Picture a scene
Every evening at sunset, a bunch of boys would group together on a picturesque playground by the sea.
Over the low parapet wall, the sun created its usual mystique of colours as the day fell away to twilight over the blue sea. Trains rumbled by creating long shadows across the ground.
Camouflaged by a few blades of grass the surface of Big Club’s ground is always rock hard.
Running or falling on the gravel was not without immense pain to the system.
Soon the dreaded whistle would be sounded by the captain and the practice started for the day. Sometimes the warm up run was up and down the field, and other times around and around, depending on the fearless leader’s choice.
The next three to four hours were running, tackling, passing, catching, jumping and taking abuse from the coach.
This was beginning of the rugby season. St Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia practice had begun.
Not long after being run to the ground by the enthusiastic captain, in the middle of the warm up exercises the “Q” man would walk in. Whistle round his neck in well-fitted shorts and a rugby jersey, Mr Quentin Israel always looked menacing.
The practice usually involved a game between the first fifteen versus the second fifteen boys, and the battle was closely monitored by the coach. There were a few classic coaching lines used by “Q” during practice which echo in my ears whenever I watch a rugby game.
“Do not run with that ball under the arm”. Not only would it smell, he would tell us, but “you will need it in the hand in a hurry to pass it”.
“Do not change direction twice in succession (you will run into the opposition).”
“Suffer in silence (in the scrum).”
“You are bloody useless.”
Q was the master in charge of one of the boarding houses; needless to say he had a slight biased towards the boarding boys. However, he was a fair coach every other way, although he was an old Trinity boy and treated the college rugby team as his own and was dedicated to developing a winning team.
He used association with Havelock Sports Club to assist the team by organising games with the club team which helped in gaining experience and exposure to the big league.
Q was also a strict disciplinarian and some of the boarder’s bottoms had felt the wrath of his cane on several occasions.
The coach was also a teacher at the school and prided himself as a talent scout. He picked up Darup Peiris as a potential ruggerite when he saw the boy in action in the Royal Thomian cricket encounter which involved a brawl during the lunch break.
Royal Thomian Encounter 2013
I happened to be in town for the Royal Thomian rugby encounter this year. The event was a grand affair; carnival atmosphere with bands and fireworks.
Looking at the teams, the boys looked super fit in their fitted jerseys displaying their well-toned muscles, so different from the teams of the past era.
The match was won by St Thomas’ in a hard fought game led by the playmaker and captain, a nephew of my team mate Sepala Jayasinghe.
Winning the Royal Thomian is the ultimate victory of the season and the Gunaratne trophy is the Holy Grail. The game was followed by celebrations and an award ceremony.
My joys of victory turned into agony when it was mentioned that we had been beaten by Royal eight years prior to that and we were proud leaders of the B division. The thought of my college rugby team being in the B division was devastating and unbelievable.
In the days of glory, St Thomas’ College first fifteen team beat most of the schools by 50 or more points. The only worries were Trinity and Royal College.
If any game was lost in a season, it was made sure that next year the trophy came back to the college.
It is accepted and understood that the other schools have raised their standards in the game in recent times but it is not acceptable to be in the B division and lose to Royal eight times in a row.
Back in 1974/1975, I was privileged to share the great game with a special band of brothers. I cannot forget in 1974, as a new kid on the block, the acceptance and encouragement by the senior players at the time.
The burly gentle giant Ananda Krishna, hefty swimmer and water polo player Ronnie Mather, as well as Mohan Hallock, Ranil Soysa, the captain being the courageous Peter Vaniasingham, and Jayantha Karunaratne, to name a few.
In 1974, we lost with a huge margin to Trinity College in Kandy. The championship team consisted of six Trinity Lions and it was coached by the legendary Bertie Dias.
The Chinese connection of Swan, Chin Chang and Shiek was too quick for our hefty pack, powerful but slow, weighed further down by those Perera & Sons goodies.
The juniors were required to supply on the bus on the way to Kandy. The intimidating Bogambra crowd were as rowdy as ever and not helping our cause.
