By Neil Wijeratne:
At a time when Sri Lanka Rugby is to host another major international rugby tournament, the 3rd leg of the Asia Rugby Sevens series, it would be apt to recall some of the landmarks of the game played under the serendipity sun.
Rugby Football in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) is a legacy of the British Raj. It was the Brits who brought the game to the then Crown Colony. Not only three-piece suits, top-hats and tins of salmon, sardine and corned beef found its place in the metal suitcases of the Europeans who visited Ceylon either as plantation managers, planters, soldiers, traders, government servants or businessmen but also their cricket gear and rugby balls.
The earliest trace of the game’s presence in the Serendipity Isle goes back to 1879 with the formation of the first rugby club in Sri Lanka, Colombo Football Club (later called Colombo Hockey and Football Club), followed by the first ever rugby match played on Ceylon soil. It was when Colombo Football Club and the World XV (a combined team) figured in a match that was played at the Galle Face Green in Colombo, facing the Indian Ocean. The players were drawn from the Services, Mercantile and Planting sectors of the European community. In the same year -1879 also witnessed the inaugural Up-Country vs Low-Country match, which later to be called the "Capper Cup" match.
In the formative years there were instances where rugby football was not considered a sport fit and proper for the local field. In 1884 “The Times of Ceylon” which had an European editorial staff at the time remarked: “If the barbarous, brutish, knocking and kicking and hitting and pushing and pulling each other, called Football (Rugby) ranks amongst athletic sports of the 19th century, we are sure that our progress is backwards”.
Yet the game flourished and its popularity spread especially in the hill country and plantation districts and also to the Public Schools. First school in Sri Lanka to introduce rugby into its playing fields was Kandy Boys High School (later known as Kingswood College). That was in 1891.
When the first rugby international was played here in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in 1907 between New Zealand "All Blacks" led by Hercules Wright and the All Ceylon team, interestingly, the match was organized by the CH & FC, being the first rugby club in the island. The Ceylon Rugby Football Union was not in existence at the time. According to the newspaper reports, from Colombo Jetty the visitors "were driven to the Havelock Race Course by motor car. ------- A crowd of about 4000 assembled to witness the game. On entering the field the New Zealanders were cheered by the Ceylon team. The visitors returned the compliment and san their war song." The match was played at the CH & FC grounds situated within the Havelock Racecourse. The dominance of the fully European CH & FC in the rugby arena at the time was evident as the All Ceylon team had eight players from the CH & FC including the captain of the team - A.F. West. The match result: All Blacks 33, All Ceylon 6 (2 tries). Referee: Mr. J. Lochore.
On August 10, 1908 the Ceylon Rugby Football Union (later called Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union and now known as Sri Lanka Rugby) was officially formed at a meeting held at the Grand Oriental hotel, Colombo with H.B.T. Boucher of Uva Gymkhana club elected as the first president of the newly formed governing body for rugby. J.G. Cruickshank of Kandy became the first honorary secretary of the Union. Both of them were planters by profession.
Referring to Sri Lanka's long association with the game, Professor Tony Collins in his invaluable book titled "The Oval World – A Global History of Rugby" (Bloomsbury Sport - 2015) has mentioned: "The only part of the subcontinent in which rugby had a more substantial history was Sri Lanka."
With the arrival of the Clifford Cup the shape and pattern of the local rugby scene changed tremendously. Originally introduced in 1911, the Clifford Cup rugby tournament is arguably the oldest rugby tourney in Asia. “The Ceylon Observer” on August 12, 1911, under the caption “Lady Clifford encourages Rugby Football” went onto say: “Her Excellency Lady Clifford was extremely interested in the great annual rugby football fixture, Colombo vs Up Country, and has shown how much she appreciates the way in which the game is contested in Ceylon by expressing a wish that a match may take place in Colombo on the 26th of this month, between teams representative of the United Services and All Ceylon".
