05 June 2017

Royal’s legendary rugby team of 1988

Which was the best team ever?  That’s a question that comes up frequently in all sports.  It’s a question that’s asked with reference to countries, clubs and schools.  The Trinity team of thirty years ago, for example, was the best ever, according to some.  The 1987 team, led by Tyrell Rajapakse, incidentally, was the Trinity team to win the schools’ rugby league, a feat that this year’s outfit was determined to emulate but was stopped by an equally determined bunch of Royalists led by Ovin Askey.  Royal won the first leg and thereby emerged league champs.  Two weeks later, Royal beat Trinity 13-8 to retain the Bradby.  

Tyrell’s team was awesome.  They won it all that year when twelve rival teams could only cross the Trinity line once.  Legends, certainly.  Will there be another Trinity team that will do better?  Only time can tell.  The Royal team of 1984 led by Sampath Agalawatte won the league, the sevens and the knock-out tournament, and that’s a record that remains to date. 

The Royal team led by Manik Weerakumar in 1976 defeated Trinity in the first leg (Longden Place) 35-0 and many thought the margin would stand the test of time.  I’ve heard tell that the Trinitians who were in the team that was mauled by Royal in 1976 dreamed of a day when Royal would better that score just so they would be divested of the ignominy of being ‘the worst drubbed team’.  I don’t know if this is really true, but if it was, then that loss must weigh less on their minds now.

We all want the ‘greats’ to be the greatest for all time.  Time passes and things change.  The school-game played over 60 minutes in the seventies and eighties is now an 80 minute affair.  Different rules call for different strategies and comparisons are beyond a certain point merely academic.  

Nevertheless we like to be nostalgic about teams we’ve known and/or admired.  The Royal College team of 1988 for example, led by Lasitha ‘Bonsa’ Gunaratne.  After Agalawatte’s ‘invincibles’ won the Bradby, Trinity won three years in a row. The teams led by Chiro Nanayakkara, Manjula Peiris and Suren Madanayake were roundly beaten in 1985, 1986 and 1987 respectively, the last being the low point.  And the fact of that ‘low point’ made Bonsa’s year especially sweet.     

Royal had a brilliant line that year and there were amazing moves originated by scrum-half Chanaka Seneviratne, put into play by Sanjeewa Abeysinghe and finished by the likes of Anura Dhammika, Bruce Cameron, Somesh Selvaratnam, Tilak Silva and Shantha Fernando.  Maybe they weren’t as fast or penetrative as Shah Dole and Imthie Marikkar of Trinity who had humiliated Royal in the previous year, but they were pure eye-candy for rugby enthusiasts nevertheless.  

The forwards were as formidable.  Bonsa, was a tall, powerful and highly mobile Number Eight with great footwork.  He was so good that he was recruited into the national team even while a schoolboy and went on to lead Sri Lanka.  Royal had the heaviest pack in the schools that year, thanks to the other two fat boys Mahima Wijesinghe and Madhawa Chandrasekera.  Janoda Thoradeniya and Thilina Balasuriya were solid in the lineouts and Niroshan Jayasinghe while  reliable Niroshan Jayasinghe out-hooked his counterparts throughout the regular season and during the Premadasa Trophy, ensuring that Royal had a massive possession-edge.  Alfred Hensman and Ruwan Jayasuriya were wing-forwards who constantly harassed the opposition in attack and defense.  

Royal’s season extended to include a two-match tour of Hong Kong.  The boys won both games and thereby remained unbeaten over 16 matches.  That’s rare.  Very rare.  

Was that the best ever team?  Who knows and who cares? What matters is that they were great.  They were great as were the teams led by Manik Weerakumar, Sampath Agalawatte and Tyrell Rajapakse and I am sure there are other teams which fit the ‘great’ bracket and who knows, may be considered to have risen above all the ones I’ve mentioned.   We remember for many reasons and some of the reasons are highly personal.  

For example, when the referee blew the long-whistle in Pallekele signaling that Royal had won the first leg as well as the league, all Royalists past and present privy to that moment would have felt they were over the moon.  How much higher can one get?  

Time and distance put things back into their proper perspective. On the 3rd of June, 2017 the batchmates of Bonsa, Mahima, Thora, Tilak, Madhawa, Shantha and of course Druvi Perera (who did not play that year but got colours in 1987) gathered as per custom on the evening of the Colombo leg (this time at the Orient Club).  The fate of the Bradby had already been decided.  The match, among other things, would have been discussed, but there’s no doubt that many of them would have revisited those heady second-term months of 1988.  And for a moment, Bonsa and his men probably grew taller and as tall as they were 29 years ago before time, event and personality brought them back to their true dimensions.   ‘The greatest ever,’ someone among them would surely think. And Tyrell Rajapaksa, if he heard about it, might smile but will not object, I’m sure.  

See also: Bonsa's incredible run in 1988 and MY most memorable Bradby moment