The Technical Knockout

Milo President's trophy Knockouts 2018

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Season 2018 is now history. That is the season proper and the league title with all the biscuits on offer. Royal College was head and shoulders above the competition to take home everything on the supermarket aisles. Maliban Marie, Nice, Munchee Hawaiian cookies and even all those plain cream crackers. They emptied the shelves with some glee and greed.

St Joseph’s, who sort of made a brief challenge and St Peter’s at the last hurrah, were blown away as expected at Jurassic Park. In the midst of it all, we witnessed some heart-stopping action. In particular, the tournament’s opening round which featured what I felt was the game of the whole comp. DS Senanayake V Isipathana. The former losing on a missed conversion on the stroke of full time.  Then there was much drama to follow.

Coach Shamly Nawaz confused with the Referees decision

Wesley nearly, just nearly pulled off the upset of the decade, almost crashing Royal’s party. So close, but no cigar. Forcing a week’s postponement on the back of L.A style riots of an uprising by some rogue hooligans on the sideline. Tables, chairs, bottles and even sponsorship signage were hurled in an attempt to vent their frustration. Not to forget a bizarre yellow carding of Zahira coach Shamly Nawaz.

We also saw a perennial warhorse in S Thomas’ Mt Lavinia, get pushed around and eventually relegated to the plate, forthrightly, to win and gain promotion back to the big league.

None of the Kandy schools featured in the top half and failed to make any headway in the seedings. Bradby bride(smaid) for four years running, Trinity, in particular, falling well off the pace and forcing wholesale changes in coaching, administration, and even a new team bus. The bus part is to be verified but sounds so cliche.

This is an interesting situation given that the country’s number one club team, Kandy SC, are way ahead of the Western province bunch, all based in Colombo when it comes to the country’s first class set up. It may signal an eventual change of domination for the future. Only time will tell. That’s a matter for another day.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner…  

No surprises here and Royal are the team to beat. The only problem is, they are a none starter and have since pulled out of the Knockouts, citing, G.C.E A/L exams. Learn of books and learn of men and learn to play the game. An admirable decision but one that will see the polarization of opinion.  

This is an interesting dilemma, to say the least. I recall twenty years ago being in the same boat. Winning the league and then setting a Bradby record, attending school in amongst it all to secure eighty percent attendance (so I could sit the A/L at my school as a location), the Arts stream at Advanced Level. Having one exercise book for all four subjects in both, years twelve and thirteen didn’t really help my cause.

So, perhaps I am not the shining example to be saying this. Exams and education are of utmost importance and in theory, a justifiable reason for the pullout. The books part, as you can read now, from the level of literacy, it did eventually pay off.

S. Thomas’ too have withdrawn at the last furlong, citing player fitness. That is a broad definition. Unless fifteen plus players are nursing injuries from their senior pool, preventing them from physically starting, this can only be classified as a mental health- holiday.

Here’s the problem though, especially with the top seed: Royal is not the only school sitting A/Ls and they are not the only kids who deserve a higher education or an unhindered preparation for this career-defining hurdle.  

All other schools and their eligible participants do too. Furthermore, knowing what the commitment was going to be, if any school decides that education is more important than a KO tournament, perhaps its best practice and basic manners to notify the authorities that they won’t participate, well ahead of time. Perhaps, prior to kicking off the season proper. That would be nice.

Furthermore, as far as S Thomas’ go, it’s unclear unless most of their key players are out for the count with injuries, there must surely be enough of a wider training group to draw upon. Giving them, especially next year’s players, an opportunity at valuable game time, even if it ends up being one. It’s “unclear” how all this played out and as to whether they were not going to participate in the KO from the word get go. For the record, that is mere speculation.

In any event, given the losses they have suffered and their current significant irrelevance (Plate champions), they won’t be missed or noticed as much, if at all. Regardless, maybe this could have been managed better as injuries are part and parcel of life. They are not the first team in schoolboy rugby to face injury-related stresses or a crisis. Something for them to sort out.

All this has done is make the KO a somewhat hollow and meaningless tournament, without the top and the top of the bottom half sides in attendance. It’s like watching the Kardashians without Kim Kardashian and an extra who cleans their Bel Air- Mansion pool.

This is not the first time this has happened and perhaps it’s time enough that Royal, in particular, their authorities to be specific, show some professionalism and not cop out last moment. In my view, it is disrespectful to all other schools and the tournament as a whole. Let me be very clear, the issue here is NOT with the playing group (players and coaching staff) but the authorities and school management, whoever that maybe who call the shots. Obviously, forgetting a little courtesy of sending out a memo prior to the season proper.

