In last week’s article, I shared my views on the prospects for each of the four teams that were left to battle it out for the league championship. As dusk fell on Saturday evening after two epic battles we are left with two giants that survive to fight another day.

Harith BandaraUp in the hills, Isipathana fought tooth and nail till the very bitter end, but just came up short against Trinity. How they will rue some of the errors in judgement earlier on which virtually gifted the ball and good field position to the Lions. Nathan Yee’s team didn’t need a second invitation and made the most of it. Before you knew what, they were 12-00 up. That was a huge advantage to have in such a high-pressured game, and left the ‘Green Machine’ with a mountain to climb. A moment of brilliance from half-back Harith Bandara,where he virtually bamboozled the whole Trinity backline before scoring himself brought them back into the game. Come the second half, Isipathana went on the offensive, with a swift backline move seeing skipper Sumudu Rankothge crossing the line. 12-10. A penalty off the Sumudu Rankothgeboot of Wijesuriya then gave Trinity a five-point cushion. The home team should have then put Pathana away, with a golden opportunity to score a try botched by some ‘white line fever’ amongst their backline to end the day at 15-10 to the hill capital school.

Defending Champions Isipathana will now have to relinquish the crown. You can’t help but feel for this side that have played with tremendous heart all the way through this tournament. Barring that bad day against St. Peter’s they have been brilliant, and thoroughly entertaining to watch. I thought they would struggle against the more physical sides, but they have held their own. For what they lack in size, they more than make up for with sheer passion and determination. I feel that the teams lower down the table can a learn a lot from the example they have set. You don’t need a fat budget and brawn to have a successful rugby season.Isipathana College

Down in Colombo, Wesley College unleashed a heavy onslaught from the word go. Royal saw very little of the ball in the opening exchanges. The ‘Double Blues’ kept attacking, and the stretched defense couldn’t help but concede penalties on a regular basis. Avishka Lee was in fine form with the boot, and kept knocking them over. The Royal forwards barragedover to score a try in the first half, but a third Lee strike from the tee saw the Campbell Place boys go into the half-time break with a well-Avishka Leeearned 9-7 lead.

If the first half was more attritional, the second stanza was a six-try bonanza giving the crowd their full monies worth.  As I thought it would, the Royal forwards started to really impose themselves on the game as the game headed into the last quarter, which proved very difficult for Wesley to thwart. At the long whistle of referee Dinka Peiris, the scoreboard showed a commanding 35-19 win for Royal, which is not exactly a true reflection of how the game went.

Royal MaullingFor me, there were two key moments that, to some extent had a defining effect on how the game went. The first, and most significant incident happened early in the second half. Wesley lay siege on the Royal goal line, but were penalized just inches away for allegedly ‘sealing off’ at the ruck. I thought that was incredibly hard on the ‘Double Blues’, as it didn’t seem like there was any Royal player competing at that breakdown. If there’s no contest, then why on earth penalize the attacking team? You would never see this in any top-level game played in either the North or Southern hemisphere. Furthermore, this happened at a key moment in the game.

The other telling blow for Wesley, incidentally took place when Wesley were on the attack. But a bone-jarring hit on Avantha Lee saw the ball escape his grasp and straight into the hands of Janidu Dilshan. The Royal talisman gleefully accepted and sprinted off to score. That changed the tide, and Royal were never going to lose it from there.

Hats off to Wesley for a great effort. They no doubt will be disappointed. But I always felt that Royal would have too much for them.  And so they did.

So, whilst Pathana and the ‘Double Blues’ bow out of the running for the Trophy, they square off against each other in what promises to be a stellar contest this coming Saturday.  They have the chance to emerge runners-up, and will look for the win to take some momentum into the knock-outs, where both teams will feel they have what it takes to win it.

But it in terms of the league crown, it all comes down to two outstanding teams. Pallekele is the setting. Furthermore, an intriguing turn of events will see them contesting not only for the school’s league, but has the added splendor of doubling up as the first leg of the prestigious Bradby shield.

