Schools Rugby League review: a change of guard?

What a blockbuster weekend!

Schools Rugby League review

The finale of the schools’ league coinciding with the opening Tests of the International summer tours. I’m sure Saturday was one of those days where you pull off a ‘sicky’ and avoid all parties and family reunions. If you did, though perhaps feeling a little guilty now, I’m sure you weren’t disappointed.

In terms of the schools’ league, mathematically, there were three teams still in the race for the crown. But in all honesty, it was Royal College’s to lose. And playing in their own backyard it was highly unlikely they were going to let it slip away. Their opponents St. Peter’s had a glimmer of home, as did St. Joseph’s who took on Isipathana. Both, the Petes and Joes clung on to a hope against hope that Royal will lose, and that without a bonus point, whilst they themselves had to come away with maximum returns. Rugby does spring a few surprises, but not on this occasion.

St. Peter’s were fast to get out of the blocks and fired on all cylinders. A fantastic long-range penalty by Liyanapathirana saw them go into the lead early on. They played with real intent, and moved the ball from side to side, but the Royal defense stood firm. The Peterites soon were left frustrated and then eventually turned over the ball. And when Royal got going they made it count. They scored two tries in return and took a healthy 12-03 lead at lemons. The Petes were the first to score after the break to make it interesting, but the Royalists were unrelenting. They threw everything at their opponents – hit, after hit, and the ball then going wide. It proved to be too much for the Bambalapitiya lads who eventually folded.

When the Referee called full time, Royal had run in five tries against one scored by St. Peter’s. It capped off a near perfect season for Dushanth Lewke – his first season as Head Coach.  Bradby – check. Schools league – check. Unbeaten season – check.

In my opinion, Royal have been the best team this season. And it was not just mauling their way over the line over and over again. They were direct and knew just when to send the ball out wide. Their defense was also top notch. I don’t think anyone can dispute them being deserved winners.

At the time of writing, I’ve just heard that the Reid Avenue team have pulled out of the knock-outs. I’m sure most of you are not very surprised. I for one am not. Hasn’t that pretty much been the case in recent times?

St. Joseph’s and Isipathana played out an eight-try thriller on Sunday. I felt that the Green Machine would be a little deflated following their mauling at the hands of Royal the previous week. But they pushed the favoured Joes outfit all the way. There were spells between half-time that Joes had a ten-point cushion. Then at 27-17 down, Pathan threw caution to the wind with two quick-fire tries to stun the home faithful. It was Pathana who now led 29-27 going into the dying stages of the game. But cometh the hour, cometh the man. Gemunu Chethiya, who had already scored earlier in the game, turned on the magic before setting up Keshan Kavinda – another rising star, for the match clinching try. Scintillating stuff. I’m told there’s some controversy about that last try, but I’m not obliged to comment as I do not have all the details on hand. All in all, I felt St. Joseph’s was the closest to the eventual winners Royal in terms of consistency. On another day, they may even have beaten them. But this is how the cookie crumbled.

The Peterites also promised much. It has to be said that they were on the lighter side of the draw in the first round. So, you couldn’t really gauge how strong they were. They will look back at that Joes game last week, and feel that they really ought to have found a way to win. This is considering that they played most of the game with an advantage of an extra man. But they just couldn’t hang on to the ball at crucial times, and were guilty of making some wrong choices along the way. In the end, Joes defended like a team possessed and were worthy winners. It’s unfortunate that they lost Raveen Fernando very early on in the season. He would have been a real live wire. And I also know that they had a few more senior players injured during the campaign. But that’s just rugby. Coach Martis will look at this season as a learning curve no doubt. I’m sure they will give the President’s Trophy a real crack. They will definitely look to build on the performances of this season.

The likes of traditional superpowers Trinity & S. Thomas’ have had a rather disappointing season. The latter failed to progress past the first round, though they would’ve found some consolation in winning the ‘Plate’. As for Trinity, once again they see a coach come and go. Inthi Marikkar has now taken over, which has also coincided with a better display by the Lions since of late. Marikkar is an immensely experienced rugby man. Maybe an old head – and an old boy head at that, is what is needed at Trinity to get them back on track. Time will tell.

Another team that promised much but failed to deliver was Wesley College. Much had been made of their 4th place finish last season. Far too much in my estimation – given that they lost the Blaze, and were somewhat lucky to beat lowly placed Zahira. So, they began the season with renewed optimism. They were really on song against Royal, and in all honesty probably deserved to win that game. But now that the dust of the league season has settled, the reality is that they have lost six out of nine games. The recent most of those defeats was on Saturday, where they disintegrated in the second half to let Kingswood pile thirty odd points on them. Just not good enough. As I’ve said before, if you can’t defend, you can’t win games. And more often than not, it’s the best defense that wins championships.

In terms of individual performances, would like to make special mention of some players who really caught my eye. Gemunu Chethiya for me is probably player of the season. An absolute joy to watch in full flight. Mursheed Zubair also had a strong season. He was the architect behind most things Wesley did right, and had an impact in every game he played. Janidu Dilshan from Royal, though a bit subdued compared to last year, played a big part. You could see the experience he brought to that side. And last but not least – Himantha Hirushan. He played Prop. He played Number Eight. It didn’t matter what number he wore. He was a real workhorse – a big engine. Hirushan’s performances really epitomized the grit and ruthlessness of this Royal side.

Overall, it has to be said that this season will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, it was marred by violence and controversy, which even led to some games being postponed. Schools’ rugby used by a fantastic advert of interschool rivalry – played hard, but in the right spirit. But with the influx of funds, and almost professional-like set up adopted by the participants – a ‘win at any cost mentality’ has crept in. It’s time that all stakeholders involved have a long hard think about how these tournaments are to be conducted in the future and what measures are to be taken to stamp out hooliganism and violence.

I vehemently condemn the abuse and assault that have been dished out to the officials. There is simply no place for that, no matter what the circumstances. But the fact is, for whatever reason the Referees have got the general public ‘off-side’. I believe there is some opportunity for the Referees Society to build on their image. Perhaps workshops, or even short videos on the new rules introduced, or even other important aspects will help. I really feel it’s time to start thinking out of the box.

It’s now over to the knock-outs. In this format, anything can happen. For the teams participating, it’s the last chance to get some silverware and end the season on a high. Pathana have always been strong in this tournament. And I believe the Petes and even Trinity have something left in them. But my gut tells me that St. Joseph’s will be really up for this one. They tasted victory last season, and will want to show that they are well and truly a household name now amongst schools rugby superpowers today.