Havelock SC and CR&FC flanker. He was a member of Tony Sirimanne’s Thomian side of 1963, an all-conquering outfit that included well-known players of that time, like Mohan Samarasinghe, Junie Cader, Roger d’ Silva and Gavin Koch. Asirwatham joined Havelocks in 1964, but having to contest the likes of Gamini Fernando and Ranjith Jayewardena for the flankers’
berths, he was destined not to be a regular in the champion outfit of ‘64, led by Dickie Jayatilleke. Even so, he played briefly on the wing, but much of his rugby was confined to the Bambaras, the Havelocks second-string.
The Havelocks’ enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in those years, and Chandy was a victim of that excessive prosperity. So, he moved to arch foes, the CR, sometime in the mid-60s, but again had to be content playing for the Bees. The de Sylva brothers, Sari and Raji, followed by Sari and Dr. Tony, the youngest of the de Sylvas, were too formidable combinations to dislodge. Defectors from Havelocks
to CR, and vice versa, have few complimentary things to say about the club they had left. The rivalry between the two is that bitter. But Asirwatham was of a different sort. Even though he left to play in the red jersey, he didn’t resign his membership from the Havelocks.
He unfailingly attended all of the AGMs of his first club, as did many of its matches. What were his emotions while watching a CR-Havelocks match? "Honestly I feel more comfortable watching it neutrally than siding with one side. You save yourself of tension and hysteria. At the end of the match the feelings are happy and sad – happy for the winners and sad for the losers," he once told me.
Asirwatham was no rugby legend, but his club mates will remember him for other reasons. His quiet, thoughtful and unassuming ways won him many friends both at the Havelocks and the CR.
Chandy didn’t crave prominence. So do the members of his family. The obituary was published some days after the funeral, reflecting the family’s reverence to privacy. Nor has any tributes of him appeared in the sports pages of newspapers, as is the custom when sporting personalities, even of lesser significance, pass away. But the Asirwathams, like Chandy, would rather distance themselves from prominence’s
glare, in life or death.
Sleep in peace, my friend. TMKS.