It is only when you cradle the most-priceless article in Sri Lankan rugby, do you truly understand what gravity on earth is all about. No science lesson or an episode from myth busters can educate you enough. For when you win and hold the Bradby shield in your hands, the holy grail of all SL rugby, you can sense the fullness of it weighing down upon you. It is surreal and truly extraordinary.
It is far more than the wholesome few pounds in gross weight. It is the weight of a lifetime’s alumni, men who have gone before you and their true commitment. To earn the right to have won it with pride, means that you get given the honour and power to cradle it. A feeling like no other. One that I was lucky enough to experience 21 years ago.
The uniqueness of “shield” rugby
As we look back at 75 years of unrivaled history, the Bradby is the greatest schoolboy game of rugby union in the world. Nothing else comes close to it, anywhere on earth. It is easily one of the greatest rivalries and matchups in global sport. It is the Melbourne Cup of all rugby, where talent, both on and off the field comes out with their very best.
Even in countries where Rugby is the national past time, such as New Zealand, the place where I now call home, it hasn’t got traditional games to rival the sheer level of enthusiasm and following the Bradby creates.
It’s the uniqueness of the two-leg factor, where both teams have a home and away “leg”. Royal currently at their own sports complex (dubbed “Jurassic Park”) and Trinity’s Pallekelle stadium. The two venues which will most likely host Bradby, for as far as I could envision it. Unless of course, sheer capacity issues or an act of nature alters its destiny.
So, what’s so great about the “shield” and makes it so unique?
History and archives
Going down memory lane in Bradby shield history is like surfing artifacts at the Smithsonian’s museum. There is so much to be fascinated with. Stories of folklore every which way you look.
Littered with characters and names who have defined and trekked the history of Sri Lanka. Men, from even before the shield era where Trinity, first battled Royal in 1920– 99 years ago. There is just so much fact, data and fascination, you could write a whole encyclopedia on Bradby.
Names, records, venues and the rewriting of records as the years have passed on.
If I were to write about it all, I would run out of ink and space. So, instead. Let me pen four great moments from my life where memory recalls as a spectator, player, and commentator.
- Asanka Rodrigo’s magical left-foot drop goal
Let’s start by rewinding the tape to the year 1993. It was the first leg of the Bradby shield at the Fortress of Kandy– Nittawella. Royal was led by Chinthaka Abeysuriya and Trinity by Nalin Muhandiramge. Trinity were odds-on favorite to win it and do the business in Kandy.
I recall sitting in the stands of the tiered banks about midway. A packed to the rafters crowd cheered and roared every move from both sides. In what was essentially a watertight game where a win was going to be built on who missed the first crucial tackle, the game was seemingly heading for a dead heat. A draw.
Restless supporters grew groaning-ly listless, as every movement came to a grinding halt. A few errors and a superlative defensive effort from both teams kept the number plates off the scoreboard. It was 0-0 and deep into the game.
Then it happened. About 45 meters out, 20 meters in from touch, Royal was recycling a fiercely contested ruck, their first five (fly half) had looked to move the ball with a line up to the right. Understanding it was a slow and back-foot-ball, in an instant flash, he looks back, in towards the goal posts and launches a perfectly timed and well-executed drop goal.
It was almost as if he and everyone had frozen in time. The entire stadium held its breath and a few moments silence was shattered with jubilant cheers as the referee signaled the field goal as a success. It was a moment of individual brilliance built on a team effort. It eventually takes Royal home. Three points were all it took and the return leg saw Royal coast to 10-3 win, that meant Royal had regained the shield.
It was a cathartic moment for Royal after having tied the previous year’s game. Pure bliss and Bradby magic– a drop goal, which, will be etched in Shield folklore.
- Stolen at the death by a penalty
What I am about to relate was a moment of pure agony but as the years roll on, I have learned to appreciate its overall ecstasy within its context. That doesn’t mean it is any easier to accept but that much harder to forget.
It was 1997. Bradby shield made history by holding its first ever game at Pallekele stadium, the present home of Trinity rugby. I recall a rock-hard surface and blisters on my feet from 80 minutes of less than ideal rugby. We had lost the first leg 6-14 to Trinity.
Then came the all-important return leg at Sugathadasa stadium. In its build up, Royal spent two bruising weeks in preparation under our more than usually agitated coach, Dr. Fred Perera. The game plan was simple, we were all about hitting hard and looking to be very aggressive in the collision area. It was a take no prisoners approach.
