The Empire strikes back

Singer schools rugby championship round two- week three

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Schools rugby after one week’s postponement arrived back like the return of the Jedi. It was, very Star Wars like. You could almost hear the Darth Vader theme song in your mind. Feeling like May the fourth (be with you). After what transpired between and amongst the big guns in the top eight of the school’s championship round, the previous week’s predictor was glowing like a lightsaber.  

Just like how Han Solo and Luke Skywalker both found success in the Millenium Falcon, Royal, and St Josephs did the business to light up the Colombo skies. On soggy and heavy surfaces with mud which stank like horse feed and beaming like fresh chocolate in the sunshine. For it was a Royal pick and go, pipped by an incredible Josephian defensive effort which was the weekend’s highlight along with zero violence. 

The Jedi master in Dushan Lewke with his strategy walked all over Isipathana and that Josephian Chewbacca, Nilufer Ibrahim, in the face of their Darth Vader, dealt with Sanath Martis and St Peter’s in stunning fashion. A fourteen man effort for most of the game, thanks to a red card with ref. Aquil Jamaldeen deserving a red carpet for the way he controlled the game. That may be an almost foreign concept to handle but it was worthy of mention. The local boy did the game and himself proud. 

Nevermind the wet weather and awful playing surface. The week off and the miniature “spell” was more than enough time for these two teams to zone in on true championship mode. Up in Kandy, Trinity conjured a win at long last, besting Wesley at their home grounds– pallekelle, which was almost like a ghost town with sparse attendance. 

The way especially Royal dismantled Isipathana and St Joseph’s with a man down denied St Peters, even Dart Vader would have said: “Impressive… most impressive”. 

Isipathana V Royal
Milroy Fernando trophy @ Havelock park

We kick things off with an intriguing battle for which both teams benefitted by having a week off.  Isipathana came in looking confident almost like a  Japanese import ready to run a drag race. Looking, being the keyword. Turbo and all with their light body weight. A heavy surface the only real spoiler. 

Then, enter a nitrous induced, Amercian muscle car in Royal, let’s call it a Hemi Baracuda. As you pull up to the line you just sense the horsepower about to blow you into the oblivion. Lights turned green and they both take off but as the larger engine and bigger tires start to take effect,  as it did, quite literally– all over, red rover. 

Janidu Dilshan attempting to kick

Royal, intent on seizing the initiative used their heavy set of forwards and executed a flawless rucking technique to lethal effect. They gave Pathana little to no chance and strangled them to a standstill. Try as they may, Royal and their clinical recycling of possession simply shut them out.

They basically schooled Pathana who were falling away like ten pins. Isipathana compounded their own misery by aimlessly kicking, looking for an exit which never existed. The Reid Avenue team happily pinged away and kept the ball in hand to steamroll through, time and time again. 

A dysfunctional lineout all but gave Pathana some hope but their inability to clear the line and gifted kicks into Janindu Dilshan’s hands were punished and looked lost in transit. Bonus point fourth try just before halftime.

Cue the second and here we go again. The inevitable floodgates opened. Pathana looked completely lost and seemed to have given up the ghost. The rested up and spelled stallion was starting to really swing the corner. That blessing in disguise was in full swing- one week off and Royal had tied up most of their loose ends. Their defensive line toyed and moved the green shirt’s side to side and backward. 

Hat-trick hero Sabith Feroze being tackled

Coach Lewke is an astute student of the game and his ability to get his game-breakers: Hirushan, Dilshan, Feroze, Thulaib, and gang were very explicit. Dilshan, in particular, was a revelation with his tub-thumping kicks in return. A deliberate plan to relieve pressure and take on due responsibility.  Hirushan and Feroze, in particular, looked for contact and ran at will and through defenders with the latter scoring a hat-trick of tries. In total seven were scored but had it been a dry surface, a dozen or more would have been on the cards.

Isipathana for that matter were flat. It’s not that they didn’t try, they just didn’t know how and when to deal with an avalanche which hit them. A clear-cut disparity in physicality and sheer size was obvious. I guess the days of fielding over-age players are long gone and birth certificate altering isn’t fashionable anymore. The sheer weight of pressure and possession buried them somewhere in the Swiss Alps, albeit at a muddy Havelock park. 

To summarise, I hate to say this but this was an obvious mismatch. Royal basically bullied and rag-dolled Pathana all over the park, reveling in the smelly mud.  It was a roadside mugging in motion. Can you hear the Darth Vader theme? I can. (please link audio). Picture an overgrown kid in a star wars mask, bullying a skinnier kid at school for his lunch. That’s exactly what it looked like. 

After copping some stinging criticism for dropping their run on form post-Bradby, Royal responded in the most emphatic way possible. Their exposed form and prep came to the fore, as most champion outfits do. The stars aligned and the game plan executed very accurately. On their day, especially as St Thomas and Trinity found out, are mercilessly crushing. St Peter’s are more than likely to find this out the hard way, next Saturday. It was a lesson in how to negotiate heavy, wet tracks and play to a pattern of domination. The end. 

