HAVELOCK SC last knew the joys of being league champions thirty years ago, and so, as they sat atop the points table last week with the finishing post in sight, an air of optimism sweeps through the old club house, from its doorway, through the hallway and down to its lawn. Naturally: after three decades spent in the wilderness, even a whiff of success’ scent make heady dreams.
The history book speaks of Havelock SC’s many formidable achievements, including the honour of being the first winner of the Clifford Cup in 1950, with their goal line uncrossed at that. There were times, 60s through 80s, members boasted the club had been home to Clifford Cup for more years than it had resided in any other club. Synonymous with success, it prided itself as being a rugby club of fame.
But speak of that glorious era to the club’s younger members, and, in the time it takes to say “go tell it to pigtailed Chinese’’, they’ll likely turn on their heels and head for the door. The spirit of any club, as in life, is determined mostly by its triumphs and the pride born thereof. Without success a club merely exists, much like a doddery old man in reverie of years long past; with success, a club throbs with enthusiasm, a young man on life’s forward march.
The analogy of Havelocks transformation from old man to young man is best justified by the fact that last season there was no team worse than them, at the bottom; a team making up the numbers and going through the motions. As at last week, though, the club down at the park is on top of the heap, with the 2011 league championship a realistic prospect – paupers of a year ago, now threatening to tear-down the castle gates.
“Much is spoken about not winning the league for thirty years, but if you ask me when we last managed to even fleetingly hold the no.1 slot in the league table, I honestly can’t recollect– that too might well be 30 years ago.’’ says head coach Thusitha Peiris, laughing. “For much of this season we’ve been at 3-4, and are up at no.1 only because (leader and defending champions) Kandy SC surprisingly lost to Navy. We don’t know where we might be next Saturday (yesterday), but holding the leadership for even a week has given the club a huge boost.’’
It is not as if Havelock SC walked exactly a desert since, back in 1981, Angelo Wickremaratne’s conquering outfit brought home the triple-crown. In 1984 it won the knockout championship under the leadership of the now departed M F Sally and again 19 years later, led by Shafi Hassan, in the 2003 tournament devalued by the absence of league champions Kandy SC.
But the value of a knockout title is not the same as that attached to the league championship, which demands far more from the winners. The knockout can sometimes be a bit of roulette; one bad match means the death of a team, as champion league teams have found out more than once in the past/ or one good day can mean days of champagne and roses. The league, though, isn’t won or lost on a single result – but on the aggregate of wins after a taxing eleven-match slog.
There are two more games remaining yet before the 2011 league winner is settled – and any celebration-plan at this point in time is not advisable. So, well you may ask why the rush to tribute the Havelocks – after all, their hold on top slot is tenuous and the league title is anything but a certainty: defending champions Kandy SC are only a point behind. And indeed, as you read this, the Havelocks might’ve tumbled down. Yesterday, they took on the Navy, the battering rams of local rugby, buoyed by their previous week’s toppling of the defending champions. Even if the Havelocks won yesterday and retained their place at the top of table, there’s no assuming the league title is theirs: next Saturday, they collide with Kandy SC at Nittawela, where the home side hasn’t been defeated since 2001, when it lost to the CR.
Indeed, you can’t write off the chances of Navy either. As their win over Kandy SC indicates, overcoming their two remaining second round opponents, Havelocks (yesterday) and the CR, is by no means tasks beyond the sailors – and if they do, they’ll be in the calculations for the league title. The CR’s title chances, despite its one-point loss to Havelocks last week, are alive, albeit mathematically. So, what’s so special about the Havelocks being one among the four front runners?
It is the cricketing equivalent of – well, sort of – Zimbabwe overcoming the likes of either India or England in its first year of Test cricket post-2005, the year the African nation’s Test status was suspended because of continuing losses. Havelock SC, with just one win in 11 matches, was at the bottom most rung last season, and to be no.1 even once this season is itself an achievement. “If at the start of the season someone had offered us a week’s stay at the top, I’d taken it with both hands. We had been in a hole for so long that the desperation for even momentary success was so extreme,’’ said Peiris. “To think that the league title is now within our grasp is, well, I can’t believe it.’’
The transformation didn’t just happen. This column has already told you of the part played by the investments made by Asanga Seneviratne‘s Nations Lanka PLC and The Finance, the recruitment of three overseas players, the signing up of some outstanding young talent and the establishment of a Rugby Board in bringing about a change in the Park club’s fortunes. So, no need to harp on those factors again here.
Havelock SC’s golden era of yore, it must be said, was not made of the above ingredients, but rather of the old fashioned virtue called loyalty, far more a reliable thing – which explains the club’s long periods of dominance in years gone by. Said simply, players of that era lived by the credo: once Havelocks, always Havelocks. Not anymore. So, you wonder if, just as the Havelocks rose rapidly this season due to fortuitous circumstances, whether, in contradictory circumstances, it would descend just as swiftly.
One thing Havelocks will have to do without next season is the services of their foreign players – a concession allowed this season to 2010 season’s bottom four teams. Belonging to the top four, obviously, disqualifies the Havelocks from fielding the prescribed quota of two foreigners next season – unless of course the union allows all eight clubs to deploy foreigners. But then again, the union might well choose to shut the door on overseas players in 2012 – and for which there’s valid reason to so do: the league overall has been competitive; not lop-sided, the very reason why the last-four clubs were allowed overseas players.
The hope was that, through the foreign players the weaker clubs might be helped to build a team for the next season. The Havelocks has managed to do that; a fine crop of emerging players as well as the presence of three former Kandy SC players, ex-national captain Chamara Vidanage, Amjad Buksh and Dilip Selvam, present 2012 with hopeful inheritances. But that, admits the head coach, isn’t a given.
“There’s no doubt that without Asanga’s involvement the Havelocks wouldn’t be where it is now. So if we are to remain a serious challenger, it will depend on the sponsors we secure – that’s elementary,” said the head coach. “No sponsor would like to be involved with a losing team – and we’ve been just that for quite some season. But next season, I am sure, we’ll have a better product to sell to sponsors.’’
For Havelock SC, the league, so, is not just a piece of silverware to be brought to a long-empty trophy cupboard – but sustenance for the future of a once-great rugby club.