Come game- day, our prep had clearly worked. We were cleaning out the Trinitians at rucks with blinding pace. It was so successful, we were winning multiple penalties as they were either infringing with hands (in the ruck) or by being offside.
My good mate and our full back, Rananja Gonaduwa was in hot form and shooting penalties from all over the field and the car park. It was a masterclass with his unusual, unorthodox toe cap-kicking style. He landed a record six from six attempts. Given that we were on catch up mode, 8 points to be precise (6-14 loss), we had bridged the gap to take a 18-8 lead. The shield was now ours to lose. History was about to be made. About to.
As fate had it, some things are never meant to be. In the 55th second of the 79th minute (it was an 80 minute game in that era), there is a ruck, dead center on the midway marker. Trinity takes it into contact and I hunker over the top like a jackal with first rights to the ball. A firm and vice-like grip on the Gilbert. Unfortunately, the referee– Dilroy Fernando, calls “ruck” and I am supposed to let go. I was never going to. So, a penalty for hands in the ruck.
It is the last play. Trinity’s skipper Nuwan Fernando steps up to the plate. Places the ball in an upright stance. Takes 4 feet back and another couple on an angle. Steadies himself and stares at the posts. Holds his breath and is about to take the kick of his career. Probably, his life.
The stadium is dead silent. He then trots up towards the ball and strikes it clean as a whistle. It was a glorious shot as it sails straight through the uprights and cuts it in half. The shot is good and that’s all that they need. Three points. Bradby shield was yet again, safely Trinity’s.
We won that game 18-11 but on aggregate, lost the shield by 1 point. Thanks to that penalty which was so crucial, given away by yours truly. It will live in my memory forever. For better or worse, it was an incredible Bradby shield moment.
- No coach-no problem
Fast forward to the year 2011. Royal had a rocky sort of build up to the 1st leg in Kandy and it was about to get a whole lot rockier.
A week out from the 1st leg, Royal’s overseas coach in Theo Serafim, a New Zealander from Wellington, calls it quits on the eve of shield rugby. It is shocking and unprecedented. Royal were now without a coach. A “managerial dispute” led to his resignation.
Captained by Shehan Pathirana, who now makes a living by playing professionally for Kandy SC, Royal was thrust into the hot seat. He had to lead a side who had no coach and would have felt like, being lost in transit during prep week.
Then came game day. It only took 2 minutes and in a breathtaking sequence of play, Royal capture a five meter line out, pile in their forward pack and canter over — via a driving maul to score the game’s first try! The stadium erupts, like Mount Vesuvius.
Trinity and their crowd are stunned like mullets, freshly caught on a commercial fishing vessel. Against all odds and expectations, Royal take the lead. They eventually go on to win the game 33-25 to a raucous, post game celebration. Things didn’t go quite to plan in the return leg as Royal were thumped 5-40 by a rampaging Trinity, who went on to win the shield 38-65.
Nonetheless, coach less, like a saber tooth-tiger who lost its big teeth, they clawed themselves back within a turbulent week with paws and all to pull off a great heist. It went down as an unsung moment of heroism but not anymore.
- Kick to touch canceled and a penalty re-called
This was a defining moment which saw a recalled kick to touch on a last-minute penalty, which should have been played as the original line out. Trinity were probably denied a shot at a comeback and winning of the Bradby in 2016. That of course, we will never know and that’s the beauty of it all.
It was the return clash at Pallekele with Royal taking a 5 point lead by winning 22-17 in Colombo. On a greasy surface in the midst of a drizzle, Trinity had hauled it back and were leading 18-10 until the 79th minute. Yes, you guess it right… then it happened, yet again. Another Bradby was about to be decided on the wire.
Royal were hot on attack and are awarded a penalty, 10 meters out from TCK’s goal line. Royal then kick it out for a line out, looking to reset and drive it over from a set piece maul. Just as they are about to play the final line out of the game, the touch judge intervenes and asks the referee to give Royal a shot at goal. This, based on a kicking tee which had entered the playing area or something of that sort. (The Royal captain HAD NOT signaled his intention to take the penalty goal)
Anyhow, Royal then take back the ball and Ovin Askey, fires a successful penalty. That meant the scores were 18-13 to TCK and scores tied 35-35 on aggregate. The bigger picture being, Royal retains the shield by virtue of their previous year’s win. This further led to a lolly scramble for the shield at the podium but it was later decided that both schools would share it.
I always have a chuckle when I go over this footage but it is what is. You can’t recall or change your mind when a call is made. For Royal’s fortune, the former didn’t apply. They may have successfully driven over from the ensuing line out and won it outright, but we will never know.