By Emil van der Poorten
While the title of this column might be long and ungainly, it constitutes an honest effort to accede to the requests I keep getting from readers to “bring your language down to a level that will be appropriate to the current definition of English literacy in Sri Lanka.”
That said, I would really have preferred to have said, “A rugby game as a metaphor for life in Sri Lanka!”
But never mind – let’s get on with the business at hand.
I have on previous occasions referred to the disgrace that is the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union (SLRFU), the national body governing the sport in this country. It has been, not to put too fine a point on it, a refuge for those who are not merely beyond their “best before” date, but were never “best” at any point of time.
If confirmation of that fact was needed, the final of this year’s Caltex Rugby Tournament provided it – in spades.
Let me, however, take a step back and declare my involvement as an office-holder of the Kandy Sports Club (KSC), one of the competitors in that Tournament. My initial involvement with what has now become a colossus of hill country rugby goes back more that half a century, but I still hold to what are now, probably, outdated and irrelevant concepts in this country: decency and ethical conduct, particularly in the sports arena where it should be a no brainer. What I and anyone who adheres to some sort of moral code experienced before, during and after this match, is beyond belief.
But, to begin at the beginning, Roshan Goonetilleke, since his imposition on the national rugby world has demonstrated an incompetence and lack of principle that is, without exaggeration, mind-boggling. His track record outside the national rugby body more than fitted him for this role, beginning with the manner of his entry into the Air Force to his construction activities in a World Heritage Site, the Knuckles region.
He began his vendetta against the Kandy Sports Club when his Airmen unleashed violence of an unprecedented level against other spectators at last year’s Clifford Cup Semi-Final at Bogambara. This, in fact, followed the suspension of play by the referee for more than a quarter of an hour and the eviction of one of the Air Force players when a team gone mad started a melee that would have done professional wrestling of the WWE brand proud!
A request, by the KSC, for appropriate punitive action was met with deafening silence from Goonetilleke and then, about six months later, the hill country club received an exercise in bombast from, not the SLRFU, but some Air Force officer whose response was, to put it mildly, “all over the map.” EVERY subsequent effort to elicit a response from Mr. G and the body over which he presides has met with more deafening silence!
Then came the “T56 Rugby Match” at Nittawela this season, where an Air Force player discharged an assault rifle on the field during the game, fortunately not resulting in a fatality or injury to anyone but representing a Rs. 65,000 repair to the KSC’s broadcast booth. This incredible act has not only gone unpunished but has resulted in more silence from Mr. G and his minions with one exception: a Mr. Baptist (I don’t know whether his first name is John) issued some kind of a press statement to the effect that this was okay because the weapon was fired just outside the touch line! Incredible? Yes, but wait till you hear the rest of this narrative.
The Kandy Municipal Council, unanimously, passed a motion condemning the reign of terror that had been unleashed on Kandy rugby fans by Air Force personnel. I believe this is without precedent in Sri Lankan history.
None of this “fizzed” on Goonetilleke and his buddies at the apex organisation.
A request to have this year’s final played, as is traditional, on the defending champion’s grounds was rejected. A request to have the final played on a truly “neutral” ground was met with another refusal, with a statement that the designated venue would be available for the KSC team to practice on before the match.
That offer made interesting reading in the context of the 2010 final being moved from Nittawela to Bogambara on the grounds that the former was not “neutral.” KSC was refused permission to practice on Bogambara, the control of which had, just before, been taken away from the Kandy Municipal Council and vested completely in a Mr. Ibrahim who, (surprise, surprise!) happened to be the Navy Coach. Another little surprise was that, despite KSC being refused access to the ground, the Navy team used it for their practices before the game!
Given the universally-accepted fact that political pressure has in the past been (and will in the future be) exerted on local referees, a request was made to the SLRFU for a referee to be brought in from overseas for the final. Mr. Jamaldeen, the President of the Referees Association, again through the media, stated that this was an unacceptable practice for which there was no precedent. Winston Churchill would have called this a “terminological inexactitude” because foreign referees were brought in last year, not only for the final but for the semi-finals as well. Ah well, people seeking to please “the powers that be” must be permitted memory lapses of this kind, one supposes. However, the significance of Jamaldeen’s stand was only too evident when he chose to “blow” the game himself and the manner in which he did so.
Before I get to describing events associated with the game itself, let me give you a couple of little side-bars of interest.