Final whistle 41-7 to Royal. 

St Josephs V St Peters
Friar Basil Weerathunge shield @ Longden place

Both sets of Saint’s came matching in and the game began with a  huddle around a huddle.  SPC surrounding the Joes who took a knee and a prayer in the center of the pitch. Let me start by saying and paying a glowing tribute to the Josephian coaching staff. Heavily criticised for a lack of set piece, they turned the game on its head with two brilliant set plays,  both off scrums to set the game alight. 

Tharindu De Alwis trying to stay on his feet

Their stability in the scrum and accuracy of making these set ploys happen were first class. In fact, the best this season has seen so far. Both tries were that of highlight reel material. Perfectly practiced and poised for points. That is exactly what we saw. Super rugby eat your heart out! 

It looked like the visitors were in for a pasting and then it happened.  Try scorer and key back, Tharindu Madushanka, in a momentary brain freeze is pinged for a spear tackle which is referred to the TMO, who correctly advises ref. Jamaldeen to issue a red card. This should have been a fatal blow and a game changer.  This was more a brain fade and heat of the moment as adrenaline seemingly got the better of a remorseful and crestfallen Madushanka, who had his head buried in his hands as he walked off the park. Probably knowing he cost his team the golden goose, Fr. Basil Weerathunge shield to be specific. 

But it wasn’t to be. What it did do,  was make St Joesephs more resilient and come up with the defensive effort of the season. None more personified by a scrambling, screamer of a tackle by Gamunu Chethiya, dislodging the ball from Kenneth Wimaladhasa with the try line at his mercy. It was a beautiful moment that altered the course of the game. What should have been a seven-pointer was nullified and gave the hosts a renewed sense of self-belief. Reminiscent of George Greagens match-saving tackle on Jeff Wilson in mid-air.

St Peters had more than enough opportunities to win this game. Apart from the numerical advantage for more than two-thirds of a game, strangely, they declined to take easy shots at goal. A fatal and amateurish coaching error. Furthermore, not understanding hand speed and depth of attack was another major flaw. Moreover, this was their first genuine test to date and having a charmed run came to a grinding halt. 

Josephians lined up and as one, bellowed out their school anthem and tackled like men possessed, had no problems understanding the meaning of pride, be it borrowed or self-fulfilled. They did both, the singing and playing with equal fortitude. Again, the best this season. That’s two, bests for a season in one game. 

TMO Anil Jayasinghe was called upon on numerous occasions by Ref. Aquil Jamaldeen who had a brilliant game. His ability to position himself positively in the tackle area, clarity of communication, understanding process, following it with Jayasinghe and his AR’s was superb. He was consistent with his release ball on the ground and played the rules accurately. He most definitely looked the part like a head prefect reading out the riot act when required. 

It is worth mentioning this, as the week prior, his appointment was scrutinized for some bizarre reason and he and the ref’s union responded without fear or favor. Burying any myth of misguided inaccuracy. 

Based on the above, I would expect the vanquished to offer no more excuses but accept that they were done like a breakfast by a hungrier and better team, on the day. Beautiful refereeing can offer everyone a lesson of humility and even make humble pie taste like caviar. 

Peter’s playmaker Shehan Liyanapathirana, who is the highest points scorer the league should have added, at least, six more points to his tally. Strangely though, declining points at goal would come back to haunt the Bambalapitiya lads. 

Tactically, Nilufer Ibrahim got his back three (became back two)  to weigh and angle their kicking enough to trouble/delay Liyanapathirana. He duly and as expected at 1st XV level, obliged with an erroneous performance. It’s harsh to be too critical of this young man but if his coaching staff were worth their salt in pennies, they would have asked him to form deeper and closer to the touchline (anticipating the angles). Coaching 101.

Coach Nilfer Ibrahim and his team celebrating

St. Peter’s were very one dimensional and with it the myth of title contention, all but dashed, ending their much vaunted “unbeaten run” by a man down St Josephs.  Declining easy shots at goal are simply inexcusable.  They lacked any imagination and ran out of ideas, an indication of coaching prowess or the lack of. If you keep doing the same activity and expecting a different result, Petes were guilty of this. Another clear fact that big spending won’t guarantee you anything unless you innovate. What got you there yesterday will not take you home tomorrow. That was certainly the case last Saturday, as we are read this today. Take nothing away from their players, who gave everything they had but just could not breach the defensive banks at Longden place. 

On the opposing bench, take a bow, Nilufer Ibrahim, and co. A perfectly timed break and as all good coaches do, step back, look yourself in the mirror and prep with precision and intent. Dotting the I’s and crossing those T’s. 

Pete’s are no more unbeaten. It was bound to happen when they came up against the real deal and true, testy opposition at top of the tree. Star Wars just shot and finished an epic scene for their next episode. The Darth Vader disappears. 

Final score: SJC home 10-5 (two tries to one) 

Trinity V Wesley @ Pallekelle 

What a difference a week makes. Trinity who found new ways to either lose or draw a game had an almost complete flush of their system and hosted a rejuvenated Wesley at home. It was a ghostly Pallekelle with largely empty stands. Only a papare band playing in the background made it seem, otherwise. An indication of what their trophy cupboard looks like this year and for the last few. 

