28 May 2018

Hooliganism in school rugby: let us not blame Wesley

Almost 35 years ago, Asanga Seneviratne, captain of the St Thomas’ rugger team, chasing a ball that had gone out of touch, ran into a bunch of Royal College prefects at one end of the CR&FC grounds. One of the boys had caught the ball which Asanga wrested away from him along with a bit of finger-wagging.  The prefect was responding instinctively to a ball that came to him and Asanga, understandably, was in no mood for niceties. 

It’s doubtful that Asanga would even remember this incident. He was totally focused on the game and as fly-half played his heart out for his school.  None of the prefects held any grudge either.  

Sometime later, the Royal captain Sampath Agalawatte told me that outsiders, prefects and spectators included, had no business to get involved: ‘we play the game, they play the game, we sort things out on the ground with the ball and with our skills.’  

Fair enough. The incident, for the record, did not lead to anything nasty or even mildly unpleasant. Royal won the game and the Gooneratne Trophy thanks to a brilliant try off a line-out by Number 8 Mahendra Navaratnam.

Diehard fans can at times do much disservice to the teams they love, be it a club or a school. They tend to play referee, touch-judge and even rugby administrator, none of which helps the game.  

Sometimes the players themselves get out of hand. The referee can card them but there have been occasions when carding doesn’t stop players from turning into hooligans. Not too many years ago there was a Royal-Isipathana match which prompted both schools to post carefully edited videos showcasing the rival’s on-field hooliganism. 

There have of course been many occasions when spectators and players have got involved in brawls that have only served to rob the game of its glory.  More often than not, time has helped cool off the hotheads and made them forget the previous year’s acrimony. Sometimes there are exceptional leaders who won’t wait for time to do the healing, but go the extra mile to make amends in the name of decency and civilization.

 For example, a little more than a year ago, a young principal of a Colombo school did something that told one and all that more things are wrought by humility and penitence than by unrepentant arrogance.  Avanka Fernando, Principal of Wesley College, tendered an official apology on behalf of his school to Trinity College, Kandy over unruly and violent behavior by some of his players during a rugby encounter between the two schools.  

The matter ended there. Most importantly it went a long way in healing all wounds sustained by all parties in the unbecoming scuffle that broke out when Trinity scored its 10th try in the dying stages of the game.  Principal Fernando, as promised, took his boys to Kandy so they could meet with their counterparts, express their regrets, shake hands and renew friendships.  

Principal Fernando sent a strong message to his boys and to the boys of all rugby-playing schools. There’s a way to play and there’s a way that just doesn’t make the cut: the former will be lauded even if it doesn’t result in victory and the latter will be held in disdain. 

There’s no evidence that the boys donning the Wesley jersey had un-learned that valuable lesson.  The same cannot be said for those outside the line, the coaching staff included. What happened last Saturday (May 19, 2018) at the CR&FC grounds was indecent, ugly and uncivilized.  

Referee Dinka Peiris is an experienced referee.  Some Wesleyites believe Dinka has it in for them. Interestingly some Royalists believe that Dinka holds a grudge against Royal. At any rate, unnecessary words were uttered from the sidelines and the referee stopped the match.  It is reported that Dinka stopped the match because of pitch-encroaching Wesley supporters. The unruly crowd got into the act, attacking Royalists. In the melee Royal’s skipper of the previous season, Ovin Askey, who was trying to calm things down was assaulted. Among the assailants, as video evidence shows, there was a Wesley ruggerite from the previous year, who sadly had been part of the fracas in Kandy.  

The young man clearly hadn’t learned the lessons his principal sought to teach. Not a reflection of Principal Fernando, of course.  Sometimes it takes years to create a civilized culture and sometimes a civilized society is tarnished by an errant member who cares not for traditions and values.  

Is it all a Wesley-preserve? No. Most schools know of such ruffians. Most schools are embarrassed by them. The difference here is that most schools don’t have educationists like Avanka Fernando.  All the more reason to lament what happened on Saturday.  That was not the Wesley of Principal Fernando.  

The redeeming feature of all this is that although the relevant complaints were made Ovin Askey, being the sportsman that he is, has opted for a quick closure of the matter without harming the future of his assailant. 

Principal Fernando need not do a Royal version of his Trinity-move last year.  He is respected, I’m sure. It is not a blemish on the school as a whole, but perhaps an indictment of what has befallen the spirt of the game, the notion of friendly-rivalry and the idea of sportsmanship.  

Let us hope it does not happen again.  

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