09 May 2014

Bonsa's incredible run in '88 and MY most memorable 'Bradby Moment'

I was a few minutes late for the first leg of the Bradby in 1988. I was with my classmate Kanishka Goonewardena. As we got off the bus at the Sugathadasa Stadium we heard a roar.  ‘Royal must have scored,’ I said.  There was heavy traffic.  Vehicles came at us pretty fast. We dashed across the road to the accompaniment of indignant tooting of horns and the screech of brakes being applied. 

‘Ung danne naha api Royal eke mulu season ekama baluwa kiyala!’ Kanishka observed that the drivers had no way of knowing that we had watched all the matches that season (the ones in Colombo that is).  What he meant was that we had seen so many scintillating three-quarter moves with the likes of Chanaka Seneviratne (scrum half), Sanjeewa Abeysinghe (fly half), Anura Dhammika and Bruce Cameron (centres), Somesh Selvaratnam and Tilak Silva (wingers), Shantha Fernando (full back) and occasionally even Alfred Hensman and Ruwan Jayasuriya (flankers) scything through the opposition, that, crossing a street through oncoming traffic was no big deal.  That was the impact on spectators like us who had never even touched the oval shaped ball.  That was the 1988 season.

By the time we got into the ground, Royal had already scored twice.  It was 24-0 at lemons.  In the second half everyone wanted to score a Bradby try.  Individual triumphed over collective and therefore there was no addition to the score. Royal played Nalanda between the two legs of the Bradby.  Shantha Fernando was in line for a record, that of contributing the highest number of points in a single season (tries, penalties, drop goals and conversions).  Royal won 63-3 at Reid Avenue.  Nalanda had no defense to speak of.  Many made their way to the try line and literally looked around to find Shantha running in from wherever he happened to be, just to pick up and fall over.  

Shantha Fernando was an amazing place kicker who thought nothing of taking kicks from midfield and touchline.  Spot on most of the time.  Skill was amply complemented by the confidence of knowing there were 14 other highly talented teammates ready to deliver on call.  Lasitha ‘Bonsa’ Gunaratne was a skipper endowed with height, power, great footwork and rugby sense.  He bulldozed through the opposition.   He was so good that he is probably one of the few schoolboy forwards to represent the country.  The burly Mahima Wijesinghe and Madhawa Chandrasekera made theirs the heaviest pack in the schools that year.   Janoda Thoradeniya and Thilina Balasuriya ruled the line outs and Niroshan Jayasinghe out-hooked his counterparts.  Chanaka Seneviratne was a diminutive scrum half who was a play-maker in his own right.  From Chanaka to Abeysinghe to the threes with Shantha often joining the line it was poetry in motion.  Somesh and Tilak (who broke the record for the most tries in a season) could out-sprint anyone and everyone.   They all ‘stood out’ at one point or another, but it was a collective effort that made those stand-out moments a reality, I am sure everyone of them will agree.  

It was no surprise that Royal won all the traditional fixtures, the league games, the Premadasa Trophy as well as two matches in Hong Kong.  1988 Royal College 1st XV Team led by Lasitha Gunarathne recorded a Grand Slam. They defeated all opposition including 11 Traditional/League Fixtures, 3 Premadasa Trophy Games and Two Games in Hong Kong.  All by considerable margins! The one offday-game, so to speak, was against St Thomas’, 10-9.  I am sure the players would say that Coach Dr Fred Perera and his able assistant Uddaka Tennekoon played a major role, as did B.W.A.H.A. ‘Baawa’ Weerasinghe, the Master-in-Charge.  They were all part of the ‘team’ I am sure and contributed significant lines to the success story that season turned out to be.   

The rugby season, however, is about the Bradby as far as Royal is concerned.  I remember the second leg.  Kanishka and I took bus, met up with a couple of my batchmates from Peradeniya University who had never been to a rugger match. We made it to Bogambara on time.  We even made a special flag.  Kanishka and I, then as now persuaded by the socialist ideal, were always peeved by school flags that drew from the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.  Kanishka was an architecture student and he knew how to draw. I bought a piece of blue cloth and a small can of dark yellow paint.  He painted a hammer and a sickle against the blue background.  

Trinity put up a better fight in Kandy and Royal had enough first-leg cushion to be less than their best.  The score read 13-0 at the long whistle.  It was sweet, not least of all because Trinity had mauled Royal the previous year.  After the customary shaking of hands with the opponents, the skipper had to collect the shield from the VIP stand on the other side of the ground.  I believe Bonsa’s smaller-made elder brother managed to get the skipper on his shoulders and made a beeline for the trophy table.  Bogambara was a riot of blue gold.  In a rare moment of inspiration I rushed up and thrust the hammer-sickle blue and gold flag into Bonsa’s hand.  He had eyes only for the trophy.  I doubt he knew what was on that flag.  But that day, not too long before the country erupted in the second post-Independence insurrection, with all eyes on Lasitha Gunaratne, there was a ‘commie flag’ fluttering across Bogambara.  That’s MY greatest Bradby moment.  It would have hardly registered in anyone’s mind: Except of course Kanishka’s and my two campus friends.   

There have been teams who ran up bigger scores, but fortunately or unfortunately I didn’t see them play.  My ‘great team’ therefore is that of 1988, for reasons of sheer dominance (Sampath Agalawatte’s team of 1984 comes first in the category of sentimental attachment because I was in the same batch).  

It is 25 years since those two Bradby encounters.  As you read this, the result of this year’s Bradby would be news that’s several hours old.  Stale, one might say.  The year 1988 remains fresh, though.  For me and for others too who were mesmerized by the scintillating performances throughout that season.  Not as fresh, not as indelible a set of memories for that all conquering team of Lasitha Gunaratne, I am sure.