By 1904, rugby football was a fairly well established sport in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called).
There were about five clubs regularly playing the game; there were inter-district matches, and also inter-club matches. The showpiece of the season was the Colombo-Up Country match for the Capper Cup played during the August Week celebrations. By then the first rugby club in the country, The Colombo Football Club, had already combined with the Colombo Hockey Club to form the Colombo Hockey and Football Club (CH & FC). The club was considered as the un-official governing body of the game in the island. The all-European CH & FC arranged, prepared and conducted the island's rugby agenda. All in all during that period the game was exclusively meant for the elite European community in the country.
At that time native rugby was still in its infancy. There were few matches between 'scratch teams' of local players played in Colombo and Kandy but not in a proper organised manner, and also without any publicity. One of the earliest instances where the growing interest of the game at school level was witnessed was in 1891. That was when the Boys' High School (later known as Kingswood College) which was then at No. 11, Pavilion Street in Kandy introduced the game to its students. The school was opened "as a private school but with the intention that it should be worked as far as possible on the lines of the old English Public Schools" states L. E. Blaze, being the founder and first Principal of the School, in his book on "The Story of Kingswood, Kandy" published in 1934. He further added:
"There was Cricket and there was Rugby Union Football before Cricket. My diary notes Rugby games on the 27th November and 8th December 1891, and these were not the first. The 'Ceylon Independent' had reports in 1893, of matches played by us. But we had difficulties. We had no ground to play on. In 1891 we had no more than twenty-two boys on the Register, so that a "home-and-home" game was out of the question. Fortunately, however, there was one school, though one alone, which was ready to join us. This was the Kandy Industrial School, then under the management of Mr. Edgar Donald Jansz. The Industrial boys were allowed to use of a small piece of land belonging to the King's Pavilion. Here then were played our practice games and matches" ("The Story of Kingswood, Kandy" by L.E. Blaze).
The growing interest in rugby football amongst the Ceylonese sports enthusiasts reached its climax in 1904 when it was announced about the possibility of a Ceylonese rugby match – for the first time in the history. The match was initially introduced by the press as "Mr. P.L. Bartholomeusz's team vs The Kandy Rovers" and later as "Colombo Ceylonese vs Kandy Rovers". Whatever may be the team name, it was considered as the first All Ceylonese rugby football match to be played in Ceylon. And it symbolised the local player-spectator enthusiasm in the game.
Here is a word about Colombo Ceylonese team organiser Mr. P. L. Bartholomeusz. He was the compiler of the periodicals such as "Hand Book of Ceylon Cricket and Field Sports" (1901 to 1906) and "The Ceylon Sports Annual" (1908 to 1914) and at one time was the Sports Editor of the "Times of Ceylon". He showed a great interest in promoting Ceylonese rugby and cricket.
Under the caption "Ceylonese Rugby Football Match", the "Times of Ceylon" carried a news item to say that there was a practice match at the Havelock Park to select the Colombo team and added that "the team will leave for Kandy on Saturday (22nd October 1904) morning from the junction, accompanied by a number of enthusiastic supporters."
As per another newspaper report: "This rugger match, between the Kandy Rovers and a team captained by Mr. P. Bartholomeusz of Colombo, comes off on Saturday on the Bogambara recreation ground. The Rovers have got together a pretty strong team, but will feel the absence of Hugh Van Langenberg."
The "Sports Diary" on the match day - 22nd October 1904 - as a matter of interest, shows that all major sporting activities of the day were in Colombo except the Colombo Ceylonese vs Kandy Rovers match. The cricket matches scheduled for the day were SSC vs Orient SC at Rifle Green, NCC vs Royal College at Victoria Park and CCC vs Wesley College at the CCC grounds. In soccer a charity match was arranged between a Military team and a Civilian XI at the Galle Face grounds. Then there was the Governor's Cup Golf competition on the Ridgeway Links.
Whilst those sporting activities were in progress in Colombo, at the Bogambara recreation grounds in Kandy, the first ever All Ceylonese match was commenced "at five o'clock". "Mr. Harold Stevenson kindly undertook to be referee" and prior to the commencement "the teams were photographed by Mr. Molteno of the Colombo Apothecaries Co." stated a match report.
The team line-up read: Colombo: J. Ebert, B. Ondatjee, F. Ondatjee, F. G. Toussaint, W. Jonklaas, R. Daniel and M. Bates, A.C. Ohlmus, R.L. Pereira, E. Reimers, O. Crozier, F. Koch, H. Muthukishna, N. Muthukishna and P. Ebell
Kandy’s team read: P. Goodchild, P. Van Langenberg, J.E. Casiechitty, Hugh Van Langenberg, Victor Van Langenberg, E.H.Auwardt and C.E. Ferdinands, B. Bulner, L. Jansze, St. John Jonklaas, R.J. Sparkes, J.S. Matthysz, D.H.Watt, Lloyd Van Langenberg and H. Murray
The match, as it was reported in the press, was watched by His Excellency the Governor Sir Henry Blake who was in Kandy at the time. According to a newspaper report "His Excellency the Governor and Sir John Keane P.S., arrived on horseback a little before play commenced, while Lady Blake and Miss Keane arrived while play was in progress".
