The 1971 Bradby – “The Shocker at the Rugger” | Sunday Observer

The 1971 Bradby – “The Shocker at the Rugger”

12 June, 2021
Royal captain Fred Perera and prop Gamma waiting to bind and protect line-out specialist Maiya from a possible undercut from Trinity’s captain Ping. Royal scrumhalf Chulan is also in picture
Royal captain Fred Perera and prop Gamma waiting to bind and protect line-out specialist Maiya from a possible undercut from Trinity’s captain Ping. Royal scrumhalf Chulan is also in picture

Hollywood could not have scripted it better. A backdrop of civil unrest; an underdog; an amazing strategy; a psychological thriller; high drama; a grand finale and a lesson in high ethics by an officer and gentleman.

In 1974 the world had the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ and in 1975 the ‘Thrilla in Manila’. But before these epic battles, in 1971, there was a ‘Shocker at the Rugger’ at Longden Place – masterminded by Royal coach, Mahesa (Mahes) Rodrigo and Royal captain, Fred Perera. That was exactly 50 -years ago.

The Backdrop

Dr. Fred Perera (Fred) captained the Royal team in 1971. It was during the year of the first JVP insurgency, which commenced on April 5, 1971. Due to the disruption caused, the ‘A- Level’ Practicals to enter medical college were postponed; and Fred and Maiya Gunasekera (now both distinguished surgeons) stayed on for the 2nd term at Royal, till August. Thus, Royal retained two of the best schoolboy players in their team, mainly due to the stars aligning in the school’s favour. Fred still laughs and says that he was the “JVP captain”.

Dr. Fred comes from a rugby playing family. Two of his elder brothers, Rex and Lloyd, played for Royal with distinction in the second row. Fred started as a second row forward in 1968 under Bulla de Silva and continued to play in the same position under Harin Malwatte (1969). He then shifted to Number 8 under Jagath Fernando (1970) and played the memorable 1970 encounter in which Trinity came back from behind to win the second leg – after Royal was reduced to 14 players due to the injury of star centre Michael Muller. Fred led the side in 1971 keeping his position at Number 8.

Due to the JVP insurgency, schools were closed, rugby practices were suspended, and a nation-wide curfew was implemented. When schools re-opened, the country was still recovering from the insurrection and there was, as expected, much disruption and uncertainty in the lives of the people. There were also serious doubts as to whether there would be a school rugby season at all. Yet, much to the relief of all rugby enthusiasts; a limited season commenced. In the case of Royal and Trinity, it was agreed between the two schools that at least one match should be played; and it would be a ‘friendly’not for the Bradby shield.

What happened at this ‘friendly’ is a you-won’t-believe-it story for the centuries. I played as a wing-forward for Royal in this match – although now 50-years later I had to have my memories reinforced by those of the master-in-charge Harischandra Nanayakkara (Hara); the reminiscences of assistant coach UL Kaluarachchi (Kalu) who wrote an excellent piece about the match in the Sunday Times of June 10, 2012; and the various recollections of my teammates.

The Underdog

Royal went into the match as a definite underdog. In fact, calling Royal the underdog would be an insult to such dogs. The disruptions to practice due to the insurrection and the injuries sustained at practice and in earlier matches of senior players had left the team decimated, especially in the line. Vice-captain Senaka Abeyratne, Michael Muller, CP Abeyewardena and Sinha Ratnatunga had all sustained injuries. As a result, Royal’s record in the season were losses to S. Thomas’, St Peter’s, St. Anthony’s and Isipathana. Royal only beat Vidyartha and Zahira. Meanwhile, Trinity came to the match unbeaten.

The final Royal team that fronted up that day, on July 29th, 1971, was: Full Back: Faisal Sourjah. Front-Row: Gamini Gunasekera (Gamma), Rohan Siriwardena (Cargo), Koo Sang Chiang. Second-Row: Brumoon Akbar and Maithri Gunasekera (Maiya). Third Row: Janek Ratnatunga, Fred Perera and Jiffry Mackie. Scrumhalf: Chulan Weeresinghe. Fly-Half: Ray de Silva. Centres: Thanula Wijewardena and Ajitha Pasqual (Passa). Wingers: Dhammika Wedande (Weda) and ELC Fernando (ELC).

