Police Rugby has made an Indelible Mark

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By 2016-11-04

Sri Lanka Police Rugby has a proud history which goes back to 1881. It is said that the Cops played their first match on 27 January at the "Kew Garden" Park at Malay Street, Slave Island. The British Officers picked some junior officers at Slave Island barracks to make the team to this very game which was introduced by their countryman, William Webb Ellis in 1823. The British, as the inventor of the game, naturally played this game for their leisure which gradually started to become popular in the island nation.

In the post-colonial era in mid fifties, Fred H. Brohier, Superintendent of Police, an Old Royalist, a top athlete and a member of the Havelocks Rugby Team, got some of the trainees to play rugby when he was the Assistant Director of Police Training College as it was then called. Superintendent of Police, Sydney De Zoysa took over the reins from Fred in 1960. For the first time, the Police started playing in the affiliated clubs competition with Army, Navy and the Universities, but were yet to qualify to play in the Big Club competition besides having some outstanding officers who joined the Force from leading schools in "Brute" Mahendran, Franklyn Jacob, S.S. Bambaradeniya, Rodney Aluvihare, Mike Schokman, James Senaratne, Sumith Silva, Rahula Silva, Raja Pathirana, Letco Ephramus, Terry Willams, Muni Gomes and S. Sivendran.

Moment of Truth

In 1961, with the ruling permitting the affiliated clubs to play in the Knock-Out round matches of the Clifford Cup competing with the leading clubs did turn tables. Police led by Sub Inspector Franklyn Jacobs, a Trinity "Lion", stunned the local rugby scene by holding the famed CH side to a 3-3 draw boasted with top British players. Realizing the potential, Sydney De Zoysa, worked tirelessly to promote the game in the Police Force but the path was rugged and tough as the game per say. S. Sivendran, retired SSP and the former Police Captain in an interview said that there was a time where the team had to find their own transport to come for matches.

Siva recalled an instance where skipper; Brute Mahendran had to organize a lorry to take the Police team to Kandy.
Transcend of Police Rugby was witnessed in 1967, after emerging as the unbeaten "B" Division champions. Having beaten the "A" Division teams, Kelani Valley (17/03) and Dickoya (08/05) in the first round and quarter finals of the Clifford Cup Knock- Out tournament, the Police team led by S. Sivendran met the most fancied side CR, virtually the nucleus of the national side, in the semi-finals on 18 August at Havelock Park.

During the extra time of the game in fading lights, when CR flanker, Tony Sylva was spotted off side, the Skipper Sivendran called Sergeant, Baba Bagoos Sourjah, the fullback (national soccerite turned rugby player) "come on boy – today is your day". The conversion came from 40 metres wide off the upright to put the final nail in the coffin when the scores were deadlocked at 6-all.

Baba was carried by the Police supporters from Havelock Park to Police Park. This was the turning point and the dawn of another era. Police Rugby team was promoted to "A" Division. More top schoolboy rugby players started joining the Police team hitherto consisted of some players from the rural areas who had never touched or seen the oval-shaped ball; some were drawn from other sports like soccer, athletics and basketball.

Historic Triumph

In 1970, the Police Rugby led by Abdul Majeed had the first toast when it shared the prestigious Clifford Cup holding the star studded Havelocks SC to a 6-all draw; but the champagne cork really popped on the evening of 23 September 1972 at the Inspectors' Mess when the Police team inspired by Anton Benedict beat the CH & FC 12 points to 09 to win the Clifford Cup for the first time in the history. The latter occupying the pivotal No 08 combined with half back, Sunil Perera to completely fox and mesmerize his opponent Upali Vidanage by faking a diving pass at the base of the scrum to steal a penalty which fullback Nizam Hajireen obliged with ease to seal the game with referee Malcolm Wright blowing the long blast. Incidentally, Upali joined the Police and led the side in 1984 to clinch the John Player League Tournament.

To name a few in the cup winning team who never played rugby before joining the Force were: Bandula Wijesinghe (Walala Central), "Rock" Banda (Poramadulla Central), J.B. Kularatne (Rahula), Nimal Abeysinghe (St. Anne's) S. Samaraweera, Sunil Perera and W. A. Somachandra (Gampola Central). Whenever, the stalwarts used to meet during rugby matches and socials, they used to cherish the reminiscences with camaraderie bonded ever since their playing days.

