Behind the expected scenes, schoolboy rugby stars who can pull up to 10,000 or more fans at a match are gearing up for what could be a grinding 12-team League tournament scheduled to start in the third week of February, a month earlier than previous seasons.
Juggernauts Isipathana College are the defending champions but not many will bet on them in the 2017 season after their prized coach Nilfer Ibrahim quit to take custody of another school, St. Joseph’s College on whom many will be curious.
But like coaches have switched sides in the high stakes season which is now measured in financial investment running into millions of rupees, players too have made their way out of their obscure poor academies enticed by the elite echelons that are privileged to snatch them away.
Nearly all the schools in the fray have developed a fancy for picking other people’s babies and giving them the best of pampered treatment they would not have in their original schools. But only the bold and the brave will be willing to acknowledge the behind-the-curtain stuff.
Sanath Martis, who is arguably the most accomplished of school coaches in the country with many trophies to brag, gained an uncanny reputation for spiriting off players from rival schools to boost his presence at whichever school that enlisted him.
But what rivals call ‘importing players’ Martis calls ‘taking care’ of Sri Lanka’s rugby and the future of lesser known but potential talent that could go waste.
“I have done justice to these (under-privileged) boys to reach some standard in life in both rugby and whatever they choose to do in the future. You got to give these players a hand so they can get to the next level and this benefits the country”, said Martis.
Presently, the coach of the high-profile Royal College team, Martis has over 8000 students at the academy to pick 15 of the best players and claims that his present school does not need outside hands unless its independent Advisory Committee thinks otherwise.
Among Martis’ discoveries in the past were two backline players, Dhanushka Ranjan whom he witnessed playing for the little known Piliyandala Central College and Sandun Herath from the rustic environs of Kurunegala turning out for Maliyadeva College.
Both players went on to wear the Sri Lanka jersey after graduating at St. Peter’s College in Colombo whose team Martis successfully coached to win many trophies from 2005 to 2011.
“In rugby, like in every other field in life, there are opportunities for players who want to make a career from it. If some people find fault with me for unearthing talented players, they are sore losers and that’s their culture that I don’t want take on”, said Martis.
Right or wrong, the overall fear is that for another half a century the present top ten schools in the fray will continue to flourish by pinching off the blooming players from less fortunate schools whose rugby teams will always be in the backwoods.
Interestingly, Martis and Ibrahim will find themselves on opposite sides in their very first match of the season when Royal confronts St. Joseph’s on February 25 at the Royal College Complex in a match that is expected to come close to a sellout.
The Joes held Royal to a 25-25 draw, blowing away their lead in the final minutes of play last year which only thwarted the latter’s run-up to the League title.
But while Royal went on to confront and lose to Isipathana in the Milo Knock-Out final last year, the Joes ended their season on a dreadful note when nine of their players were criminally brutalized at the culmination of a match against Dharmaraja College in Kandy.
Martis is now into his fourth year at Royal College which won the title in 2015 and has set his target on the League title and the school’s traditional match against arch foe Trinity College for the Bradby Shield.
“My job (at Royal College) is to justify the investment in me. I am dealing with the future of Sri Lanka rugby and boys at Royal some of whom could be looking forward to making a career from it”, said Martis a former Sri Lanka Under-24 hooker and Youth Development coach.