The Thomian team was a write off from all sports pundits after that loss. In the Royal Thomian encounter that year, College lost the winger Devaka mid way in to the game , a broken wrist repaired with steel plates later. In the days of no substation, the game continued with a man short. Thomian drit enabling a four all draw against a much favoured Royal outfit.
The glory years
The following years of 1976 and 1977 were the glory days of college rugby. St Thomas’ was the proud winner of the unofficial rugby championship trophy, and one of the great teams to don the blue and black jersey.
In the Royal Thomian game in 1975, I remember picking the ball up from a line out from the far left side, opposite the clubhouse at Longdon Place, and the whole team handling the ball before P.L Munasighe crossed the line on the far right corner to give us a 16-nil drubbing of a much favoured Royal outfit.
The Royal team consisted of big names like Saman Jayasinghe and the six foot five giant Seyad, but the Royal Thomian was never won by great names or players with big physiques. The game is played and won with the “ticker” and glory of the alma mater.
On the day, the focus was on winning. Nothing else mattered and with no limbs broken, the body doesn’t feel the strain or feel tired. You win for college and only a Thomian will know the true “Thomian grit”
My parents encouraged me to participate in sports and achieve the best I could be in life but I am the proud product of my peers.
The energy and the momentum to achieve in life came from my team mates and best friends at St Thomas’ College.
At first it was my classmates who flanked my desk in Col B; one on the right being the now late Lalith Ratnayake, a gentleman and a top class cricketer. On my left was the record breaking champion diver Duleep Wickramanayake. Both were talented sportsmen and exceptional friends. They were my inspiration in the early years.
As a shy new arrival I was in awe of the presence of the talent around me. With the continuous chatter about sports, I had the necessary push to attend practices.
I think of Devaka (Dr) Fernando who was a champion athlete, a lightning fast winger who went on to be a doctor. I am flabbergasted as to contemplate how on earth he found time to study and participate in two sports?
A lot of inspiration came from captain Peter Vanighasigham who also went on to become a doctor.
P.L Munasinghe was the brilliant athlete and captain of the 1976 side, who along with Michael (Lanicia) Jayasekera, went on to play for Havelock’s Sports Club, the Clifford Cup champions.
Michael was the master of the side step and was also a talented cricketer. A playmaker; he would weave his magic steps through the flicker of gaps to find the try line. Often, naughty Michael would use the same technique outside the rugby game in life as well.
Stephan D’Silva, a talented prop forward with huge thighs with a body to match, dwarfed some of the opposition players. It is no wonder he is now in charge of reforming convicts in Australia, after taking on a high ranking position in the correctional system.
Pat Jacob will boast that he has never lost a scrum in his rugby career. He and the scrum half Avi (or Nugawela and later Thusitha bada) had implacable timing to gracefully hook the ball out of any untidy scrum.
Pat used to practice his technique for hours with his shoulder against the goal posts.
Stand-off Sepala Jayasinghe, with his scrawny frame, could kick a ball in the same league as Johnny Wilkins, the great English fly half. Sepala is famed for his drop goal though the legs of the opposition for the winning points to beat St Peters.
The smiley appearance of Ranil Soysa is deceptive on the playing field and he could demoralise the opposition with his brutal tactics in the scrum and line outs.
A brilliant full back, Lokamanya Tillekeratne was blind as a bat. He was occasionally known to chase shadows of flying crows instead of the oval ball.
Although he did not play for the 1st side “P” Bole played a important role as the captain of the 2nd 15. Rarely touching the ball in any game he would leading from behind always talking to the players motivating them to go forward , tackle and pass the ball. He beefy frame would appear at every brawl to disperse the crowd. Is it not a wonder he became a policeman
These are some of the team mates who are now scattered around the world.
I would like to apologise if some of the names are spelt incorrectly. As for the others I haven’t mentioned and some whom I have not met since leaving college, you are always on my mind.
This article was inspired by a photograph of the 1976 team posted on Facebook by Devaka Fernando and comments from the facebookers around the globe. I do hope it bought back a few memories which I certainly treasure with pride.
also dedicated to Ananda Welikala, Anil Welikala, Rienzie Fernando, Theodore Thambapillia, Whelheim Bogstra,Charith Wickramatilleke , Anomal De Soyza, Chandana Williams, Anil Cooke.