While several KSC officials were on their way down to Colombo on the morning of the game they were informed that an Education Department functionary had issued an order that very day prohibiting three Kingswood schoolboys from playing for Kandy in the final. This was despite the fact that these same students had already represented KSC in several matches already, with no objection from the school or the education authorities. Given the vulnerability of these students whose attempt to sit for public examinations this year can be interfered with by those issuing such orders, only time will tell how these boys and their futures are going to be affected by those trying to influence the outcome of a rugby match.
Then there was a listing of those who were to be seated in the VIP enclosure at the game with the Presidential entourage, posted in the building. Conspicuous by their absence were the names of the President of the Kandy Sports Club and his wife, Dr and Mrs Kapuwatte. Then, when the trophy was being presented, the announcement did not invite Dr. Kapuwatte to participate and it took intervention by a Trustee of the KSC to help Dr. K down the stadium steps and Sri Lanka’s President helping Dr. Kapuwatte to get up on to the podium so that he could take his rightful place. There is only one explanation for these kinds of omissions: deliberate and calculated malicious insult.
Let me now give readers a synopsis of the game at the Royal College Sports Complex on the 17th in case any of my readers suffer from memory lapses similar to Mr. Jamaldeen’s.
Kandy completely dominated the game and overwhelmed the Navy in the first half scoring 17 points. Then in the second half, a team that had played penalty-free rugby began to be penalized, by the earlier-mentioned Mr. Jamaldeen, every time they threatened to score. As a result, the Navy came within a point of tying the game by the time the final whistle blew.
My own curiosity will not, however, be satisfied until I and those interested in rugby in this country have a feasible explanation for Mr. Jamaldeen’s delay in re-entering the field for the second half, while the two teams stood around awaiting his arrival. Why was he late and how did he spend the half-time break? And did that delay have anything to do with the many penalties he awarded the Navy, the try he awarded that team when, clearly, the ball was not grounded within the goal area and the places at which the touch judges marked balls as having gone out, every such doubtful call to the disadvantage of Kandy.
Finally, which player who had been substituted and should have been on the bench, ordered the touch Judge to award “the try that wasn’t?”
But the fun didn’t end there.
Those of us who went into the KSC dressing room to congratulate the team, several of the weaker sex included, were suddenly in the middle of a melee created by half a dozen thugs seeking, successfully, to assault, twice, the now-famous/notorious Nuwan Hettiarachchi whom the Navy had incarcerated earlier in the season to prevent him from continuing in the KSC team. Hettiarachchi, who sat throughout the game a seat away from me, certainly was the most passive spectator on that day, in no way provocative, and had gone downstairs to congratulate his team-mates. Among the casualties and would-be casualties of this attack was the KSC coach and my spouse, the former being roughed up and the latter coming close to the same fate.
Having observed the Navy Rugby Chairman, Commodore Amaranayake, in the area, I drew him away from the melee and requested that he intervene to bring a stop to this unprovoked and unbelievable conduct generated entirely by navy personnel and/or their supporters.
I must say he made an effort, though the results left something to be desired. He subsequently told one of the KSC Vice-Presidents that the thugs were not navy personnel. I was given to understand that they were part of the “Security” of a VIP involved in the day’s events.
Hettiarachchi was thereafter escorted out of the premises after Namal Rajapaksa emerged from the Navy dressing room to speak to the thugs, but not before being assaulted again on his way out of the building.
The Navy dressing room was immediately adjacent to that occupied by the Kandy team but members of that team made no attempt to prevent this rampant abuse and intimidation, all of which was coming entirely from their supporters and/or colleagues, up to then.
Significantly, and in keeping with a pattern already established since last year in events over which Goonetilleke had control, throughout all of this violence there was no intervention by security personnel. The reason? There were none!
Draw your own conclusions.
The evening’s events didn’t end there. The KSC team bus was followed to their hotel by the primary miscreant, on a motorbike. What strikes me with this “motorcycle outrider” routine is its eerie resemblance to the manner in which Lasantha Wickrematunge was assassinated.
To your obvious question as to why all of this wasn’t reported to “the authorities,” may I suggest that you consider who “the authorities” are and who “the thugs” are and what good such “reporting” will have done in the circumstances.
In conclusion, all I can say is “Shame, shame!” After all, this was supposed to be a sporting event. Or is it yet another blood sport in The Land Like No Other?