Recalling about the player participation in the formative years, renowned rugby writer Austin Daniel once wrote: “Reciprocal matches continued to take place regularly with teams from Colombo travelling into the distant hills to meet the tea planters at Rugby. It is worth recalling, that players from Colombo had to obtain a week’s leave from their employers and travel by primitive modes such as carriages drawn by horse to reach their hill-station destinations. The scattered tea plantations also caused problems to estate Superintendents or Periya-Dorais and Sinna-Dorais, as they were known. Players were reported to have trudged through narrow estate tracks to and from the rugby pitches, sometimes over distances of 40 miles. The affluent planters however were blessed with rides on horseback”. (Rugby Centenary Ball Souvenir – 1978)
Then in 1926, the Clifford Cup tournament was converted to a quadrangular, with four teams, Low-Country, Up-Country, the Ceylonese and United Services fighting for supremacy. In 1950, the Ceylon Rugby Football Union decided to grant official status to the league rugby tournament thus converting the Clifford Cup competition to an inter-club affair. The Clifford Cup is still on offer for the champions of the inter club “A’ division knock-out competition, even after 108 long years.
All Ceylon team’s maiden participation in the “All India” tourney was in 1926 when the competition was held in Madras. Although the team was called “All-Ceylon”, no Ceylonese players were included in the “green and white” jerseyed all-expat team led by C. A. Cameron. The team left Colombo Fort Railway station on October 2, 1926 in the night mail train to Talaimanner and from there, it was a boat trip to the Indian shores. It was said, that the team was privileged in “travelling in the new restaurant cars which were recently put on the rails”. Three years later, in 1929, the All-Ceylon team emerged champs for the first time in the All-India Rugby Tournament, the oldest rugby competition in Asia, under the captaincy of J. D. Farquharson, a former South African player.
Having participated in the 2nd edition of the Rugby Asiad in 1970 held at the National Stadium in Bangkok for the first time and also in the next Asiad at the Happy Valley Stadium in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka hosted the Fourth Rugby Asiad in 1974. For the first time the local rugby enthusiasts were privileged to witness a truly international rugby tournament on home turf. Playing under the captaincy of Indrajit Coomarawamy, Sri Lanka team defeated Singapore 10-4, Laos 39-3 & Malaysia 12-6 to enter the Cup finals and to ended-up as runner-up to Japan RFU.
1978 was the Centenary year of Rugby Football in Sri Lanka and was celebrated by the governing body in a grand style including a well-attended Rugby Centenary Dinner Dance.
Sri Lanka’s first ever major triumph in sevens rugby was witnessed in 1984 at the Hong Kong International Sevens tournament when the islanders under the leadership of Hisham Abdeen emerged first ever winner of the Bowl competition of the tourney. Playing before an enthusiastic Sunday crowd, Sri Lanka defeated Brunei by 26 - 0 in the quarters, Papua New Guinea by 10 – 4 in the semis and then Thailand by 16 – 10 in the finals.
In 1994, the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union organised its first ever “International Sevens Tournament” with former President of the Union Y.C. Chang functioning as the Chairman of the organising committee. Along with the host country, teams from Australia, Bulgaria, Korea, USA, Malaysia, Singapore, Wales, Arabian Gulf, New Zealand, Netherlands and Fiji scrummed down in this two day tournament.
There have been many more remarkable landmarks in Sri Lankan rugby which was once considered as a leisure game of the expatriate circles and which has now possessed a history of 141 years. Over the years rugby in Sri Lanka have had many a knock-on’s, tackles, scrummages, rucks and mauls but it had the opportunity and determination to side-step and accelerate its growth speed and popularity to make the game’s presence felt by the sporting fraternity in the country. For Sri Lankans it’s a game of their own.
(Neil Wijeratne is the Chairman of the Appeal Board of Sri Lanka Rugby and also the author of “Rugby Across the Straits – Rugby Football links between Sri Lanka & India”, “Sevens Saga – A history of seven-a-side rugby in Sri Lanka” and “Batting on a Matting Wicket”.)