The current premier rugby league tournament has now entered its halfway mark. Still, it is a competition between the country’s top eight teams as it was in the inaugural year of the league tournament, 66 years ago. In 1950, the Ceylon Rugby Football Union (now called Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union) with E.F.N. Gratiaen as [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

‘A’ Division Rugby League: Still 8 is the Limit


The current premier rugby league tournament has now entered its halfway mark. Still, it is a competition between the country’s top eight teams as it was in the inaugural year of the league tournament, 66 years ago.

In 1950, the Ceylon Rugby Football Union (now called Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union) with E.F.N. Gratiaen as President and E.N. Ewart and P. Le Power as Low-Country and Up-Country Vice-Presidents 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 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”.

Until then, the local inter-club matches were considered as ‘un-official’ whereas in 1949 Havelock S.C. emerged ‘un-official’ rugby champs under the leadership of Ian Labrooy. Although the new format brought island’s top 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 inaugural confrontation in 1923.

According to a subsequent news item appearing in April 1950, it is said: “The decision of the Clifford Cup on a league tournament basis which was announced in these columns as early as March and details of which were given yesterday 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, Dimbulla, 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 ever ‘official’ inter-club rugby league tournament 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 “Times of Ceylon” on its issue dated July 9, 1950 reported the details of the last match of the season, under the caption “Havelocks capture Clifford Cup”. It read: “Beating Dimbula at Radella by 13 points to nil, the Havelocks (led by Ian Labrooy) 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.” As several rugby critics noted, the Havelocks – Dimbulla game “was the grandest match witnessed at Radella”. Importantly, Dimbula (led by Lyn Simpson) maintained an unbeaten record at Radella till that last tournament match.

The final placings of the inaugural league tournament read: 1. Havelock SC (P.7 – W.7 – D.0- L.0 – PF. 100 – PA.06 – Tournament Points 14), 2. CH & FC (P.7 – W.6 -D.0 – L.1 – PF. 123 – PA.11 – Tournament Points 12), 3. CR & FC, 4. Dimbula, 5. Kandy SC, 6. Uva, 7. Dickoya and 8. KV.

A couple of years later, in 1952, the CRFU introduced a new format by dividing the eight participants into two groups: Group ‘A’ had Havelocks, CR, CH and KV whilst Group ‘B’ comprised Dimbula, Dickoya, Kandy and Uva. Another noteworthy change in this grouping pattern was witnessed in 1956 when Dimbula and Dickoya fielded a combined team called Dim/Dicks (DA/DMCC) whilst the KV team was listed to play in the Up-Country league. Although the newly formed DA/DMCC team (led by J.A. Partridge) had the distinction of defeating the defending champs CR & FC 11-3 at Radella, they lost to the same CR team in the all-important Cup Final. The Clifford Cup winning CR & FC team of 1956 had stalwarts such as Malcolm Wright (Capt.), Summa Navaratnam, Kavan Rambukwelle, Ago Paiva, Mahes Rodrigo, P. Mahendran, A. Cader and Norman Gunawardena among others. A couple of years later, in 1958, Dimbula (DACC) and Dickoya (DMCC) were back again in the Up-Country group as separate teams, and the Dickoya team under the captaincy of Barry Cameron went on to confront CR & FC (led by Ashey Cader) in the Cup Final.

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 team had to compete in a knock-out round in which top placed ‘B’ division teams too were allowed to take part. Army SC as a lower division team entered the Cup Final ousting the much fancied Dimbulla (6-0, two penalties put over by Tunku Ousmand and C.S. Fernando) 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. Then the Army team equalised through a penalty put over by C.S. Fernando, and increased the lead with another penalty put over by Tunku Ousmand. 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.

More participants from the bottom segment to join top eight. Who could forget the day that Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCYAF) team (led by Jeff Ratnam) stormed in to the final in 1965 as the table leader of the Lower Division group and 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. 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 also Navy SC’s sensational cup final appearance in 1976 under the captaincy of Ilex Perera. Being promoted to the Upper Division in the previous year, the Navy team of 1976 held the ultimate champs Havelocks to a 12-all draw in the first round before losing narrowly by 23-21 in the return. Meanwhile with the withdrawal of the four plantation clubs and the entry of four new clubs from the lower division from time to time, kept the elite group still at eight. A few more teams in between those years confronted the elite eight occasionally, but their survival at the upper level was limited.

Not only the services teams such as Army, Air Force and Navy and the Police made their entry to the upper level with an outstanding track record behind them as a ‘B’ division team, also the Peterson SC. Being the ‘C’ division champs in the year 1985, Peterson SC were promoted to the ‘B’ division and then to the upper league in 1988. Their debut in the ‘A’ division was against Navy SC which they lost narrowly by 6 points (2 penalties by Bin Galip) to nil. Petersons next outing 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 the CR defence, but the try went unconverted.” Final tally: CR 6 (2 penalties by Shah Doole) – Petersons 4 (a try by Fazal Mohamed). Incidentally, Fazal Mohamed clinched the honour of being the first try scorer for Petersons in ‘A’ division league.

Kurunegala RFC’s first major triumph in the local rugby arena was in 1995 when they emerged champs of the ‘B’ division league competition. In the same year they took part in the age-old All-India tournament held in Bombay and won the title convincingly. In 1996, Kurunegala RFC made their debut in the local ‘A’ division with stalwarts such as Hisham Abdeen, Chandrishan Perera, Nishantha Dias and a few other senior players with ‘A’ division experience donning the red, blue and white jersey for the ‘Rock City” club. The 1996 rugby season also marked the entry of another new club to the ‘A’ division, Old Trinitians SC (OTSC) from Kandy. Incidentally, during the 1996 season, OTSC advanced to the top six whilst Kurunegala RFC was relegated to the Plate championship. But in 1996 the number of participants in the upper group once again dropped to eight: Havelocks, CR, CH, Kandy, Army, Air Force, Police and Navy.

There were two new entrants in the 2001 ‘A’ division league tourney, Kandy Youth SC and Old Zahirians SC. And in the following year Galle RFC was also promoted to the elite league, to increase its number of participants to eleven! Even in 2006 there were eleven teams competing in the ‘A’ division league with Jawatta Lions and Dim/Dicks replacing Navy SC and Kandy Youth SC.

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.

When the ‘official’ league rugby tournament of the SLRFU started in 1950, there were eight clubs competing, four from Low-Country and four from Up-Country. Then during the period of 1965-75 came the withdrawal of four plantation clubs and the entry of another four teams, Army SC, Air Force, Police and the Navy SC. Amazingly, it is still eight in all in the division ‘A’ rugby league.

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.