Some of those in the Trinity team that I remember were: YC Ping (captain); Tikiri Marambe (scrum half); Irwin Howie (flyhalf); Niroshan de Silva (centre) and Athula Unnantenne (winger).

Amazing Strategy

Royal had a top line-out specialist in Maiya and a great hooker in Cargo (both went on to captain CR&FC in later years). So, gaining possession of the ball was not seen as a problem. However, injuries had taken out many of the speedsters in Royal’s back division. There was only one winger, ELC, who was a genuine speedster. Passa, had the required speed for a centre, but not for a winger. As such, in a shock move, coach Mahes placed Wedande as the second winger. He had no speed at all, but was versatile enough to function as a standby scrumhalf, if needed. Substitution was not permitted then and Royal had already lost vice-captain, Seneka Abeyratne to an injury in the S. Thomas’ match and scrumhalf Chulan got concussed in the same match and could not see. Royal was reduced to 13 and lost the match as a result.

As Royal had no real speed in its back-division, Mahes tried out a special ploy for the first time where the centres were made to create ‘crash’ ball in the middle. (International rugby uses this ploy now). As a result, the two centres were played more for their strength and ability (than for their speed) to go crashing into their opposite numbers and create the opportunities in the middle of the field for the pack to take over. Thanula, who was centre number one, had the strong body-build to do the crash tactic, and did his job fearlessly. This tactic worked wonders and resulted in two of the three tries scored.

The second tactic used by Mahes, was one of pure genius. I need to quote master-in-charge Hara to explain its origins.

“I remember this match as it was the insurgent year. We had only one Bradby game. We had lost to Isipathana and some other schools. However, Mahes drove up to Kandy to see Trinity playing St. Anthony’s. After watching this match Mahes formulated a plan. After the match he immediately came to the Hostel and met me. At the time I was the Warden.

He told me to arrange a team meeting before the next practice day. He told me if the team follows his instructions Trinity could be beaten.

He had noted that Trinity won due to the halves combination of Howie and Marambe. Time and again Howie went on the blind side off a set scrum and with Marambe joining the line there was an extra man in the line which enabled the try to be scored. Mahes’s strategy was to prevent this happening.

Mahes first gave a directive to scrumhalf Chulan to keep his counterpart Marambe in check and stop his favoured sniping on the blind side. Chulan accomplished this task magnificently, stopping Marambe all bar one time. Mahes then instructed the open-side wing forward to go inside of Howie, and for Thanula (first centre) to come in outside of Howie – a sort of pincer movement. The blind-side wing forward was instructed that when the ball was released from the scrum to take two-steps forward to anticipate the arrival of Howie on the blind side. If the direction of the movement of the ball in the line was still on the open side, then he was to corner-flag to the open-side to catch the “extra man”, if any. Conversely, if Howie did run on the blind side, then the open-side wing forward was to corner flag to the blind-side, to tackle the overlap.”

This tactic resulted in the two wing-forwards running in opposite directions to the movement of the ball, much to the puzzlement of the spectators! My brother Ruvan, who was watching the match, heard many a shout from the crowd that: “Janek was running in the wrong direction”

The result was that Howie was smothered wherever he ran, either by the wing-forwards or by Thanula, sustained an injury and had to be carried off the field. Now everyone, including myself, assumed that Thanula was the cause of Howie’s injury – but captain Fred says that he actually got injured when he tried to avoid Thanula and crashed into Ray, who normally was averse to tackling.

Thanula recollection is different. He says that although he never meant to injure Howie, he nevertheless was responsible for it when he landed on him trying to smother a kick off a scrum. Clearly, Howie being taken off the field may not have been due to one tackle, but multiple hits. Howie was not the only casualty for Trinity. Niroshen de Silva (a brilliant centre) further aggravated a knee injury that he came to the match with and was limping on the field.