As I alluded, last week(please hyperlink The blessing in disguise article) to how ill-timed this postponement was for Wesley, how true did that prove? They looked a shade of the side who almost toppled Royal. A miss-timed and bumbling effort succumbed to an above average Trinity. This was the Kandy teams best performance in season 2018. They had turned their exposed form around for this game, catapulting them to fifth on the table. 

Wesley on the other hand sunk to seventh, an unfair reflection on how good this side is. They have only their rogue fans to thank for a crucial weeks miss as their decline in run on form was crystal clear. This is a side who need to play week in, week out and their style of play means, the more they play, the better they get. 

The Trinity team bidding farewell to coach Lote Raikambulas

The game itself was entertaining and both teams played with freedom. Trinity No. 8 and ex Royalist, Lennox Calyanarathne was prominent in attack and started to show his form albeit late in the play. Wesley had their moments but wasn’t good enough on the day. 

This would also be coach Lote Raikambulas last game in charge. To complete the flush, he has been axed and enters Inthi Marikkar. The former SLRFU High-performance director who is an astute planner and a walking, talking rugby encyclopedia. It will be interesting to see how they move forward and end the season, with an eye on the next. 

Kingswood V Zahira @ Bogambara stadium
Sunday special

A turbulent fortnight and a groveling end to the Shamly Nawaz episode was now, well and truly behind him and Zahira. It’s all in the past and everyone had moved on regardless of whether they kissed and made up. Such is life. 

Kingswood too, given a stern warning for poor crowd behavior and recycling bottles, didn’t want to give up their good behavior bond. All in all, this made for an exciting bottom half battle for pride and survival. 

It was a rain-soaked affair with Zahira on the receiving end of the penalty count. Six inside the first fifteen minutes. Then in the next fifteen, it was Kingswoods turn. This was the way of life and the whole game turned into an error-riddled, whistle infested contest. We were on our way to a predicted draw at halftime 5-5. A try a piece. 

Players from both teams trying to win the ball at the breakdown

The second half produced more entertainment as Kingswood took the upper hand. Again, through a mire of penalties and ran in two more tries plus a penalty. Ironically, the only one converted amongst a thousand or so which were awarded. Zahira let their game completely slip in the second. Fulltime read 18-5 to Kingswood and both teams looked like they auditioned for a Cadbury chocolate advert, covered in brown mud. 

On a fantastic note, no bottle, chairs, abuse or rotten food were hurled at opposing fans, no refs threatened or beaten and this game, including all others, ended without incident. The force was certainly with everyone. 

Gloat of the day: 

Tipping the key trifecta of results in Royal-St Joesphs and Trinity in order. My run on form and exposed form guide truly stacked up with scientific rationale. 

Play of the day:

Gamunu Chethiya and his team saving tackle. If there was ever a man I’d want to have on a team like that on Armageddon, to save the world, in this case, your rugby world, it’s Gamunu Chethiya. His chase the tail tackle on Wimaladhasa will forever go down in Josephian folklore as the tackle which shook all the way to Savoy theatre. It was all heart and pure rugby bravado. It’s the genuine article.

Chethiya chasing the ball carrier to make a tackle.

Hero of the day: 

Ref. Aquil Jamaldeen. After some undue flack and ridiculous logic which was argued on his appointment, without fear and favor, he called it how he saw it. As he has always. Following the due process and being both patient and consistent, upheld the integrity of being a whistleblower. Ironically, there was no violence, whining or moaning about one foot here nor there. Refs have copped their fair share of flack so credit where credit is due. The rugby on show bested any myopia or potential thuggery.  Putting an end to an uprising from wannabe starship troopers. 

Ref. Aqeel Jamaldeen talking to the Joes Skipper and winger.

The afterthought: 

Anticipating two crunch games, instead, we got one which was too close to call and the other, an almost cricket score.  The Joe-Pete stole the show and produced an absolute corker and across town, Royal should be charged with the rugby equivalent of murder in the first degree, for what they did to Isipathana. Look forward to next week as Royal is in that mood to swat anyone in their way. St Peter’s have a very big problem on their hands. A very, very big one. Martis might well end up looking the second rate to his former deputy, who seemingly built Royals success dating back several seasons. A very clear picture is starting to emerge. 

Furthermore, after a week off with postponement due to crowd troubles directed and ridden on the back of referees, it’s fair to say they really stepped up their game and so did the crowds in general. It’s not a hard line to tow and one that MUST always be adhered to. After all, it is schoolboy rugby and not an episode from Starwars, although it sometimes feels that way.  Surely, there is more to life than winning at any cost and becoming like Darth Vader. 

The Verdict: 

As far as answering critics and making statements, it doesn’t get any more emphatic than what we witnessed. Royal truly flexing their muscles as a progressive staying type, St Josephs honing their set piece to a brilliant best and Trinity striking a chord late in the piece as if a backmarker on the boom.  The empire has, well and truly struck back!