|Saturday, 21 August 2004|
The poetry that was 'The Sahayam Special'
By M. V. Muhsin
We called them "Sahayam Specials". In the storied history of Bradby Shield encounters, the 1960's was illumined by the dash and dazzle that was brought to Sri Lanka rugby by Mohan Sahayam, the Chief Guest at today's return game in Kandy.
Forty years to this encounter, the two teams were lined up for formal introductions: The Kandy crowd's self-appointed Trinity Mascot "Cortal" speeds into centre field and in one sweeping movement pays obeisance to Sahayam and his team by touching their feet. Such veneration was, perhaps, justified at that time for the charm that had stoked the fascination of Sri Lanka rugby fans.
Here's a Sahayam Special: dateline July 1963, Bogambara. Given his headline catching performance during the season, expectations are high that Sahayam will work his magic.
Early in the game the tactical Trinity scrum half M.T.M. Zaruk works the blind side off a scrum to score. The Royal team, coached by Mahes Rodrigo, has a plan to counter what's predictable.
Every time Zaruk slings his passes flawlessly to Sahayam, Royal flanker Keith Paul is there with quick breaks and fast tackling. Sahayam is a "marked man" under pressure!
The Royal pack are terriers: now it's forward Upendra Wickremsinghe acting in consort with Rex Perera, or Lakshman Hettiaaratchi, Jayakumar, Lucky Chickera, Lucky Dissanayake or Llyod Perera or Nissanka Wadugodapitiya, all on the war path.
Trinity forwards in Sam Canagasabai, Manik de Silva, George Carson, Gavin Rodie, Sarath Illangantileke supported by Nicko Perera, David Ondaatjie, and H.J. Fernando give stiff resistance.
Royal's scrum half Rohan de Zoysa targets the elusive Zaruk. And then there is Keith Paul -- Sahayam's nemesis. With quick breaks and fast tackling Keith keeps Sahayam in a pressure cooker. Sahayam hurries his kicks and passes to avoid the crash tackles.
Trinity backs, under advice from that super coach Percy Madugalle, try every ploy to open out the game in contrast to Royal's defensive kick-ahead tactics.
Much as Trinity tries to work the line from Sahayam to the Piyasena brothers Gamini and Ananda to wingers Rodney Geddes or Justin Labrooy, the Royal forwards are there to tackle like a pack of menacing tigers.
Trinity backs make every effort to open out the game but the close tackling Royal outsides seem invincible as M.C. J. Fernando and Hemaka Amarasuriya have their counterparts fully covered.
At half time Trinity leads 3-0 and soon thereafter Royal equalises through a penalty conversion by Rex Perera. The Kandy crowd is dispirited and deflated by the cramped style of their Star Sahayam.
And then it happens. Trinity Full Back Gotabhaya Dissanayake demonstrates excellent positional play, collects the ball off a Royal kick-ahead and unpredictably sprints 30 yards and invades Royal territory. Off an ensuing line out, Zaruk slings out a long pass to Sahayam.
Aladdin's lamp is rubbed and then the "magic" unfolds: Sahayam collects the ball, pretends to toss it in the air, then fakes a pass, appears to recapture it. Time's winged chariot seems to be at his back as he changes direction and in a compelling move makes the lightening field look so plodgy. It is so fast and flashy as he darts his way through 35 yards. The players seem frozen.
It is so fast and slick that the crowd cheers suddenly choke off. It is so fast and elegant that the sound of marvel, for a moment, dies in their throats. And then the reality dawns : that the instantly classic signature of the "Sahyam Special" has been delivered.
The crowd bursts into a deafening roar. And to capture the immortality of this Sahayam Special the irrepressible Cortal darts into the field, and once again, touches and then kisses the feet of his hero for having answered his prayers.