“Giving utmost importance to education and twelve of our regulars sitting their G.C.E A/L exams, we will not be participating in this year’s knock out”. Something like that. Simple and good manners. Same goes for any potential injury management as far as STC is concerned. Moving on.

The eight-team elimination

This is an exciting tournament format, an eight-team elimination, winner takes all. Sudden death. Knock your opponent out or be knocked out. Win, you proceed to the next game. Lose, you go home. Black and white, no need for bonus points or math memes. It’s rugby’s version of K-1 kickboxing.

In Royal’s place, Wesley, an unpredictable, maverick side with a few maverick supporters has been given a lifeline. Given that this is winner takes all footy, they, a side with a few game breakers have a very good chance to upset the apple cart. All they need to do is replicate a performance like they did against Royal. Skipper Zubair will be a key man for them to make any headway.

St. Anthony’s are another team with scratchy but unpredictable attacking prowess. On their day, should their passes and dabbling kicks fall in place, then it’s game on. They are a side who thrive on confidence. A fast start will certainly help. Look out for some Bam Bam Bigalow like front rowers, unmistakable on the field. They look, feel and strike the part.

The Isipathana team after a warm up

Isipathana, who are fielding one of the smaller, both vertically and diagonally challenged sides, have certainly got their work cut out for them. Just like Kingswood, a similar side will want to roll out a winning story. On the brighter side, both teams have shown tremendous run on form, especially with Pathana nearly upsetting St Joseph’s in their final season proper shootout. Kingswood is fresh off winning the Blaze shield and will be all blasé and gung-ho. These kids won’t die wondering. It’s in their DNA.

St. Peter’s, after much hype and hope were brought crashing to earth in their last two games against traditional rivals Joes and then the juggernaut in Royal. They have the leading points scorer on show in Shehan Liyanapathirana and should shoot for goal whenever on offer. Treating every KO game like a final is critical as you get in front on points and then eat up the clock. Goal-kicking is the easiest way to do so. Hopefully, they will look to refresh their tactics and chance their arm out wide with running backs, who have been starved towards the end of the season proper. Petes are probably your second line of favoritism and have a point to prove.  

Trinity who has seen a late bloom in their flower garden has hired Inthi Marikkar as their caretaker coach. A very barren season and a bare trophy cabinet should give them enough motivation to make an impression. How good they are and what impact they can make is yet to be seen, but, it’s knock out footy and all you need is a couple of balls to bounce your way. Also, given that Royal is not in this, they can breathe easy and put some of that mental scarring away, at least for now. This is a critical tournament for them to build depth and create exposed form for season 2019.

St Joseph’s and Maliyadeva take the remaining spots.

Given the absence of Royal and the game-breakers Joes possess, they are the obvious and odds-on pop to win this tournament. Moreover, they are the defending knockout champions. Gemunu Chethiya, the Josephian superstar, is who I am tipping to be the KO’s MVP- Most Valuable Player. Don’t be surprised if he adds several more tries to his league tally and it will be a sight to sore eyes, seeing him in full cry.

Maliyadeva is the unknown quantity and could very well struggle with the big boys but wouldn’t we all love to see them upset the apple cart. They start a two hundred to one outsider at very long odds.

That pretty much makes up the running group, with an obvious and important absentee. In any event, it is what it is and perhaps the school’s rugby section may have to rethink how they structure and time the tournament going forward– to ensure all stakeholders, especially the sponsors are looked after.

Maybe, the KO will evolve into an emerging players comp. In the coming years where all A/L sitting players will be given mandatory time off as a directive from the Ministry of Education. Moreover, if it is to be played at the tail end of the season proper, allow teams to better manage their “injuries” and wrap players in cotton wool.

As for the promoters, having the top seed not “participating” is a blow to the credibility of the contest but in a funny sort of way allow the rest of the pack to have a crack at some silverware. That being said, if you want to be the best you need to beat the best. That is, of course, difficult to do when the best has decided not to participate, in the eleventh hour. That goes without saying.

St Joseph’s yet again might be the lucky beneficiary. Of course and regardless you need to be good enough to make that count. They most certainly are. My tip and front-runner to take it out.

So, it would be fair to say that even before the showdown begins, a sudden death, winner takes all, the KO–we have had a major exit albeit through somewhat of a Technical Knock Out. Somewhat.