By Neil Wijeratne
This account is of the rugby match between the first rugby club in Ceylon, the CH & FC, and the Nondescripts Cricket Club (better known for its cricketing history) in 1920 and its historical significance.
At that time CH & FC was the only established rugby club in Colombo. The other rugby clubs that participated in the inter-district tournament were from the planting areas such as Dimbula, Dickoya, Kelani Valley, Uva, Kandy and Kalutara (with Thebuwana as its home ground). Almost all the teams were comprised of expatriate players and as they say, it was the "Golden era of European rugby in Ceylon."
The locals had a very restricted access to the game. And when the announcement was made, that a rugby match between CH & FC and the Nondescripts is due to be played on 25th August 1920, it looked rather strange. Although by then they have established themselves as a leading cricket club in the island, the Nondescripts players were all newcomers to the game. In contrast, the CH & FC at the time was considered not only as the virtual All-Ceylon team but also as the governing body of the game in the island. Until then not a single Ceylonese team were able to get a fixture from this fully European rugby club. And even after for many years. For instance, it was in 1926 that the CH & FC complimented the Havelock SC with a friendly match although the Park Club was involved in club rugby since 1922. Even then for the Havies match, the CH team was not at full strength, but fielded a team tagged "CH & FC Captains XV", virtually a second fifteen team.
As mentioned before during the formative years of Ceylon rugby CH & FC was considered as the most dominant rugby club in the island. It had an exclusive membership and until 1964 the club fielded all European teams in domestic rugby field. It was only in 1965 that the club called for Ceylonese membership.
It is often said that this historic match between the CH & FC and the NCC took place due to the untiring efforts of Colonel E.H. Joseph, popularly known as 'Father of Ceylonese Rugby." Having represented CH in 1890s, Colonel Joseph became the President of the Havelock Sports Club and the Ceylonese Rugby & Football Club in later years. As he was keen to promote Ceylonese rugby, it was he who suggested and insisted that a match to be played between the premier rugby club in the country and the newcomer to the rugby scene, the Nondescripts CC. At that time he was the President of the NCC. It is said that he took charge of its rugby players, most of them were from the Training College in Colombo and Trinity College, Kandy and coached them to form a rugby team.
Prior to CH match, the NCC played four matches during the 1920 season, against the Training College Old Boys team (two matches), Trinity College team and the Combined Ceylonese XV and won them all. The CH & FC fielded their best fifteen and retained the services of the same team "that did duty for them in the big match, against the Rest XV in August Week annual encounter."
Colombo newspapers allotted considerable space for the pre-match reports thus generating an unprecedented interest among the local rugby fraternity. One such report published on the eve of the match read: "The Rugger match to be played on the Racecourse tomorrow afternoon between the C.H. & F.C. and the Nondescripts promises to be one of more than ordinary interest. Besides the fact that it will be the first time in the history of the game in the island that a purely Ceylonese team will be opposed to a European outfit, the Nondescript ruggerites have shown such proficiency in the game this season that a close and interesting game is anticipated." The newspaper report further added: "Dr. L.O. Weinman, who was to play half with R. Ondatjie, and to captain the team, finds himself unable to turn out owing to a sprained knee and C. Arndt, from the three-quarter line, will fill his place, with Cyril Peries, one of the reserves taking Arndt's place at three-quarter.-----------The three-quarters (NCC) are a capable lot, all of them being flyers, Kelaart and Peries being more so than the other two. C.T. Van Geyzel, the back, has played in that position in all the above matches, and has proved himself a dependable player, tackling and kicking well."
The team line-up read:
CH & FC: G. Griffith, P.M. Bingham, L Mc D. Robison, G. Campbell (Capt.), D.A. Wright, J.A. Pym, J.A. Mayhim, J.P.G. Paterson, G.R. Neale, H. Leatham, H.E. Swepstone, R.J. Hartley, A.S. Lampard, J.S. Findlay and N. Bates.
NCC: C.T. Van Geyzel, J.G. de Saram (Capt.), J.A. de Silva, Cyril Peiris, Noel Kelaart, Roy Ondatjie, Carl Arndt, E. Ondatjie, V.C. Kelaart, Cecil Horan, V.T. Dickman, S.F. de Saram, Cecil Speldewinde, M.P. Kalora and Fred Van Langenberg.
The CH team had a good number of experienced players who took part in the Clifford Cup tournament along with L. Mc D. Robison who led the All-Ceylon team against the United Services and J.A. Pym, an English International strengthening the halves combination.
According to the newspaper reports on the inaugural CH & FC versus NCC match which was played on Wednesday, 25th August 1920 at the Racecourse, "play started at 5.15 p.m. with the Nondescripts defending the Torrington end". At the beginning it looked as the "CH team were undoubtedly superior to the opposing fifteen" and would breach the defence at ease. Linkman Pym "was a marked man, but in spite of it he was responsible for the two tries which the CH & FC scored." Capitalising on their half-time lead of 8 points to nil, "the all European CH team were leading by 8 points to 5 up to the last thirty seconds of play." The last move of the match was graphically described in "The Times of Ceylon" newspaper. It read: "Just before the whistle sounded Kelaart getting possession, raced down and passing the opposing '25' punted across. Speldewinde, who was following up, got the ball and succeeded in touching down just between the posts. Horan took the kick and converted. The whistle sounded shortly afterwards leaving the Nondescripts winners by 10 (2 goals) to 8 (1 goal and a try)."
According to another sports page account of the outcome of the match: "The large number of people who turned up at the Havelock Racecourse to witness the first rugger match between the CH & FC and the Nondescripts, were treated to one of the best contested games witnessed in Colombo for some time. It was generally expected that the Ceylonese club would be able to give CH & FC a good game, but it was not thought that besides making a match of it the Nondescripts would actually win. But so it happened. The fine display put up by the Ceylonese players yesterday will go a long way to prove that, given the opportunity, they can hold their own in any field of manly sport. Their lack of weight against the powerful European fifteen yesterday was more than made up for by the speed of their three-quarters, and the nippiness of their halves."
As per newspaper reports "Mr. E.O. Mackwood was the capital referee and Mr. A.B. Ricketts and Dr. L.O. Weinman acted as touch judges."
Try scorer for the winners was C. Speldewinde whilst Cecil Horan was successful in both conversions. Incidentally, Cecil Horan was a famous cricketer who represented the All-Ceylon team many a times as a left arm opening bowler. Renowned cricket historian S.P. Foenander once stated that "Cecil Horan is by general consent the greatest left hand bowler Ceylon has had since T. Kelaart and A. Raffel were in their prime." Educated at St. Joseph's College, Colombo, probably, he was the first Josephian to play club rugby in Ceylon.
The Nondescript Cricket Club's historic victory over the much fancied All-European CH & FC team was considered as one of the most significant landmarks in our rugby history. Moreover, this victory clearly reflected the native rugby prowess against the European Gurus of the game. It also marked the first ever rugby victory for a team wholly comprised Ceylonese players against a club that participating in the Clifford Cup tournament; at the same time it also marked a new beginning for Ceylon rugby. With this victory it was proved that the "Ceylonese bid to participate in first class rugby could not be overlooked thereafter." And more importantly, it also paved the way for the formation of the Ceylonese Rugby and Football Club (CR & FC). Years later, CR stalwart V.C. Kelaart who took part in that historic match remarked, "If not for the result of the CH & FC – N.C.C. match in 1920, the CR may not have been thought of." He further added: "Members of the club (CR & FC) will now appreciate why pride of place is given to the group photograph of the victorious N.C.C. team of 1920 in our Club Pavilion."
By Neil Wijeratne