Colombo Telegraph

Forces Rugby: The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same

By Emil van der Poorten –

Emil van der Poorten

(In case anyone looking at what transpired at the August 12th, 2012 rugby match between the Kandy Sports Club and the Sri Lanka Navy Team, here’s what I contributed to a Sunday newspaper on the 10th of July 2011, more than a year ago)

Less than a year ago, on the 1st of August 2010, the Sunday Leader published a column of mine that was titled, “A Damned Disgrace.”  It dealt with the travesty of a rugby match that was the Kandy Sports Club vs Sri Lanka Air Force semi-final held at Bogambara in Kandy.  More disgraceful even than what transpired on the rugby pitch was the response of Roshan Goonetilleke and the Sri Lanka Rugby Foothall Union’s Interim Committee of the time when it chose to totally ignore the facts and do nothing about it.

On the afternoon of Sunday the 3rd of July, 2011, several busloads of Sri Lanka Air Force supporters, all of them Airmen, arrived at the Kandy Sports Club grounds in Nittawela,  in two contingents, some in “civvies” and others in what I’d term “off-duty uniforms,” consisting of blue trousers, blue shirts of a different hue, and Air Force caps.

Most of those in “civvies” forced themselves into the grounds without buying tickets, intimidating those manning the gates.  They then proceeded to mix in with theKandysupporters who, waving flags and cheering in orthodox fashion, were only too evident.

The airmen in “regulation, off-duty garb” or whatever it is called, streamed in just before the game began and took over the pavilion at the far end of the Nittawela grounds.

The reason for this very curious “separation of forces,” as it were, and the total absence of even one senior member of the Air Force in the area reserved for visiting “dignitaries” and senior members of the Kandy Sports Club became evident as events unfolded.

The game began in very similar fashion to the semi-final of a year before, with the Kandy side settling down and establishing a rhythm that promised dominance.

Again, as happened in 2010, the Air Force team cut loose with the same brand of violence that they had visited upon their opponents the year before.

This was accompanied by some of the worst refereeing it has been my misfortune to see since I was first acquainted with the oval ball about three score years ago.  It was not merely bad: it was indescribable!

When the Kandy supporters, perennially-considered the most knowledgeable in Sri Lanka, voiced their disapproval, they were set upon by the Air Force personnel in mufti, joined by their uniformed brethren and armed Air Force personnel in camouflage uniforms.

It should be noted that the year before, a similar contingent of armed Air Force personnel in camouflage uniforms controlled the ENTIRE security function and presided over the assault and battery that was visited upon spectators after one of the Air Force players was ejected from the game for rough play at Bogambara.

History promised to repeat itself, this time with an even more sinister twist.

At the inception of the violence in the game, I observed a player, in front of the seating reserved for distinguished guests and senior members of the Kandy Sports Club, behaving in a manner reminiscent of people I’d had the unsolicited opportunity to observe after they had partaken of that most violence-inducing of substances: Crystal Methamphetamine.  I couldn’t help but remember his number given the fact that he was being both physically and verbally abusive to any Kandy player who strayed onto his path.

The level of violence among the spectators escalated to new heights in very short order, with determination of who was a Kandy supporter made easier by the fact that the Airmen had been injected in among the home team’s followers and had clearly identified them before the mayhem started!  Great planning and execution in a vicious cause!

Mixed in with the screams of those trying to escape the assaults being delivered by our “heroes” were what were distinctly identified by several of those in my group as gunshots!  This proved to be accurate when my cellphone rang a few minutes later and a friend who’d chosen not to attend the game asked me “what the hell I thought I was doing” exposing myself and my spouse to gunfire!  It transpired that a friend of his (and his child) had narrowly escaped being shot by an Air Force player who had, apparently, grabbed a T56 from one of his camouflage-wearing compatriots and fired, doing significant damage to the Kandy Sports Club broadcast booth but, very fortunately, not hitting a human target.  My friend’s informant, as might be expected, was beside himself recalling the fate that might have befallen him and/or his child.

This must certainly be a “first” for rugby in this country because, even with a succession of corrupt and incompetent “Interim Boards,” guns had not been considered the tools for determining rugby supremacy.

Ah, well, there’s always got to be a first time!

In retrospect, it is very obvious why the Air Force’s “shock troops” had arrived in two groups, differently garbed, though all in Air Force buses which somewhat eroded their efforts to disguise themselves completely.

It also explained the fact that not one Air Force officer, several of whom were only too evident at the post-game social at which alcoholic beverages were served,  chose to sit with their Kandy Sports Club hosts in seats reserved for them, during the game.

Give them credit, though, all three elements had polished the tactics they’d employed a year before to a significantly higher sheen!

What now?

The Kandy Sports Club will, presumably, follow the same ritual it did a year ago with, probably, the same result.

Then, the KSC wrote a formal letter of protest to the President of the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union.  This letter went unacknowledged for better than six months and when a response came, it didn’t come from the national rugby organization to whom the original communication was addressed.  It came from some demented member of the Air Force who appeared to suffer from (what was hoped!) was a terminal case of verbal diarrhoea, which, as might be expected, was comprised entirely of irrelevancies.!

But one shouldn’t be surprised, should one?  The President of that august sports body was then (suprise!) the head of the Sri Lankan Air Force!

And guess who the current head of that same body is?  (And we are not awarding a million rupee prize for the correct answer!)  The self-same Mr. Roshan Goonetilleke!

Given the manner in which Mr. G originally entered the Air Force, his proclivity for devastating areas designated as World Heritage Sites in pursuit of hedonistic endeavours and the fact that he still enjoys the ultimate in patronage, it may be foolhardy in the extreme to expect even an acknowledgement of the fact that shooting opponents with T56s is “just not done, old chap!”

There is one little fly in this Air Force ointment, however.  The little ballet of the player grabbing the T56 from his camouflage-garbed buddy and firing the weapon was captured on the video that the Swarnavahini television crew was shooting and was broadcast that night, notwithstanding the efforts of the culprits to beat up the TV crew and prevent the evidence being broadcast.  But even what might, in other circumstances, be considered incontrovertible proof could be summarily dispensed with in a culture where it only takes a pronouncement from on high to make the truth a fabricated lie!

In any event, those of us who count ourselves among the great unwashed, can but hope that life will go on without having to take an assault-rifle bullet at a rugby match, because we chose to support the “wrong” side!

Obviously, the danger specified in the last sentence of that piece of writing is still not past!

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