Posted on April 16th, 2023

Rohan Abeygunawardena

Rugby is without doubt most popular team game among Sri Lankans, after cricket. This oval shaped ball game too was introduced by the British like Cricket and Tea in the mid nineteenth centaury.

  • Origin and History of the Game

Rugby Football is a sport with an abundance of history, tradition and interesting episodes.

To start with, a pupil at Rugby School in England, William Webb Ellis playing in one of the oldest sports in the world, football (or Soccer), defied the rule that the players not allowed to handle the ball (other than the goalkeeper) but only be kicked, decided to pick up the ball and run with it. Other players probably would have chased behind him to take the ball. This created the distinct handling game of Rugby Football” in 1823, according to the sports lore. This incident was cited by the Old Rugbeian Society in an 1897 report on the origins of the game, though there was no direct evidence of the actual event taken place.

Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, established a set of rules and carried out the development of rugby football. These rules were accepted by the teams that played competitive games among them. 

In international arena England was considered as the founder nation of Rugger. But following a disputed try in an international between Scotland and England in 1884, letters were exchanged in which England claimed that they made the laws, and the try should stand. As a result of the dispute, the home unions of Scotland, Ireland and Wales decided to form an international union whose membership would agree on the standard rules of rugby football. The committee members of the three nations met in Manchester on December 5, 1887 and wrote up the first four principles of the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB). They covered Going Forward, Supporting, Maintaining Continuity and Exerting Pressure.

However England Union refused to take part in the founding of the IRFB claiming more representation in the Board as they had more clubs. They also refused to accept the IRFB as the recognised lawmaker of the game. Following negotiations England joined the IRFB, agreeing for six seats while the other unions had two each. That was in 1890, and in the same year IRFB wrote the first international laws of rugby union. England then agreed to reduction of her seats on the IRFB from six to four in 1911. 

The Australian Rugby Union, New Zealand Rugby Football Union and South African Rugby Board joined the IRFB with one seat each in 1948 and in 1958 they were given a second seat. Thereafter the French Rugby Federation (1978), the USA Rugby Football Union (1987), and in 1991 Argentine, Canadian, Italian, Japanese controlling bodies were admitted.  Georgia and Romanian bodies were admitted in 2016. The Rugby Union of Russia became affiliated member of IRFB in 1990, but was suspended in 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The body was renamed the International Rugby Board (IRB) in 1998, and took up its current name of World Rugby in November 2014.

There are two categories of members: i.e. World Rugby members and World Rugby Associate members. As at November 2022, World Rugby has 108 member unions and 21 associate member unions.

Sri Lanka was admitted as World Rugby member in 1988.

  • History of Rugger in the Paradise

1879 was a special year for Rugby Football in British Ceylon. The first rugby club was founded in the country under the name Colombo Football Club (CFB) and the membership was opened only to the British and other Europeans. In the same year on the 30th June, first ever Rugby Match was played in the country at Galle Face Green between CFB and a World XV. The players for the world team was drawn from the British defence services and Europeans attached to Mercantile and Planting sectors. Ceylonese had the opportunity of witnessing the inaugural Up-Country vs Low-Country match in the same year. This match was later to be called the “Capper Cup” match.

CFB was renamed as Colombo Hockey and Football Club (CH&FC) in 1896 amalgamating with Colombo Hockey Club. The club was based at the Colombo Racecourse but it had to move to the current home at Maitland Crescent when the Army acquired the Grandstand and the racecourse in 1962.

British tea planters founded the Dimbula Athletic and Cricket Club (also known as the Radella Club) in 1856 and the Dickoya Maskeliya Cricket Club (DMCC) in 1868. Since DMCC was situated at the foothills of Darrawella Estate it was often called the Darrawella Club.

It was interesting to note that the Tsesarevich, Nicholas II, who later became the Tsar of Russia, visited the Darrawella Club on 14 February 1891 probably after visiting tea estates to get an idea of how his favourite drink was produced.  He was executed with his family on 17 July 1918 following the Bolshevik taking over the power during Russian Revolution.

The Kandy Sports Club was founded in 1874 by a group expatriate coffee planters and Uva Club was founded in 1880 in Badulla town. The planters of Avissawella, Ratnapura and Kegalle established the Kelani Valley Club on the banks of the Seethawaka River at Avissawella in 1884.

Like in cricket international Rugby teams too used to play stopover games in Colombo.  Professional All Blacks (the New Zealand rugby league team) team played the first National” match against All Ceylon” team on 12 September 1907 on their way to England. All Blacks won the game 33-6. They were guaranteed a fee of 50 pounds, which resulted in English Rugby Football Union banning its member countries from playing representative matches in Ceylon.

As a consequence, representatives from Uva, Dimbula, Kelani Valley, Dickoya, Kandy and Colombo clubs met at the Grand Orient Hotel and founded the Ceylon Rugby Football Union” on 10 August 1908. They elected H. B. T. Boucjer (from Uva) as Chairman and resolved to apply to be affiliated with the English Rugby Football Union. Ceylon RFU also resolved that Kandy be selected as the centre of the Union and that J. G. Cruikshank be elected as Honorary Secretary.

The Ceylon RFU became the first Rugby Union in Asia (Wikipedia).

An exhibition rugby match was held between a team from the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment and a combined Ceylon team on 20 August 1910.

 In 1926, Ceylon RFU sent a team (composed entirely of Europeans) to compete in the All India Rugby tournament held in Madras (originally known as the Madras Presidency Rugby tournament). It was also the maiden overseas tour by a rugby team from Sri Lanka. The All Ceylon team tied in 1928 at the same championship. Thereafter in 1929, under the captaincy of J. D. Farquharson, Ceylon won it outright defeating Madras by 11 points to 8. Again in 1932 Ceylon won the cup for the second time defeating Calcutta.

