By Neil Wijeratne
Last week saw the commencement of the 2019-20 inter club rugby league tournament. And once again it will be a battle for the supremacy between island's top eight rugby clubs.
Interestingly, when the 'official' inter club rugby league tournament was inaugurated by the Ceylon Rugby Football Union in 1950, still there were only eight teams.
Statistically, this is the 70th 'official' inter club rugby league tournament in Sri Lanka.
It was in 1950, the Ceylon Rugby Football Union (now called Sri Lanka Rugby) with E.F.N. Gratiaen as President and E.N. Ewart and P. Le Power as Low-Country and Up-Country Vice-President respectively, decided to re-arrange its domestic tournament structure. The governing body was of the opinion that all of its constituent clubs should compete in a major tournament according to a fixture list arranged by the CRFU. And it would be granted 'official' status. A news item published in March 1950 predicted: “Possibly this year’s (1950) inter club and district matches may assume a new role – competition on a league tournament basis for the Clifford Cup. This Trophy was formerly played by the winners of the Capper Cup (Up-Country vs. Low-Country) and the winners of the United Services vs. Ceylonese fixture. At the moment the Ceylon Rugby Football Union is awaiting a decision”.
Originally, the Clifford Cup was awarded to the winners of the All-Ceylon vs United Services match. And that was as far back as 1911. In 1926 this annual fixture was converted to a quadrangular with four teams, Low-Country, Up-Country, the Ceylonese and United Services vying for supremacy. Then in 1950 came the most noteworthy change, the launching of the first official rugby league tournament.
Until then, the local inter-club matches were considered as 'un-official' whereas in 1949 Havelock SC emerged 'un-official' rugby champs under the leadership of Ian Labrooy. Although the new format brought island’s top eight rugby teams into the scrummage for the first time under the auspices of the CRFU, inter club rivalry was in existence even then at the highest level. For instance, by the time the first ever inter club league tourney commenced in 1950, age-old rivals CR & FC and Havelocks had a match history of 28 encounters amongst them since the maiden confrontation in 1923.
According to another news item appeared in April 1950: “The decision of the Clifford Cup on a league tournament basis has been welcomed by all lovers of the game. While the district and club games in the past were always keenly contested even though lacking the incentive of a trophy, this year’s game will be played with added zest for the eight teams in the run for the cup, CH & FC, CR & FC, Havelock SC, Kelani Valley, Dickoya, Dimbula, Kandy and Uva, every single one will undoubtedly hope to bring off the clever coup of winning the Clifford Cup for the first time”.
Sri Lanka's first 'official' inter-club rugby league tournament was commenced on April 29, 1950 with a thriller when Dickoya (Led by D. A. Cook) defeating much fancied CR & FC (led by Archibald Perera) by 6 points to 5 at Darrawella.
The last match of the inaugural season was played on July 8, 1950 between Havelock SC (led by Ian Labrooy) and Dimbula and was hailed by the enthusiasts as "the grandest match witnessed at Radella”. The “Times of Ceylon” reported: “Beating Dimbula at Radella by 13 points to nil, the Havelocks won the Clifford Cup for the inter district rugger tournament with a 100 per cent record. What is more, they maintained their fine record of not having their line crossed this season.”
During the 1950 season Havelock SC totalled 100 points in seven matches whilst giving away only 6 points (2 penalties) to the opponents. Importantly they kept their goal line intact during the season.
The Ceylonese Rugby & Football Club (Capt. Mahes Rodrigo) won the official rugby league title and the Clifford Cup for the first time in 1952. Then Lyn Simpson’s Dimbula planters took the custody of the Clifford Cup in 1953 and thereafter in 1957 St. John Davies’ CH & FC team won the league title defeating Malcolm Wright’s Dimbula/Dickoya combined team in the finals,
The pioneer eight teams in the league tournament continuously remained in the upper division until the withdrawal of the planting elite which began in mid-1960s.
The rugby league tournament format was changed by the governing body from time to time and in early 1960s it was extended to a knock-out round before staging the Cup – Final. Sometime later the top performers of the lower division were called upon to compete in the knock-out stage. And it paved the way for Army SC, Air Force SC, Police SC and the Navy SC to enter into the premier division.
It was the Army SC, under the captaincy of Bertie Dias that posed the first ever challenge to the top eight. In 1962, league table leader CH & FC automatically entered the Cup Final whilst the second and third placed teams had to compete with top placed 'B' division teams in the preliminary round of the knock-out stage of the competition. Army SC as a lower division team entered Cup Final ousting match fancied Dimbula in the semis to confront fully-European CH & FC, led by John Ewart. At the Colombo Racecourse on 24 August 1962, the new entrant to the upper division, the Army team held the hosts to an unbelievable 6-all draw. After a scoreless first half, CH led 3-0 off a try by John Burrows. A few minutes later the soldiers equalised through a penalty conversion by C.S. Fernando, and increased the lead with another penalty put over by Tunku Ousmand. And then came the long remembered last minute try by burly prop John Prendeville to make the tally 6-all. Anyhow, by virtue of the unbeaten record in the league stage the CH & FC were awarded the Clifford Cup.
In 1965 the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCYAF) team - another team from the lower division, identified themselves as a major force in the local rugby field by making a sensational entry to the Clifford Cup finals. Led by Jeff Ratnam the Air Force team met CR & FC captained by Sari de Sylva in the trophy decider in which CR emerged victorious by 11 points to nil.
The Police SC's (led by S. Sivendran) entry to the final in 1967 also as a lower division team, to confront Havelock SC led by Gamini Fernando is another piece of history. Havies were warned by the critics: "Havies, no mistakes in your half" as Police place kicker Bagoos Sourjah was at his best during the season. And with fewer mistakes the Havies clinched the Clifford Cup for the sixth time with 11 points to 3 victory.
Being promoted to the Upper Division in 1975, the Navy team held the ultimate champs Havelocks to a 12-all draw in the first round before losing narrowly by 23-21 in the return to mark the entry of another contender in the premier division. And in the following year – 1976 they were able to make their first ever cup final appearance under the captaincy of Ilex Perera. They recorded a smashing 15 points to 3 victory over CH & FC in the semi-finals before going down to Havelocks (Capt. Thajone Savanghan) 15-3 in the finals.
It is of interest to note that except for those three services teams and the Police SC, none of the new comers to the upper division rugby over the years were able to survive in the elite group for a longer period of time. Petersons were in the top bracket for a few years before fading away from the premier league. They were the 'C' division champs in the year 1985 and were promoted to the 'B' division. As a lower division team they were called upon to the upper league in 1988. Their debut in the 'A' division was against Navy SC which they lost narrowly by 6 points to nil. Petersons second outing in "A' division rugby was against CR & FC. As per a match report: "Petersons came within reach of creating a near sensation just four minutes before the end when they breached CR defence, but try went unconverted." Final tally: CR 6 (2 penalties by Shah Doole) – Petersons 4 (a try by Fazal Mohamed).
So it is still eight in all in the upper division rugby league.