Change the Blow

by Vihanga

Rugby is a fast-expanding district boudry breaker. Nice to see Royal holding on, but they have to pay a heavy price for all that. Cool that Thora is getting their game a lift — and, Ronnie Ibrahim is from Kandy and so is Ransilu Jayathilake. Trinity has had a sizzling season on the off, but their consistency has not been all that roaring. Of course, Vidyartha has found it quite tough to field a decent XV.

The point is that the snobbery of the elite rugby circles are gradually getting a snub — with more and more “non-elite” elements wearing school ties that contrast with the traditional colours coming into the fray. Rugby, today, has touched down and is doing well as far off as Embilipitiya in the Sabaragamu Province. As for its pan-national spread: there I won’t go as far as to say that rugby has an “all island” reach. But, surely the game has exploded and is drawing talent from all around.

Now, my concern in this piece has nothing to do with the spread of rugby; but, is an issue to do with democratization of the game played on the field: to do with players, refrees and their mode of communication. You see — in our snobbish context of playing rugby, the referee does the “man handling” on the field in English. Now, this is all cool, cos school rugby is the platform for the   international game and let’s get them started while young. But, I find that line of thought quite hard to tooth.

In a fast-spreading game, today’s rugby field hosts a greater majority of players who do not speak English; leave alone players who are unable to function 1-1 in the same language. I find that the iinsistence on English to be the language “on field” is very elitist and excluding of the “non-English speaking” players. Bite the fact — the majority of the players come from Sinhala or Tamil speaking backgrounds. They represent social strata and schools that function in those languages. Surely, the spread of English in Sri Lanka, owing to historical-social reasons, being largely a class-bound smear, the greater number of players get sidelined on the field in their communication with / from the ref.

Let me site an example. Several years ago, Sean Wanigasekara was captaining Trinity. In their game against Royal that year, telecasted live on Sirasa, Sean went upto the ref and was seen voicing his concerns over the rough handling of his team by his opposite numbers. Now, this Sean Wanigasekara could do owing to his mastery and confidence in wagging the English tongue. But, what about the average ruggerite who may not speak English?

The rockers of modern day rugby don't do it in English

My roots are at Kingswood, Kandy. For a fact I know that Kingswood rugby players are not known for their English proficiency. The same, I am told, is the case with many teams that have a “cross-class” representation. Now, teams like Kingswood and Isipatana have been in the forefront of Lankan schools’ rugby for the past decade or so. Forget about the “table leaders” — what about teams such as Vidyartha, Dharmaraja, Wesley, Prince of Wales etc who are expected to contend with the traditional elite and take orders from the ref in a language they aren’t too savvy with!

Then, to make matters worse, some of our referees, too, have linguistic issues, while blowing that whistle in English. I remember watching a game on TV where ref Pradeep Fernando was seen giving a warning to a player. The commentator on air observed that the warning and the reason — the way it was articulated — would only be known to Pradeep Fernando himself.

No, I candidly feel that the Lankan school circuit should switch on to Sinhala. Or at least, these players should be given the chance to voice themselves in Sinhala while on the field. The “English only” policy is meant to discourage the players from talking back or in entering a clearer dialogue on the ground. By all means, the French rugby circuit doesn’t use English but French. So, I am sure it is not a matter of etiquette that is keeping us hanging on to “English blowing”. Moreover, I suspect, it’s the need to preserve rugby’s elitism — that “old school tie” spirit and the “golden rugby days'” tottem — that we hang on to a language that 3/4 a team can’t understand as the medium of “play”.

Talented back division player Roshan Weeraratne ready to take a kick

Trust me, Kingswood and Pathana are performing at the level they are doing without ever understanding the Shakespeare in the referee’s command. Have you not seen the “all knowing” wag of the head and the nod of the understanding spirit everytime a ref gives a pep talk to these players? I think the medium of command should switch; or, else, there should be a compromise so that players can feel assured and comfortable.


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