The local press was quick to notice the importance of the match thus giving wide publicity through its sports pages with lengthy match reports. One such graphical report said: “(at the commencement) Crozier kicked off for Colombo and Goodchild receiving sent the ball into touch. A series of kicks followed, and there was some bustling play, but the ball was mostly near the centre. (It was nil-all at half time). After the rest, Colombo were again seen to advantage, the forwards putting in good work, while the backs passed well. Long kicking by W. Jonklaas gave Bates the advantage and Crozier following up a punt cleverly gained a try which Jonklaas failed to convert. During the last fifteen minutes Kandy put Colombo on the defensive but could not score. Colombo once more crossed the line but the try was not given. The game ended with a win for Colombo by three points to nil. Mr. P. Bartholomeusz who captained the Colombo fifteen might well congratulate himself on the success achieved. The Colombo team was decidedly the better of the two teams. On the whole, the game was a thoroughly entertaining one and Mr. Harold Stevenson did his duties excellently".
This first ever all Ceylonese match holds a special significance in the history of rugby football as it became a source of popularizing the game in the island.
Certainly, with this match, the popularity of rugby in Ceylon reached new heights.
Imagine, when the return match was arranged in the following year (1905), the CH & FC, considered as the custodian of Ceylon rugby at the time came forward to organise the match which was played at the Havelock Park.
Imagine, for the third annual match (1906) Colonel E. H. Joseph – popularly known as 'Father of Ceylonese Rugby" – volunteered to referee the match; Imagine, Colombo Racecourse – the home ground of all-European CH & FC was given to stage the third all Ceylonese rugby match in 1906. In his reference to the 1906 match the renowned sports historian S.S. Perera remarked: "The Racecourse - the exclusive preserve of the elite of rugby. The young Ceylonese treated the hallowed ground."
Referring to the second Colombo Ceylonese vs Kandy Rovers match which resulted in a victory to the Hill Country ruggerites, the respected educationist L.E. Blaze has penned the following lines in his book on "The Story of Kingswood". To quote: "One Rugby match may be referred to as of special interest. It was not officially a Kingswood match, but one between the Kandy Rovers and a Colombo Ceylonese team, played in Colombo in 1905. The Kandy fifteen included, however, eight Kingswood Boys: St. John Jonklaas, Guy Sansoni, J.E. Casie Chitty, and E.S. Matthysz were among the forwards; while W.O. Jonklaas, Victor, Lloyd, and Hugh van Langenberg made up the three-quarter line - six footers all!
The Colombo Ceylonese vs Kandy Rovers match which was played as a rugby annual over a period of three consecutive years, without any doubt became native rugby's first wave of its increasing popularity. The native rugby enthusiasts – especially in Colombo and Kandy got the feeling that this imported sport no longer of their masters' preserve, but a game that suited the local "Public School" image.
So they began to pick up the game and to talk and express their opinion about the game. By 1909 there was a platform for them to enter and express their thoughts of the game. It came in the form of a tabloid sized newspaper. Its "Editor's Post Bag" had ample space and opportunity for the local sporting fraternity to express their opinion and views in contrary to the sports pages of the well-established newspapers.
Long years ago I had the opportunity of browsing through the pages of the weekly publication "The Ceylon Sportsman". This eight-page tabloid was printed and published at a press in Pettah, Colombo. As stated in its April 17, 1909 issue "subscription to any address in the island, for 12 months Rs.4/-, 6 months Rs.2/- and 3 months Rs.1/-. Single copies of "The Ceylon Sportsman" can be purchased at Maradana Station, Kandy Station, Nanu Oya – Polgahawela – Fort – Slave
Island –Galle Stations".
Importantly, "The Editor's Post Bag" column in this sports paper made a very wide representation of the native sporting fraternity. This opportunity was not readily available to the sports-page readers of most of the national dailies at the time. Given below is the text of a letter published in the "Editor's Post Bag" of "The Ceylon Sportsman" in July 1913. Certainly, the letter depicts the eagerness of the native rugby community to see their local heroes putting up a brave show against the rugby elite”
"Ceylonese Rugby Football"
Dear Sir, I believe the CH &FC are to meet a team of Ceylonese rugger players next week and as this will be the first time the Ceylonese have been favoured with a match with the club, I think the team should be carefully chosen so as to give the spectators a true impression of what Ceylonese can do at rugger. I hope men who are not in training will not be chosen and that those who are selected will remember the rules of the game and play to the whistle. Some of our players imagine they know the game from A to Z and cannot go wrong. This is a mistaken idea. It will be a hard game that the Ceylonese will have but they ought to do well, even if they fail to win. They have already beaten the naval men and the combined fifteen of Ceylonese should be a good side. I would advise the players to leave whatever talking there is to be done, to the captain and the halves. I know of a few players, who waste too much of their wind in telling others what to do.
Hoping you will publish this in your next issue, I am, yours truly,
(Note by the Editor: The Ceylonese are meeting a team led by Mr. L Mc D Robison and not the CH & FC.)"
"The Ceylon Sportsman" tabloid also carried a few sporting advertisements on sports books and equipment. It is of interest to note one of such advertisements on the availability of sports goods. (Quoted from the September 23, 1911 issue).
"Shoot! Cave's Footballs!! Rugby match balls - Patent, 6 panel, perfect shape: Rs.13 each, Rugby practice balls: Rs.8.50 each, Football Inflators, 12" long: Rs. 2.50 each, Referee Whistles: Rs. 1.25 & 50 cents each."
By Neil Wijeratne - firstname.lastname@example.org