“THE SPIRIT OF RUGBY ON AND OFF THE FIELD” -By Sanjeeva Abeygoonewardena


It is nearly twenty years since I last made a speech in this same hall, addressing an ardent rugby family at St. Peters College. I am quite happy to note there are three or more witnesses I can recall from then and now.

When Trinesh Fernando called and requested me to make a speech at this occasion, my thoughts went back my life long journey for the past 19 years. I had made many notes of different theories of this sport that I have religiously come to believe in.


The topic I have decided to share this evening is on 3 values I consider close to my conviction. All of which I have experienced on accord of my journey in a real world after leaving school.


When I reflect back twenty years from now, I picture myself just as you are. To be a member of a 1st XV team of the most sought after Catholic schools of Sri Lanka. Leave aside your victory record or achievements; there remains a sense of self satisfaction and pride to be a member of the 1st XV squad.


In the present context the only one thing we did not have was a dinner hosted before the St. Josephs game. We were starved off some other benefits and privileges compared to the present era.


We had the privilege of getting a free jersey, if lucky a pair of boots, the daily kettle of milk and depending on the opponents a chocolate bar before a game.Today, school rugby has evolved. Evolved to such a degree, that it is very much commercialized, much too akin it’s fiercely competitive which is good for the game of rugby and for the betterment of Sri Lankan rugby.


Regardless the years gone by, something’s never change over time.


The game still revolves around PASSION, COMMITMENT, DEVOTION, and more importantly TEAM WORK which to date remains paramount qualities that differentiate the ordinary team and the extraordinary outfit.


Commitment comes in many forms. I like to keep it simple and call it “NEVER GIVE UP – This is the life learning of rugby.


I am here today; to speak about what makes us better rugby players. Because at the end of the day, what still stands between 20 years and now, is how you control your mind, your thoughts and the motivation you have to make that meaningful difference ON and OFF the field.


From the visitor’s camp, I see two individuals whom I have utmost RESPECT for. They are non-other than the Rector, Fr. Travis Gabriel and your coach, Leonard De Zilva.


What does this tell the Peterite camp? St. Josephs is heading in the right direction in regaining lost prestige by following St. Peters.


20 years ago, they were thorough bread Peterites, whereas today they are a mix of both. I like to consider our great institutions as ONE where both schools inculcate and advocate similar values in to our DNA.


Let me tell you briefly the impression they had on me.


Fr. Travis. He was my mentor in school. One time the most powerful best friend I had. I couldn’t ask for anyone better. At a given free period, we would always talk about our next game, exchange thoughts and ideas how we stay on top.


Then you have another Peterite, Leonard De Zilva. He was my Captain in 1993. He is a man of his word. He leads by example and will always stay true to his word and commitment he sets. He usually does not mince his words, in other words you cannot deal with him other than being candid and straight forward. His track record is impeccable and exceptional. He captained the U13, U15, U17, U19, Havelocks Sports Club and the Sri Lanka 7’s team. These achievements speak truly of his leadership style in leading all forms of the game.


“SPC and SJC have maintained fine religious traditions and we are the most sought after Catholic Schools in the island. Whilst we maintain tradition and discipline, both colleges unlike the rest in the world, is not bent on WINNING at any cost, but more keen in maintaining high standard of gamesmanship at all times. This is what really matters to the great scorer – how the game was played.We embrace values the moment we enter a college life. A life that’s rich in culture, great in tradition and spirited in values. Of these catholic values, I would like to touch upon three significant values that had a profound impact on my life, You need to take personal responsibility in harnessing your character beyond the field. The real grass & mud still awaits you when you leave college.


Rugby prepares you to be a man to face challenges in real life – on a lighter note, a Rowdy’s sport played by gentlemen.


1. Lead by example – Practice what you say, say what you mean. At the outset we had a common goal in 1995. No matter what, we stay focused on the game. We wanted to display sportsmanship and strictly limit our aggression towards the game and not at individuals.


