CR’s crack girl Kanchana overcomes nightmares to live her fairy dream | Sunday Observer

CR’s crack girl Kanchana overcomes nightmares to live her fairy dream

18 September, 2022
Kanchana Kumari Mahendran handing off a tackler in a tournament four years ago like a classic winger
Kanchana Kumari Mahendran handing off a tackler in a tournament four years ago like a classic winger

It was a dream come true for CR and FC women’s rugby captain Kanchana Kumari Mahendran when she played against her idol All Blacks ‘Ferns’ star Portia Woodman at her debut for Sri Lanka at the XXII Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

Mahendran was on the bench in Sri Lanka’s first match against England and came on during the last two minutes against New Zealand at the Coventry Stadium. The portly lass from Yatiyantota who made the cut in Sri Lanka’s squad after many years of disappointments despite being blessed with talent, was overwhelmed by the experience although suffering an injury from a bone crunching tackle to become a spectator in the playoff match against South Africa.

Mahendran’s favourite team is the All Blacks and her idol was Woodman, one of the leading try scorers in the World Sevens Series and a prop forward like her. “It was an amazing experience. To see them on the ground for the first time was amazing. I took a photo with her,” she said exhilarated by the opportunity of playing against her idol.

Although her left knee was heavily strapped because of ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) damage, she insisted on being available on the bench for the last match against South Africa of their Games campaign. But fortunately her services were not required. Her willingness to come onto the field embodies the tenacity of Kanchana Kumari Mahendran who excelled in athletics and football before switching over to rugby.

Inspired by Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo she started playing for her school St Mary’s Tamil Maha Vidyalaya, Yatiyantota.

“My first game is football. I was selected to play for Sri Lanka ‘Kreeda Shakti’ national team but didn’t play matches,” she said. She was also placed first in the javelin throw at the Sabaragamuwa Province inter-school tournament.

But her life changed when she was asked to stand-in during a rugby match in school for an absent player although she didn’t know anything about the game.

“The PTI told me ‘you don’t do anything, just stay on the ground’. When I got the ball for the first time, I ran to the try line but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. The PTI teacher said ‘keep it down’. Then I got to know this is the game,” recalled Mahendran who became a sensation as a winger with her speed and powerful runs on either flank. She was almost unstoppable representing St Mary’s under 16, 18 and 20 teams who emerged All Island champions for three years and adjudged the Best Player.

As fate would have it, her rugby career took another turn when she joined CR and FC in 2016 after she moved to Ramanathan Hindu Girls College, Bambalapitiya to continue her A/L studies. There was no rugby in the school and she was idle for six months before being invited by CR coach Sujani Ratnayake to join the club.

Although months of inactivity saw her transform from a lean and hungry winger to a prop forward, she became an instant hit being selected to the Sri Lanka under 18 national pool for the Dubai Sevens in 2017 but missed out because of an injury. This was the first of many disappointments she had to endure which nearly forced her to quit the sport.

“I was totally disappointed because I was selected three times to the national pool but dropped from the final squad. Everyone said I played well but I don’t know why I was not selected earlier,” said Mahendran who even wondered whether it was because of her Tamil origin and because there was a communication gap between players.

However, she received tremendous encouragement from CR coach Attanayake and national women’s coach Saliya Kumara who gave her an intensive individual practice schedule. “More than me, my coach Sujani was disappointed that I was not selected earlier. I followed her advice because she trains me personally and guides me,” said Mahendran expressing her gratitude to the manager of CR’s women’s rugby team who was also in-charge of the Sri Lanka team at the Commonwealth Games.

“If I didn’t get selected this time, I wanted to give up,” said Mahendran who was picked to the 30-member Commonwealth Games national pool after trial matches and couldn’t believe that she was selected in the final 12-member squad.

“Everyone said you play well but finally I am dropped. I wonder whether it is about my language because I’m the only Tamil girl in the side,” said Mahendran who is fluent in Sinhala as much as her mother tongue.

Employed as a sports coach at Vivekananda College, Kotahena, Mahendran has big dreams after breaking the ice at the Commonwealth Games. She is back in training after gingerly recuperating from the first stage ACL injury she suffered at the Games.

Standing tall at 158 cm and a fighting fit 72kgs, she is the second child in a family of four with her mother hailing from Hatton while her father is from Yatiyantota. No one in her family played any sport before her but both her younger brothers, Kokilanath plays football for Isipathana and Jayanath plays rugby at Hindu College.

She was clueless when she applied for the sports coach teacher vacancy at Vivekananda College But now she coaches football, cricket, kabaddi and started rugby after following a training course at Batangala Youth Centre conducted by the Education Ministry.

Kanchana Kumari Mahendran is the epitome of a poor village girl who overcame language barriers to be empowered to perform on the world stage in a sport that was alien to her. “I want to be national captain. I want to be a top player and fans to remember my name,” said Mahendran who has lofty dreams despite her small stature and also plans to start a gym.