No matter what school you went to, the Bradby shield has always captivated the imagination of the sports loving public. This year marks the 73rd encounter for the coveted shield. Trinity lead the tally with 39 wins, against 31 by Royal. However, the latter won the shield in 2015, and settled for a draw last year after a pulsating tie in terms of point accumulated after both teams won a game each. It’s fair to say that both schools go into every season with one eye firmly fixed on this contest, and in many respects victory or defeat in this series goes a long way in determining if that season were to be classified a success or failure.

I have been a keen follower of the Bradby since the early 90’s, and have witnessed some epic games over the years. If I had to single out a particular game that epitomized the spirit of this contest, I would go back nineteen years, to the first leg of the 1998 Bradby. For those present that day at the Sugathadasa Stadium (which regularly hosted the Colombo leg till the early 2000’s), that match will continue to live long in the memory. Royal were captained by the versatile Shanaka Perera, and had put fifty points on most of the schools they came up against. There was no weak link in that team, which consisted the star-studded likes of Ravindu Atukorale, Pavithra Fernando, Gemunu Dissanayake, Viraj De Silva, and Rananja Gonaduwa. Trinity on the other hand, consisted of a fresher-laden side and were going through a rather torrid season. Famed winger, turned full back Prasanna Jayawardena was their captain and often cut a distant, frustrated figure without any quality ball to play with, as he had enjoyed in seasons before. Going up against the high riding undefeated Royalist, the writing was pretty much on the wall, so to speak. It would have been hard for even the most ardent Trinity fan to muster up even a glimmer of hope.

What unfolded that warm Colombo evening was a modern-day rugby miracle.

I was having a chat with my mate, and former national player Rajeev Ganapathy, who was playing in his first Bradby game that day. I was able to pick his brains now how Trinity approached that game. The team had been to Colombo the week before to watch Royal play Isipathana. They were accompanied by their guru cum coach, the late great Quintin Israel. Royal duly overcame Pathana doing very little to ease the tension in the Trinity camp. The following Monday at practice, the troops were gathered around by a buoyant Israel, and the game plan was formulated – much of it evolved around a ‘Garryowen’, a term somewhat unknown to the schoolboy ruggerite at the time.

Who or what is a ‘Garryowen’?

It is an ‘up an under’ kick designed to stay in the field of play, but has the needed trajectory to give the attacking team chasers enough time to compete for the ball. This tactic is named after the rugby club in Limerick Ireland that used this ploy to great effect in the 1920’s, with the name for this tactic used to this very day. Apparently, the wily Israel had noticed a weakness in Royal when subjected to the highball against Pathana.

The ‘Garryowen’ duly played its part, executed to perfection by Trinity. Good scoring opportunities ensued, and the Lions took them, and then proceeded to defend like their lives depended on it. Trinity managed to hold on to a remarkable 20-18 victory, shattering Royal’s unbeaten tag.

As expected, retribution followed in the 2nd leg, with an injury-stricken Trinity ripped apart at Bogambara. Royal cantered to a 42-11 win to regain the Bradby after a lapse of four years.

This year promises to be another spellbinding duel. Trinity have lost a bit of momentum from the flying start they had at the beginning of the season. Recent results show that they start off well, but then tend to tail off towards the latter part of the game. This was the case against Isipathana as well. On the other hand, Royal is just the opposite – they start slowly, but really get into their stride in the last two quarters. They cannot afford to let this dangerous Trinity side get away from them in the first half. With the likes of Weerkoone and Diluksha Dange they will hurt you from anywhere. The Royal forwards have been very dominant this year. But they will now come up against an opposition that is more than equal to the contest. Trinity need to make sure that they focus for the full eighty minutes. Any lapses will be punished by Askey’s Royalists who have gone from strength to strength this season.

I will be glued to come 4pm on Saturday. Fire, wind, nor earth mover will be able to whisk me away.