We were hell bent on not reflecting back with any regret after a game due to errors made by the referee. We considered excuses to be a cover up for our poor performance. All we wanted was to play fast, open and CLEAN rugby.


This was our record on conduct, 15 games played, 38 tries scored. Not a single penalty for fouls – no late tackles or block tackles – no fights during or after any game – and not a single instance of a player arguing with the referee or throwing a temper tantrum.


How you react to situations off the field reflects your character. Leading by example is a virtue that many do not practice but preach.


Jesus is a fine example. In Modern terms I find inspiration in POPE Francis who leads by example.


2. Humility – When you take to Rugby, it becomes an obsession that it is almost like you are devotedly married to the sport. The sport is so powerful that it capable of transcending differences and politics.


Have you ever wondered why the New Zealand – All Blacks team continue gain more popular over time? Is it the “Haka” or their winning record? In the last 100 years of the game, of 1,206 games the NZAB maintains a victory ratio of over 75.21% which speaks volumes of their devotion to the game. In NZ it’s an obsession to be a rugby fan. That’s the next best thing to their religion. Yet, they are the most humble team that takes to the field.


Once when playing against a very prominent rugby playing school where we went in as underdogs and half way through the game we were trailing by 40 points to nil. At one time soon after lemons, while engaging into a scrum, I overheard two members of the opposition pack singing a famous “Baila” song while we were grinding our teeth to get some points on the board. How do you feel if you were on the receiving end?


No matter what, you should certainly not ridicule your opponents how weak they are.




3. FAIRPLAY – the true spirit of rugby also means I am Tamil, Muslim, Burger and Sinhalese. I am Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, a follower of Islam. Above all I am educated in a catholic institution that instills and values diversity to respect all races without comparing creed or cast.


We grew up in an era where there was economic turmoil and political unrest, where Peace was just a DREAM. It was an era of heightened security due to an on-going ethnic conflict. In our teams no one ever cared to know which ethnicity OUR team mates were. We all hung out together, grew up together. During a calendar year, all we were interested in was where do we go for Avurudhu.


Where is the next Biriyani feast and who was hosting us for Christmas. Be it off season, on season, we just had telepathy to organize our free meals.


At the 1995 JOE-PETE Encounter I had a first year player who conveniently missed out a clean shave as it was the curtain closer of the Milo league. He also seized the opportunity to take the match lightly as we were riding high as a team, compared to the Joes. He had to be on the bench for two reasons, one, for not having a clean shave before the big match, two, for taking our opponents lightly, which denotes complacency.


To date, this player reminds me how he was made to be on the bench at his first Joe-Pete appearance.


I recall my first day at rugby practice as a 12 year old. On my way home accompanied by my mother, I said to her this is tough, I will choose another sport. Not rugby. My mother was happy to hear those words coming from me. However, my promise did not last over 48 hours as I chose NOT TO GIVE UP. I thought I should MAN UP!


Every PLAYER, every TEAM has their own share of highs and lows, When everything is UPBEAT, then all is fine, but when you face DEFEAT, when you are DOWN & OUT, remember this poem by Nancy Sims, Winners take chances.Like everyone else, they fear failing, But they refuse to let fear control them.


Winners don’t give up. When life gets rough, they hang in Until the going gets better. Winners are flexible. They realize there is more than one way and are willing to try others.


Winners fall, but they don’t stay down. They stubbornly refuse to let a fall Keep them from climbing.


Winners are people like you. They make this world a better place to be……As my speech draws an end I recall a virtue that stood between us through thick and thin which is the power of prayer.


My then coach, a former Trinity Lion & a Sri Lanka coach, Ajith Abeyratne had this to say about our team of 1995 to which I pay tribute today to both schools,“The champion side of 95 always huddled together and said a prayer before going on to the field. I once overheard the last line, “Father help us to enjoy this game – to which I say Amen. Let it be so forever”


No matter the storm, when you are with GOD, there is a rainbow waiting.


May the good traditions long live at St. Peters and St. Josephs and may it be YOU, who makes that profound difference off the field.