By Neil Wijeratne.
The month of August this year marked the 111 year existence of the governing body of Rugby Football in Sri Lanka. The governing body which was originally called the Ceylon Rugby Union and then Ceylon Rugby Football Union was renamed in 1973 as Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union. Now called Sri Lanka Rugby, it is considered as one of the oldest in rugby sphere in Asia.
The Ceylon Rugby Union was formed on Monday - August 10, 1908 and had its inaugural meeting at the GOH Hotel, Colombo. Representatives from rugby playing districts such as Colombo, Kandy, Dimbula, Dickoya, Uva and Kelani Valley attended the meeting which also formed the first committee of the Union. A representative from Uva, H.B.T. Boucher, Justice of the Peace, Unofficial Magistrate, Planter and Manager of a leading Tea Company was elected as the first President of the Union whilst J.G. Cruickshank, another Planter from up-country was elected as the Honorary Secretary of the Union.
It was resolved at the inaugural meeting that the newly formed Union "shall apply for affiliation with the English Rugby Football Union"; "the captain of each district and two residents – not necessarily players - should form the committee"; and "Kandy be the official headquarters of the Union".
The formation of the Union was made public by the press and the news item appeared under the caption "The 'Ceylon Rugby Union' – Its Inauguration". It read: "Taking advantage of the presence in Colombo of so many prominent Rugger men from all parts of the island, and chiefly on the initiative of Mr. H.B.T. Boucher of Demodora Group, a meeting was held on Monday afternoon at which it was decided that a Ceylon Rugby Union, to be affiliated to The Rugby Union, should be formed."
Although the formation of the first rugby club and thereafter the celebration of the inaugural rugby match in Sri Lanka were witnessed in 1879, it took nearly three more decades to form a governing body for the game. And it happened unexpectedly, being a result of a match sanction.
When Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) played its first ever rugby international against the New Zealand “All Blacks” on September 12, 1907 at the Havelock Racecourse upon a guarantee fee of $50, it resulted in the English Rugby Football Union preventing other Rugby playing nations travelling via Colombo port, from playing representative matches in the British Colony.
The English RFU thought that it was an unpardonable crime to offer a match fee for a professional team by an Amateur team! As a result, an Australian State Rugby team passed through Colombo Port on their way to England via Suez Canal without playing a match in Sri Lanka. Then it became apparent to the custodians of the game here in Sri Lanka that the formation of a governing body affiliated to the British Union was the only solution to invite foreign teams to play in Colombo during their brief stopovers at the Colombo Port. And it paved the way to the formation of the Ceylon Rugby Union.
In 1910, the Rugby Union for the first time, decided to host an overseas team and this is how it was discussed as per the minutes of the committee meeting. "After the usual preliminaries, the Chairman (H.B.T. Boucher) said that they had received a letter from the 2nd Leicester Regiment asking if the Union could arrange to give them one, two, three or four matches in Ceylon. ………The meeting signified its approval of the arrangements. The Chairman said that they had guaranteed Leicesters Rs.850/- as the travelling expenses and if the gate money was not sufficient, they would pay it out of the Union funds".
On the eve of the arrival of the 2nd Leicester Regiment stationed in Madras, the Ceylon Rugby Football Union published its first ever newspaper advertisement. It read: "RUGBY FOOTBALL. Ceylon vs 2nd Leicester Regi. on Saturday 20th August 1910 on Havelock Racecourse. Kick-off 5 p.m. sharp. Admission: Re.1/-. Ladies Free. Chairs will be provided at an extra charge of 50 cents per person". For the purpose of record, the visitors triumphed in all three matches they played; 27-0 against Colombo XV, 3-0 against up-country at Bogambara of which "the attendance at the match was a very large one for Kandy and the two rows of chairs along the stream side touch line were fully occupied"; 13-3 against the All-Ceylon team led by A.E. Ogilvy of Uva.
At the beginning, the monthly Committee meetings were hosted individually by the officials of the Union representing various rugby playing districts. For instance, in March 1910 the monthly meeting was held at the Queen's Hotel Kandy whilst on Saturday, 28th May 1910, Uva Gymkhana Club hosted the monthly committee meeting at its Club House in Badulla.
It was the time when the game was in the hands of "expatriate leisure circles"; it was the time when the Rugby Union was solely comprised of expatriate community; it was the time when the players arrived match venue on horse back or by foot covering long distances amidst rough conditions; and it was the time when linesmen were "attired in full suit, top hat and all that".
During those formative years the Union had its headquarters in Kandy as decided at the inaugural meeting and later in 1920s moved on to the CH & FC premises at the Colombo Racecourse. The CH & FC had to vacate the premises in 1964 when it was "taken over by the government" and interestingly, it was the last year that the red and white jerseyed CH team played an all European team. On March 8, 1964 the "Sunday Times of Ceylon" disclosed: "The new Ceylon Rugby Football Union headquarters will be the CR & FC in the future. This change has been necessitated with the CH & FC changing its ground to the CCC field at Maitland Place".
Since 1908 the Ceylon Rugby Football Union maintained the practice of having its Annual General Meeting on the same day of the annual Capper Cup match. Incidentally, Capper Cup was the first trophy on offer in the local rugby scene. The Rugby Lords of the British Colony gathered at the GOH in Colombo during the first or second week of August, for the annual rugby assembly and in the afternoon they were seen in the VIP enclosure of the Colombo Racecourse watching the Capper Cup match, which was a part of highly celebrated August festival "Week".
On August 13, 1957, a Colombo based broadsheet reported that "the AGM of the Ceylon Rugby Football Union was held yesterday (12th) morning at the GOH Hotel" and on the same day afternoon, "a mammoth crowd witnessed a rousing game of rugby in the 53rd annual Capper Cup encounter" at the Racecourse where "every reserved seat has been sold out".
This practice of having Rugby Union's Annual General Meeting in Colombo on the day of the annual Capper Cup match continued uninterruptedly year after year and decade after decade like a ritual till 1965.
Interestingly the Ceylon Rugby Union had its 50th Annual General Meeting in 1957 at the same venue where the inaugural meeting was held in 1908.
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