Hara says: “We had several excellent rugby coaches like Geoff Wieman, Malik Samarawickrema, UL Kaluarachchi, etc – but there was never a tactician like Mahes. He was a coach par excellence.” In fact, Kalu himself has written that, “Mahesa Rodrigo was a coach extraordinaire.”

A Psychological Thriller

In addition to coach Mahes Rodrigo’s brilliant strategies, the Royal team also came up with a few tactics of their own. While Mahes worked on the tactics of the feet and body, the team came up with some tactics of the head.

The first was introduced by Maiya. For some obscure reason (premonition?) he learnt some verses of the Trinity school song and taught it to all of us in the pack. At practice, we sang with gusto, over-and-over again, the following verse:

We will honour yet the School we knew,
The best school of all;
We will honour yet the rule we knew,
Till the last bell call.

During the match, after we had put a few points on the board, we started singing these verses every time we scrummaged. It drove the Trinity pack berserk, as they interpreted it as if we were mocking them. We were! Their performance suffered as a result. This was the first instance of psychological warfare in the field during a rugger match that I had encountered. Sure, the All-Blacks have the ‘Haka’, but that was before a match commenced. This singing of the Trinity school song by the Royal pack was sledging at its most sophisticated – and there was nothing a referee could do about it! The match referee was Babu Jacob, an Old Trinitian, who often said “Royal Putin” or “College Ball”.

The second major impact on one’s psyche was Fred’s pre-match pep-talk. Today, we see coaches giving pep-talks to the team during half-time. Fred’s was during warm-up, and today, 50-years later, it is etched in my memory. It was a simple, but powerful message: “We are today a laughing-stock even amongst die-hard Royal supporters. With our record, no one is giving us a chance of winning. Individually, we have the talent. Now let’s show them what we are made of, as a team.”

High Drama

Winning possession is the key to winning a rugger match. Royal had a great lineout specialist in Maiya and an agile hooker in Cargo. But it was not easy-ball. Trinity’s hooker Cuda Wadugodapitiya ferociously contested Cargo in the scrums and also marked Maiya by repeatedly undercutting him in the lineouts. Chaing and Gamma bound Maiya at apex of jump to keep him safe. Despite this, once Maiya fell shouting “Buddhu ammo”!

In his reminiscences, Kalu wrote: “Having watched the 1971 Bradby virtually from the ring-side, one would recall how the Royal pack, ably led by their mobile number 8 and skipper, foraged all over to provide much-needed good ball for the three-quarters to score. In that game a try was scored by that elusive fly-half, with a safe pair of hands, Ray de Silva, who ran through his opposite number from ten to fifteen metres away from the Trinity goal line to score; and two further tries were scored by the speedy flier E.L.C. Fernando.”

Skipper Fred, from his vantage point, saw a different version of one of those tries. He says: “When I came off the scrum, I saw Chulan had already passed to Ray, who, being averse to being tackled, was running sideways – by-passing both Thanula and Passa – to give the ball to ELC, who promptly ran and scored.”

Thanula, however, said that Ray had actually planned to pass to ELC, and that before the scrum was taken, he had told Passa and him to hold back so he could pass directly to ELC. Thus, the first recorded double skip pass in rugby was no accident and showcased the brilliance of Ray.

Another tactic on the field that day was where the Royal pack held on to the ball in the scrum while Chulan went through the motions of passing to Ray resulting in Trinity’s three-quarters being blown offside in their anxiety to get at Royal’s three-quarters.

Maiya remembers how he held the ball long enough to get the Trinity players offside; and that referee Babu Jecobs gave the first penalty on the touch line. Sourjah then had come up to take the kick and muttered to him: “Maiya, this b-stard marked the wrong place – it must be 10 meters inside!” Maiya can remember telling Sourjah, “Now you can’t do anything, so take it from the touchline.”

Sourjah proceeded to kick from that impossible angle and Royal was 3 points up in a few minutes – then he kicked two more penalties and it was 9–0, and then Ray’s double skip pass to ELC for a touchdown made it 12-0.

