By Emil van der Poorten –
Let me open with an apology for borrowing, with some modification, the very famous Rodney Dangerfield quote that reads, “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out” as an epitomizing violence that might be appropriate in one athletic activity but which should be totally unacceptable in another.
One of the areas of Sri Lankan life with which I’ve had a degree of involvement since my return to the land of my birth approximately six years ago has been club rugby. The reason for this was simple: a friend under whose captaincy I played one of my first years of club rugby more than half a century ago persuaded me that I had something to offer my old club despite or because of my advancing years!
Navy personnel in civvies clambering upto the members and VIP enclosure while uniformed sailors look on and Navy goons looking for victims in the deserted upper levels of the main pavilion
So if you find anything offensive in this week’s column, you can blame my old buddy for bringing me back into a (much changed) club rugby culture.
At the inception, let me say that Sri Lanka will never achieve anything resembling competitive status on the international rugby stage simply due to the fact that, as a nation, we lack strength, girth and height, in comparison to the majority of those playing rugby elsewhere. Unfortunately, that has not prevented corruption of the sport to an extent that one might have expected in a sport such as cricket where the big bucks are available for embezzling, the usual gauge of ‘importance’ of anything in this country.
However, the culture of impunity has invaded rugby football as it has every other facet of Sri Lankan life during the tenure of the current government. The fact that all three of the Presidential Progeny play the game for the Sri Lankan Navy team, with their parents in attendance most of the time, has not helped the situation one whit and seems to have only added another dimension to that arena of violence and the attendant impunity.
The Kandy Sports Club (KSC) with which my connection goes back more than half a century has become a particular target of machinations without equal by virtue of the fact that it has dominated the local rugby scene for better than a decade.
While that kind of lengthy dominance is possibly not in the long-term interests of any sport, the manner in which it has been sought to divest the KSC of that status ever since the current regime ascended to power can hardly be considered healthy either.
I have personally witnessed behaviour that has no place in ANY sports arena in games where the Navy has been the opposition to the Kandy club. The refereeing has been, to put it mildly, nothing short of putrid in several of these games.
In fact, unless the referees concerned were deaf mutes who had, in addition, lost their sight for the duration of the game, a simple verdict of bias and cheating would be appropriate.
This kind of victimization of the targeted club from the hill country extended to games which featured the Sri Lanka Air Force as well, where, on one occasion an airman, while he was supposedly playing the game, fired an assault weapon while so occupied! This little bit of entertainment was recorded for posterity by a national television station.
The fact that this incident and others where spectators, inclusive of children, were assaulted by air force personnel on the Bogambara grounds did not result in so much as the courtesy of an acknowledgement by the national rugby union of letters of complaint, except in one instance when such acknowledgement arrived six months later! Need one say more about the ethical standards of the President and Board of the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union of that time?
The most recent of these Theatres of Abuse and Intimidation occurred at the KSC’s Nittawela Grounds on Sunday, August 12th in a match between the hill country club and what could soon be called our Royal (Sri Lankan) Navy. Given the fact that the Navy had apparently succeeded in its several-years-long intimidation and assault of Kandy players and spectators, common wisdom had it that this game was going to be a push-over for the Navy, particularly considering that only the week before they had beaten the KSC at Welisara, completely dominating that contest. However, the KSC XV, with its large and vociferous band of (working class) supporters, proved to be a very different kettle of fish on their home grounds. They were helped significantly by the fact that an unbiased foreign referee ‘blew’the game and provided me with a ‘first:’ very fair AND very competent refereeing at a game at which the President of Sri Lanka was a spectator. This was in direct and dramatic contrast to the Clifford Cup Final at the Royal Sports Complex the year before when, after the President of the Rugby Referees Association, in an unique ‘first,’ kept the two teams waiting after half-time was over and then proceeded to provide a display of adjudication of which a resident of the School for the Deaf and Blind would have been ashamed. However, his blindness appeared to be selective in the extreme and applied only to any infringements by the Navy players.
However, when he looked Kandy’s way, he appeared to display extra-sensory perception because he appeared to see infringements that must have occurred in some previous game because they were not evident on that field, on that day, at that time! In short, it was a truly unbelievable display of what was supposed to be ‘refereeing’ which could well have had something to do with his half-time ‘meditation’ that resulted in his inability to come on the field with the two teams when it was time to resume play. Go figure!
At the end of play on August 12th at Nittawela, the local fans streamed across the field in a typical display of affection for the KSC players and unadulterated joy at the result.
It was at this point that what should have been allowed to proceed as a display of gratitude and support was turned into something very ugly. The Navy supporters, this year, in ‘mufti’ for reasons that soon became apparent, led, I am informed, by a team official launched an attack on the Kandy supporters. This was despite every effort of the officials of the Kandy Sports Club to keep the Navy fans a healthy distance away from the vociferous Kandyans and despite the efforts of the large police contingent, with what looked like the whole of the Asgiriya kennel in attendance, to achieve the same result. It was very obviously a pre-planned attack and included – something that was done by the Air Force supporters at Bogambara last year – what had the appearances of a commando raid on the main pavilion, several of the 1,200 navy personnel for whom tickets had been purchased in advance at State expense presumably, shinnying up to the upper levels of the main pavilion and assaulting men, women and children in that space.
The casualties included a six-year old child who must, I presume, have been perceived to be in the process of attacking one of the large naval ratings who came on board the Members Section of the KSC where we were hard put to protect wives and children of senior members of the club whom I am sure weren’t in search of that kind of participatory entertainment!
To describe the conduct of a supposedly well-disciplined part of our armed forces as disgraceful would be to seriously understate the case. What made it even worse was the effort at participation in this mayhem by some Very Important Players as well, seeking to engage in hand-to-hand combat with Kandy fans!
A few factors of particular interest in this connection were the following:
1. The ‘invasion’ by naval personnel in ‘civvies’ only began after the Presidential entourage had departed that part of the pavilion where invitees and senior club members were seated and where I happened to be one of the few men among the women and children waiting for the crush to ease so that they could leave without too much difficulty.
2. The navy purchased more than 1,200 tickets in advance of the game and bussed in their supporters in ‘mufti’ and not, as they had in previous years, in off-duty naval uniforms, thus making it impossible to separate the bussed-in goons from local fans.
3. There appeared to be a well-planned effort to place navy provocateurs among theKandyfans, despite the clear efforts of Club officials and police on duty to keep the two groups – KSC fans and navy supporters – apart.
You might well ask what I hope to achieve by documenting this disgrace parading as a sports event. I believe it provides proof, if such proof is now needed, that, if you ally yourself with the ruling clique in this country, you can do whatever you want, to whomever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want.
“Nittawela, August 12th 2012” was yet another landmark in that regard and a reminder of what is to come, again, if the Kandy Sports Club makes it to the Clifford Cup Final and the Navy is their opponent. Only this time, the “powers that be” will undoubtedly make sure they bring a referee of their choice as they did in 2011