With the infusion of new potential, Police rugby started to develop to a multi-faceted dimension since the early seventies in keeping with the changing patterns and techniques of the game. A past records tell the success story of Police Rugby being the Champions of Clifford Cup on five occasions (1972, 1979, 1980, 1985 & 1991) and sharing it twice (1970 & 1973); Winners of the league title on nine occasions (1979, 1980, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989 & 1991) and Premadasa Trophy twice (1987 & 1989); and three time winners (1985, 1988 & 1989) of the Inter Club 7s.

Under the leadership of Anton Benedict (1972) "ace" place kicker Charles Wijewardena (1979), Nimal Lewke (1980), Upali Vithanage (1984), Hettiachchige Premasiri (1986), Asiri "Muruga" Jayaratne (1987), Ajantha Samarakoon (1988) and Hemantha Yatawara (1991), the premier law enforcement arm kept in custody the silverwares in the trophy cupboards of the Sports Division.

Golden Era of Police Rugby

That said, the zenith of Police Rugby was witnessed from 1984 to 1991.Within the span of 9 years, the Police team won 14 major tournaments and emerged runners-up in 9 such competitions. Police team reached yet another rare milestone clinching the Rugby League Title for five consecutive years (1984 – 1989) except in 1990 due to insurrection; and even at the time, the team was riding high for the title – a remarkable feat by any standards that none of the sports discipline in the Force has achieved. 11 Policemen were selected to the national squad of 23 players for the tour of Wales in 1987 had been another accomplishment. It did not stop at that, Police winning the "Triple Crown" in 1985 and 1989 under the captaincy of Sunil Sahabandu and Hafeez Marso is considered to be the highest achievement ever. Ironically, the Police lost the triple to Havelocks under leadership of Judy Preena in 1981 – all by whiskers.

For nearly four decades since the sixties from the time of late Chief Inspector, Baba Bagoos Sourjah, Police has produced fine place kickers in Nizam Hajireen, Charles Wijewardena, Hafeez Marso and Nizam Jamaldeen. Sports journalists often use to call their kicking prowess as the "lethal weapon" in the Police armoury. Getting the ball over the cross bar between the uprights gave the team the tremendous inspiration and at times getting the team out from the jaws of defeat. Spectators were so annoyed and disgusted that they use to make catcalls saying "Penalty Police" and start jeering whenever a kick was taken; but those unwarranted remarks only gave more confidence in executing the job to perfection. The writer rates the late Charles Wijewardena as the best place kicker who had the perfect technique and natural skills for this specialized job. Had there been a world rugby place kicking competition, I am sure that Charles would have been in the vanguard.

The Pioneers and Promoters

The support that came from the top brass of the Force to promote rugby needs special mention. If one may call Sidney De Zoysa as the "God Father" of Police Rugby, fittingly the former Inspector Generals of Police, Stanley Senanayake and Rudra Rajasingham, are the "Patron Saints". The writer recall the days when Rudra Rajasingham would walk into the dressing room before an encounter and pat the back of players with encouraging words. Once after a final practice, in the most assertive manner he said, "Boys you must win. I have to face the Security Council". For some it took a little time to realize what he meant.

For many it was like Greek. Nonetheless the boys did the job. Whenever the Police and the Armed Forces clash, it was more a battle for supremacy irrespective of their standings. In another episode, when the Police team was in a pensive mode in the dressing room after losing the Clifford Cup final to CR & FC, Mr. S.T. Thurairetnam, Superintendent of Police and Secretary, Police Rugby came and asked the boys "what happened" ? The witty prop forward, Raja Wijewardane replied "Sir, our captain told us, come boys let's go and play hell there. So we played hell".

Charles Wijewardena, "Lofty" Perera and "Viper" Gunaratne (snr.) turned up for CR when Air Force withdrew from the tournament due to 1971 insurrection and did the major damage. It was so unfortunate that the two Wijewardenas, "Raja" and "Charlie" made the supreme sacrifice in safeguarding the sovereignty of the country being victims to brutal terrorism when both were serving in Jaffna Peninsula. To draw parallels, in 1983 when the Police team pulled out owing to infamous July riots, CR once again had the fortune of getting the services of Hafeez Marso, Sunil Sahabandu, Mahes Perera and Marasinghe Dharmakeerthi to win the President's Trophy led by "Cargo" Siriwardena and coached by Malik Samarawickrema.
In a battle of penalties Marso got the better off "evergreen" S.P. de Siva of Army converting four penalties to three put over by the latter. As a matter of fact, the then Chairman of Rugby, Senior DIG Administration, Rudra Rajasingham wanted the Police players to play for other clubs in a bid to strengthen Police Public Relationship through sports. Rohan Gunaratne and the duo Ajantha Samarakoon and Hemantha Yatawara joined their old clubs CH and Kandy. Hettiarachchige Premasiri and K. Chandrapalan played for Havelocks.