Dateline July 1964: The Bradby Series was billed as a Keith Paul vs Mohan Sahayam series, given how talented and evenly balanced these two captains were. The first leg in Colombo set the tone for Royal when they smudged Trinity's unbeaten record that season with a 3-0 win through a dashing 40 yard try by Brian Lieversz.
It was a forwards' game with the talents of Trinity's George Carson, Andere Jayasinghe and Sam Canagasabai, Malin Goonethileke, Gavin Rodie, Dhathu Senanayake and Eardley Wadugodapitiya being more than matched by the Royalists.
Going into the return game expectations were high for a closely fought battle with hopes that the Aladdin's Lamp will do the trick for Trinity. And so it seemed. Within the first five minutes : Sahayam collects from Zaruk, crisp and efficient.
Finds a gap and appears to dart into it. He checks his step and runs away from the gap, appears to pass behind him, and then reverses direction. He cuts against the grain and leaves the Royalists and even the Trinitians confused. He then sweeps through in a flash. A slam dunk of a Special!
The stage was set for more. But Trinity forwards are over-anxious to capatalise on the initial gain. They lose possession several times and concede penalties. And then something counter-intuitive and remarkable happens.
Lakdasa Dissanayake, the Royal lock forward begins a phenomenal feat of drop goal kicking from various parts of the field, several in the run of play. Royal win the match decisively. It almost seemed as if the Royalists beat Trinity to the Aladdin's Lamp.
Several years later a group of Trinitians were reminiscing on this reversal over a few drinks. A yarn or two were spun. The story went as follows: Darley Ingelton the referee was out to catch any infringement by the hooker.
The Trinity pack leader, the late George Carson, gave strict instructions to the Trinity hooker not to hook the ball even on Trinity throws. But Darley continued to penalise the Trinity hooker.
Gotabaya Dissnayake came out with the theory, swearing that it was true, that the Royal hooker had a Trinity stocking on his left leg and then the Royal stocking over it. And every time Trinity put the ball in, the Royal hooker dropped his Royal stocking and waved his left leg, prompting Darley to "blow" the Trinity hooker.
I can almost hear the chuckle of Gotabaya from the Pearly Gates as this figment of his imagination is recounted! (He sadly passed away a few months ago.)
And that brings me to another anecdote that involves a highly spirited, or should I say spirited highly, bunch of Trinitians. Weeks prior to the Bradby encounter, Trinity were playing St. Thomas' in Mt. Lavinia. Late into the night before the match, a group of Trinitians scoot out of the St. Thomas' dormitory.
They head to the Skyline Hotel. The chief organisers of this escapade were members of the cheering squad Nahil Wijesuriya, Mark Sunderalingam, and Sri Sagadevan.
The Trinity players joining in were Sam Canagasabai, Malin Goonethileke, Eardley Wadugodapitiya and Gota Dissanayake.
While the youngsters were busy fortifying themselves with pre-match liquid protection, a Trinity Staffer walks into the Sykline and demands an explanation. Malin Goonethileke with the confidence of a burglar caught in the act responds: "Gota had a bad attack of Asthma. We have come to buy him some Brandy."
The staffer lets the youngsters go but complains to the Captain Mohan Sahayam, who with his characteristic chuckle and twinkle in the eye says that the youngsters should be complimented for their civic consciousness and social service!
Sahayam went on to represent the CR&FC and the Sri Lanka national team. His signature specials were a crowd puller. In a CR&FC encounter against Dickoya, as many as three " Sahayam Specials" were delivered prompting rugby correspondent Austin Daniel to describe it as the "Peter Pan touch"!
The style was the man in Sahayam. Known for his bubbling sense of humour, of warmth and sportsmanship, his rugby embodied a poetry of play that touched the hearts of a whole generation of Rugby fans.
Rarely has someone evoked a sense of grace and ,lan and commanded a sense of majesty in the game as Sahayam did through his "Specials". There are times in history when the sport give us genuine skill and beauty.
In our time, Mohan Sahayam was such a creation.
Produced by Lake House