Rugby players from Royal College and Isipathana College made the country’s adored cricketing image look another brick in the wall as they pulled in a record-setting crowd to witness their inter-school League decider last Saturday, a day on which Sri Lanka played Pakistan in a Test match in front of a few hundred spectators in Galle.
Match organizers put the number of spectators who thronged to witness the schoolboy match in excess of 10,000 at the Royal College Sports Complex ground in Colombo where a near stampede was averted at one side of the venue.
Royal won the match 21-8 but not before players representing both schools took the field to a thunderous roar as every inch of space available was jam packed with fans.
The occasion was just the climax organizers would have dreamed of at a championship that went through many moments of high intense battles and thousands of rugby fans realizing very little the sacrifices made by the players to come out as finished products on the grand stage.
Police had a rough time keeping rival spectators apart soon after the match ended as thousands converged onto the field to mob the players while firecrackers and skyrockets were set off as if a World Cup had been won.
The scenes were unique for a schoolboy match which only showed the following the sport had gained over the years with attractive investment for multinational companies that sponsor teams in the League.
None could have asked for a better pinnacle as Royal in the process proved many of the pundits wrong as they forced Isipathana into second fiddle and played like a professional outfit offering a lesson to schools that were caught up in internal squabbles and failed to make it.
Royal College’s transformation into a rival-busting outfit has been largely attributed to a backstage team that had the school’s pride to preserve and a vibrant coach, Sanath Martis, hell-bent on silencing disbelievers who accuse him of behind-the-scene tactics.
Royal rugby has reached a stage where it has now become the envy of many as much as its players live and play with the fact that they are a team that rivals love to hate, a factor that has made them more determined. Their cool and calm nature on the field, pride in their jersey and a willing to learn head-above-the-shoulder attitude has bonded them into a stand-out act.
“The players have been extremely committed. There were no individual playmakers and big names. It was that mental attitude that mattered and Dushanth Lewke (assistant coach) was marvellous”, said an unassuming coach Martis.
But the former Sri Lanka Under-24 hooker will make no secret of the fact that he does not welcome outside influence, the scourge and downfall of most school rugby teams.
He often stands accused of usurping players from rival schools but will challenge critics and detractors to prove he was a coach with vested interests.
“Some people look for reasons to justify their own failures. At Royal I am more relaxed with 8000 students from which to pick the best 15”, said Martis the mastermind of another champion team.
Martis is credited with discovering and grooming two eventual Sri Lanka players Dhanushka Ranjan and Sandun Herath from the backwoods and helping them to graduate at St. Peter’s College whose players he coached to win 11 major trophies from 2006 to 2011.
Royal College’s rugby structure has made Martis a central figure with the privilege of monitoring the school’s feeder junior base and reports directly to its Advisory Committee headed by former Sri Lanka Cricket chief Hemaka Amarasuriya who leaves no stone unturned in creating a palatable environment for player welfare and conditioning.
Royal may probably have a second confrontation with Isipathana as the two protagonists are tipped to meet in the Milo knock-out final next month.
But Isipathana will swear it was just a rare occasion when they let their guard down in last Saturday’s League culmination.
“We did not have enough possession (of the ball). It was a bad day for us looking back. We made so many mistakes and did not play well. We want to correct all this and look ahead for the knock-outs”, said Isipathana coach Nilfer Ibrahim who turned his charges into a champion team last year.