Present Status quo

Talking about the present status of Police rugby, there has been a sharp decline since the latter part of nineties. After bagging the Rugby Double under the leadership of Hemantha Yatawara in 1991, Police has not won any major tournaments other than emerging as the runner-up on eight occasions in the league and knock-out tournaments. Core factor has been that ever since the change of policy in the education for recruitment came into effect in mid-eighties, the intake of top schoolboy rugby players almost came to a standstill and this trend continues to have an adverse impact on the performance in all the sports disciplines of the Police Force.

Nonetheless, the Rugby Committee has been working out on a plan envisaged by the past Chairmen which is being continued by the incumbent head of Rugby, M.R. Latiff, Senior DIG to get the Police Rugby back to fame. The Inter Division "Layards Cup" format is now changed from 7s to 10s since 2012 solely in search of big guys who have the potential to suit club rugby and encourage the schoolboys to join the Police Force. With a view to promoting rugby, this competition has already been held in outstations like Kurunegala, Kandy and Matara with success.

As far as club rugby is concerned, with the enormous competitiveness and professionalism engulfing the local rugby scene, the Police had no option but to obtain the services of foreign and local players to live up to expectations to be on par with leading clubs at least for a short spell until such time the development plan which has already been put in place becomes a reality.

Stalwarts of Yesteryear

There were many officers who made enormous contributions to bring glory to the Police Rugby. Nonetheless, a special mention needs to be made on those who donned the national jersey. They are Abdul Majeed, Anton Benedict, Daya Jayasundera, Nizam Hajireen, Bandula Wijesinghe, Sunil Perera, Charles Wijewardena, Judy Preena, Rohan Gunaratne, M. Nazeeb, Hafeez Marso, Ajantha Samarakoon, Hettiarachchige Premasiri, Palitha Siriwardena, Asiri Jayaratne, Saman Kotalawela, Hemantha Yatawara, Leslie De Silva, Norman Silva, Aruna Silva, Hector Gunathilake, Nizam Jamaldeen, Lakshmiwewa brothers – Hemantha and Nilantha, Damith Jayawardena, Sudath Sampath, Niranjan Abeywardena, Asoka Jayasena, Lalith Leelaratne, W.T. Thilakaratne, Upul Peiris, Anura Fernando, Nilusha Fernando, T.D. Herath, N D. Welagedara, Charaka Hewawasam, Chammika Thushara, Pradeep Wilson, Harshana Wijeweera, Chula Susantha and Romesh Acharige. Amongst them, Nizam Hajireen, Judy Preena, Rohan Gunaratne, Hafeez Marso and Palitha Siriwardena were double internationals with the first duo represented the national teams in soccer and the trio in basketball. While Abdul Majeed (1970 -1971) and Rohan Gunaratne (1985 – 1986) had the unique distinction of leading the national rugby team, Saman Kotalawela led the national 7s team at the Hong Kong International Tournament in 1988.

Quite a few officers gave back to rugby either as administrators, coaches and referees; or equally serving in these fields. Among them are, Nimal Lewke (Retd. Senior DIG) T.B. Werapitiya, (Retd. DIG), S.T. Thurairetnam (Retd. SP), Brute Mahendran (Retd. DIG), T.M.B. Mahath (Retd. SSP), Terry Williams (Retd. SSP), Daya Jayasundara (Retd. DIG), S. Sivendran (Retd. SSP), Sumith Silva (Retd. SSP), V. T. Dickman (Retd. SSP) Ibrahim Hamid (Retd. SSP) R.M. Lafir (Retd. DIG), Nizam Hajireen, Nizam Jamaldeen, Lalith Leelaratne and Sudath Sampath. As for the civilians, the contributions made by Messer's; Summa Navaratnam, Kavan Rambukwella, Mohamed Azain, Gamini Fernando and Anton Benedict as coaches are indeed praiseworthy. Let's hope and pray that the Police Rugby would redeem the lost prestige with the support and blessings of the Inspector General of Police. Pujith Jayasundara.

Rugby is a way of life. For some, it is a religion. Traditions, values and moral ethics inherited by the game played by gentlemen carry a long way in one's life. The passion and the genuine concerns to rugby always have a due place and recognition in the society irrespective of whether one gets his dues or not. Shaping rugby to a more a professional outlook is the dire; but unregulated commercialization may have an adverse impact to the game.
Let's all pray Rugby to be the ultimate winner!

Hafeez Marso
Deputy Inspctor General of Police

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