The peculiar rugby eve at Nittawela

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Many have tried, some have come close but only a mere handful have earned the bragging rights of having beaten Kandy at Nittawela. There have been some very close games where the opposition has pushed Kandy to the wall, but the reigning champions have somehow managed to fight back and win games. Not this weekend, however – a peculiar rugby eve where Kandy’s 26 game unbeaten run came to a halt against Army.

Kandy Sports Club, have been undisputedly, the most dominant force in the Sri Lankan domestic circuit for long years and enjoyed a 33-game unbeaten streak at home in Nittawela until this weekend. They have made it a fortress, a nightmare for opposition teams. When they play in Nittawela, its automatic knowledge that the game will be held on Sunday. Kandy’s second home game in 2019 was different, not merely because it was held on a Saturday or because they played sans their skipper, but because they lost at home to Army SC, a hungry team of soldiers who outplayed them in wet conditions in a season where the Kandy forwards have been at their best.

When everything fails, blame the referee

Majority who heard the news double checked whether it was a joke, since Army had been beaten by Havelock’s 32-50 in Ratmalana, Army’s adopted home grounds the week before. Kandy ran past Air Force with ease, scoring a 50+ themselves and recording the highest aggregate this season. Hence, when the league top Kandy was due to play 7th placed Army at home, the Maitland derby between CH&FC and CR&FC was going to be the obvious choice as the ‘must watch’ for most fans. So, when news broke out that Kandy had lost to Army, there had to be something strange …… Yes, you guessed it right, the referees who officiated the game ended up being blamed by many.

Army played the conditions better

Skies had opened in Kandy, the underfoot conditions were wet and soggy with plenty of water puddles scattered across the outfield. The home team hit the ground running as they opted for the usual style of play where they looked to play an expansive game, using the width of the field.

Army coached by Viper Gunarathne, a man who is no stranger to Nittawela, played the day’s conditions better. Army were happy to put their bodies on the line in defense and kicked for territory when they were deep in their half. Their forwards were not shy of getting muddy, attacking the close channels and were controlled well by the halfback Rizvi who also put his boot to work winning territory through his box kicks. Despite managing to score twice in the first half, Kandy went into half time trailing Army 12-15. A slender margin which wouldn’t have worried the defending champions, but the Army juggernaut was starting to roll.

In the second half, Kandy realized Army was dominating the closer channels and had effective cover on the wider channels. They switched to using their forwards in closer channels to keep hitting at Army hoping to suck in the defense which would create openings for their elusive backs. The Soldiers were staunch and played to the blueprint laid down by their coach as the forwards continually became a menace in the breakdown area, putting pressure on Kandy. Army toiled hard and kept to the plan of playing tight as a unit, forwards were close in support and the backs recognized where support was. Army stepped up to the challenge in the lineouts and the scrums and made Kandy work hard. At the stroke of the hour mark in the game, Army increased their lead over Kandy through a try with the scores reading 17-23. Adding insult to injury, Kandy were made to pay for their indiscipline with two players receiving yellow cards in the final 20 mins.  Army showed excellent composure in managing the final fifteen minutes of the game. They held onto possession, patiently camping themselves in the Kandy half and stood firm in defense when Kandy attacked.

Kandy’s come back try in the 74th minute paved the way for a heated final five minutes where they attacked frantically and pushed through the line in pursuit of a try in the 79th minute. Unfortunately, it was ruled to be as held up but the referee signaled that it was going forward so the restart would have been a scrum in favor of Kandy. However, a couple of phases earlier, a Kandy player threw his arms in a ruck which was spotted by the assistant referee, resulting in a penalty in favor of the Soldiers. Despite not gaining enough distance from the clearance kick to get out of jail, Army did very well to build phase after phase and hold onto possession knowing that they were seconds away from winning the game.

Match Highlights – Kandy SC v Army SC DRL 2018/19 #35

The controversial (disallowed) Try

Then came the (disallowed) try, which many have viewed, analyzed and have even gone to the extent of drawing lines on a screenshot to support their arguments (how one can determine the offside line from a still footage of a video camera perched high up on an angle is beyond me). The decision of the referee will be argued till the end of time, but by not viewing the entirety of the game, many missed out on the real reason for the confusing end to the game.

Army who were hogging possession to run down the clock were anxious to end the game, Rizwi, their talisman halfback checked time with the referee and found out that it was full time. In the excitement of finally putting the game to bed, he opted to kick the ball out from the base like he had done several times earlier this game only to find the towering figure of Shehan ‘Lema’ Pathirana smothering the kick. Danushka Ranjan pounced on the chance and scored right under the club house. Nittawela erupted with joy as the fans mobbed the Kandy players in euphoria and relief of a last-minute escape. But in their excitement, the Kandy mob didn’t wait for the referee to make his decision. The Referees were in discussion until the mob was cleared off the field and then referee Madugalle called up the stand-in Kandy skipper, Roshan Weerarthne and their Fly half Nigel Ratwatte. After a lengthy explanation to both, the referee signals that there was a deliberate knock-on from Kandy and awards a penalty in favor of Army who take the tap and kick the ball out to record a famous victory.

Why was the try disallowed?

Many social media pundits have been quick to create a huge uproar that Shehan Pathirana’s charge was not a deliberate knock on as it was clearly a charge down. You need to rewind three to four phases in the run up to the charge down to make sense of the referee’s final call – while Army were battering away at Kandy

Nigel Ratwatte attempts to intercept a pass meant for Asoka Jayalal, while whether the ball actually did make contact with Nigel is a different matter altogether, the referee who was right on the spot seems to have gotten the recommendation of the assistant referee after the play, as he did initially let the game continue. To understand the decisions that are made on the field, one must understand the context in its entirety – being devoted fans of the game does not necessarily mean that one knows better than the men who actually take up the challenge to officiate. While there may have been shortcomings of the referee, the social media pundits and know-it-alls have missed not one but many tricks in trying to argue the final play.

Though it was made to look like it was the final move that decided the game, it was the immense pressure that Army put Kandy under for prolonged periods throughout the game that got the victory for the Soldiers. They were committed in defense and showed brilliant line speed throughout the game to keep Kandy at bay, they did the little things right in attack to get crucial points. Kandy were guilty of not adapting to the wet and soggy conditions sooner which cost them the game and the injuries that have piled up are going to be a real worry, despite them having the luxury of a massive squad. The headaches for Kandy don’t stop at the team.

Crowd invasions, Mobs and injuries – Kandy’s many headaches

When Danushka Ranjan scored Kandy’s first try of the second half there was a member of the crowd who joined in the celebrations by diving on the ball. When Ranjan once again touched down in the final move of the game, so many Kandy supporters mobbed the ground despite the game not being concluded. The match commissioner on duty at the game has reportedly raised serious concerns over the safety of the officials and the players which will be scrutinized by Sri Lanka Rugby and the home team will be pressured to make sufficient arrangements to guarantee the safety of all stakeholders of the game.

Despite the controversial end, it was a well-deserved, hard-earned victory for Army and a great result for the league. Kandy will no doubt go back to the drawing board to plan the remainder of the season. While the home defeat shouldn’t rattle the table topping champions much, the other teams in the league will no doubt now fancy their chances against Kandy and will be fueled by the knowing that the defending champs are beatable.