When Maiya saw ELC scoring, he did a celebration dance on the field, but Fred quickly reminded him of the 1970 lead Royal had, also 12 nil and how they lost 16 -12 eventually. Fred was determined that history did not repeat itself. Sourjah converted that try, and the score was 14-0 at half time.

Ultimately the Royal pack held, and as expected, won over 90% of the ball in the scrums and lineouts. Cargo’s contribution to getting possession cannot be underestimated. In addition to keeping Trinity’s hooker Cuda at bay with great agility, he always threw the ball accurately in the lineouts for Maiya. The Royal pack then hauled and pushed for territory and penalties for Sourjah to either kick to touch or kick over the crossbar. It was total forwards dominance by Royal, and Trinity were most often back pedalling.

Grand Finale

Ultimately, Royal rampaged all over Trinity and became victorious by a massive score of 22 (two goals, one try and three penalties) to 3 (one try) – under the old scoring system of 5 points per goal and 3 per try. Full-back Sourjah converted two of the three tries and put over three penalties as well. Trinity’s 3 came through a late try scored by their skipper Ping.

It is amazing that all the tries were scored by Royal’s (relatively slow) line. To underline how incredible this achievement was, Maiya recollects how winger Wedande was running towards the goal line with 25 meters to go and Maiya screaming to pass the ball to him. Wedande did not, and was promptly tackled from behind by Trinity winger Unnantenne. Later, Maiya asked Weda why he did not pass. Weda, responded, “Machan, Mahes knew I could not run fast so he taught me how to side-step. I did this and beat Unnantenne, and then got carried away when I saw an open goal-line. But that bugger turned around and easily caught up with me, and tackled!”

Soon after the match ended, the Royalists –all the students and spectators - danced to the tunes of Ramana’s ‘papare band’ and surrounded the Trinity Principal Lionel Fernando and chanted, “Give us the Bradby! We want the Bradby!”, for over 10 minutes. Traditionally, the shield was handed over to the winning school’s Principal; but then, this was only a ‘friendly”.

This was the highest score under this system as at that date. The previous best being a win by Royal 19-03 (1st Leg, 1951), a win by Royal 19-00 (1st Leg, 1968), and a win by Trinity 19-03 (1st Leg, in 1970). Coincidentally all the games mentioned above including the 1971 game were played at Longden Place.

Lesson in High Ethics

The story does not end with Royal’s amazing record victory. Originally the Shield was not going to be awarded that year, as it was to be a ‘friendly’ match. However, one recalls with great respect, the fine gesture of the Trinity Principal, Lionel Fernando, who came to Colombo and presented the Shield, in true Bradby spirit, to the worthy winners at a General Assembly at Royal.

He said: “I am talking from the valley of defeat to the mountain of triumph. You out-played us in every department of the game. My brain tells me to keep the shield, but my heart tells me to give it to Royal, as you truly deserve it.”

He then invited the Royal captain to come on stage to receive the Bradby Shield. His acknowledgement of the win, and the presentation of the Shield was received amid thunderous applause. The Royal rugby team, then rose as one and sung with gusto:

We will honour yet the School we knew,
The best school of all;
We will honour yet the rule we knew,
Till the last bell call.

This time it was sung in the spirit of honouring a wonderful gesture by a true officer and gentleman. Thus, history was made in the Bradby of 1971: the highest score under the old system of scoring; the only single encounter in the Bradby series; and the only time the Shield was presented at an Assembly and not immediately after the game. Now 50-years later, Covid-19 may reduce the game to just one leg; or none-at-all.

The Bradby has made Royalists and Trinitians forge great and lasting friendships in later years. Among my personal good friends from the 1971 Trinity team are Niroshen de Silva and Lalith Ramanayaka who may have different reminiscences of that Bradby shield match, and its shocking result.

In Memoria

Ten players from both teams who played in the Bradby of 1971 are sadly no more. They are for Royal: Sourjah, Gamma, Akbar, Chiang, ELC and Ray. Trinity has lost skipper YS Ping; IU Manniku, GK Yu and MRS Ganapathy.