I knew before coming to Sri Lanka on holidays that cricket was in season, but I never guessed that my sporting nirvana would be realised in South Asia: cricket and rugby seasons running concurrently. And even more fortuitously I happened to be in Kandy, in central Sri Lanka, when a Division 1 rugby game pitched third-placed Kandy against second-placed Navy.
The game provided a lovely little slice of life into a country about which I know very little. To begin with, I hadn’t realised just how well supported rugby is. Four years ago even the New York Times was moved to write about the game's place in Sri Lanka. But the game has recently become food for Sri Lankan tabloids courtesy of claims about political nepotism, money laundering and even murder. It therefore should have come as no surprise to me that, when I spoke to the tuktuk drivers in the vain hope that someone would know where the rugby was being played in Kandy that afternoon, they all immediately knew what I was talking about. My driver proudly told me that his three sons in Colombo all played rugby (as the price had been already agreed, I am satisfied that his claim was genuine).
At the packed ground, I admired the special way in which Kandy catered for the visiting team’s fans. In an eight-team top division when every team bar Kandy is from Colombo, you need every bit of help you can get, which is why the Navy club’s supporters were all sequestered in a rather small area next to one of the cornerposts, while the Kandy fans bellowed from the rest of the ground. Still, with drums beating and people dancing, the Navy supporters tried to make their presence felt. And to be fair, the Sri Lankan Chief of Navy had traveled to Kandy for the game, so there was some pretty high-powered support for the visitors.
There was even an Australian touch to the game, as the young, lanky referee who adjudicated was apparently doing so courtesy of an arrangement between the West Australian and Sri Lankan Rugby Football Unions. He did well and I almost felt bad telling the Sri Lankan fans around us, who asked whether he was our son or brother, that in fact we were there just to watch the game, not the referee. And I bet the games he referees in Perth never require five security guards to escort him off the field.
I must say that the crowd around us (we splurged on the $5 grandstand tickets) were boisterous, but also knowledgeable and fair. It was also interesting to hear the way in which the crowd inserted English phrases at random spots during the game. While they were yelling in Sinhalese throughout they would occasionally yell out in English ‘tap and run’ (when a penalty was given) or, as Kandy was on a roll then ‘one (try) for the road’ and ‘get the half century’. Fortunately for the crowd, the last Kandy conversion bounced in off the upright. Final score: Kandy 50 – Navy 22.