Ceylon RFU fielded two teams at the 1938 All India tournament one was an all-European team and the other all Ceylonese.  The Ceylonese team made history, defeating a combined Planters team by 16 points to nil in their first match. This encouraged Ceylonese to take up Rugby seriously.

Havelock Sports Club founded in 1915 took Rugby as their main sporting activity. The club is generally known as “The Havies.” In 1922 Ceylonese Rugby & Football Club, also known as CR & FC” or Red Shirts Guys” was founded by Colonel E. H. Joseph as the first rugby-only sporting organisation in the country. These two Colombo based clubs had their club houses and grounds at Havelock Town and at Longdon Place, respectively.

Lady Elizabeth Clifford, the wife of then acting Governor of Ceylon initiated a rugby football fixture, Colombo versus Up Country. She wanted the match to be played on her birthday, 26 August 1911. However due to some difficulties the game was played on 2 September 1911, between teams representing the United Services and All Ceylon. It was named Clifford Cup and considered as the oldest rugby tournament in Asia. The tournament was suspended due to outbreak of World War I. 

Sir Hugh Clifford returned to Ceylon as the Governor of Ceylonin 1925. Lady Clifford, was keen to revive the Clifford Cup tournament and donated another trophy for the competition in 1926. 

This time it became a quadrangular tournament among four teams, mainly Low Country, Up Country, Ceylonese, and United Services. The Ceylonese team was CR & FC and they lost their first match against the United Services team, 3-6. The cup was eventually won by Low Country, 14-3, against United Services. The following year CR & FC defeated United Services, 16-8, before losing to the, Up Country, 11-8.

After disrupted during the Second World War it was recommenced in 1950 as a tournament among rugby clubs.

Ceylon RFU ceased participating in the All India Rugby tournament by late 1960s. But In 1968 four clubs from Ceylon, i.e. Havelock SC, Police SC, CH & FC and CR & FC were invited to participate in the All India Tournament. Four Indian teams were Calcutta, Madras, Armenians and Maharashtra Police. CR&FC and Havelock SC won all the matches. The finals was a C.R Havies affair.  The eventual winners were CR, defeating Havies by 8 points to 6.

Horseracing that was very popular weekend event in Colombo was discouraged by the government in mid-fifties as it was seen as an elite colonial sport. The crowds then moved to rugby. For the fashion conscious ladies it was an opportunity to showcase their fashion sense and style. The main tournament during this period was the Clifford Cup.”

When many of the British planters left Ceylon after independence upcountry clubs that dominated the game became weaker and Colombo clubs fielded stronger teams from mid-fifties. The game between CR&FC and Havelock popularly called CR-Havies became a crowd puller and highly anticipated event for many rugger fans. From 1950 to 1991 CR & FC had won the Clifford Cup 13 times and Havies had won 13 times. Out of rest of the years, Police – 8, CH &FC – 6, and Army – 2 have won the cup.

Since 1992 Kandy Sports Club (KSC) had been dominating the club rugby. It took 42 years for the Kandy club to win a trophy. It has now become an invincible force in the rugby field thereby destroying the dominance of the Colombo based clubs. It is said that late Dr. Sarath Kapuwatte and his friend former Minister Malik Samarawicrama played important roles in shaping KSC’s history by attracting talented players and coaches. From 1992 to 2018 the club has won the cup 21 times.

As a result of growing popularity of rugby in Ceylon, Kandy Lake Club (KLC) generally concentrating in entertainment industry fielded a team in 1963. They initially played in the B” division and won all their matches except the game against NCC which was a draw in 1966.

 Within few year KLC attracted renowned players from outside Kandy and the team was promoted to A” division in 1967. Their first game was against Havies, the defending champions and it ended in a 3-all draw. Next game too was a 3-all draw against the star studded CH&FC, which was packed with Englishmen. KLC was doing pretty well but accused of playing professional players and the authorities banned them. At that time players were expected to take part in games, for the love of the sport they have chosen, not for financial benefit.

Thereafter owners of the lake club formed a new team, Kandy Rugby and Football Club and played up to 1973 when this club was amalgamated with Kandy Sports Club at the request of one time CRFU president Dr. K.B. Sangakkara.

When the country became a republic in 1972 May, the name of the controlling body was changed to Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union (SLRFU). The union was renamed as Sri Lanka Rugby,” following the changes that took place in other major rugby sporting bodies across the world.

  • The history of schools rugby in Srilanka

Edmund Louise Blaze, a great educationist and the founder of Kingswood College introduced Rugger to his pupils in 1893. His old school Trinity College started the game in 1906.

The first school match was played between the two Kandy schools, Kingswood College and Trinity College in 1906. It was really a match between Kingswood and Trinity past and present pupils which ended in a tied game. Two years later, the two schools played another game (ref: Ameer Abdeen FB). However, following the deaths of two players Kingswood gave up playing Rugger from 1920 and restarted only in 1969.

Royal College embraced the game in 1916 and Trinity played Royal for the first time in 1920. In 1945, Mr. E. L. Bradby, the Principal of Royal College,[2] extended an offer to Mr. C. E. Simithraaratchy, the Principal of Trinity College,[3] proposing the donation of a coveted Shield. Mr Simithraaratchy graciously accepted this proposal. The Shield was to be contested annually, with the victor being the college that achieved the highest total score over the two-leg series, one leg played in Colombo and the other in Kandy, as initiated in 1943. A wooden disk of exquisite design, it is embellished with intricate, traditional Kandyan silverwork, serving as a treasured symbol of victory and an enduring testament to the magnificence of this storied encounter. This annual event has persevered through the years, with the exception of the year 1971, where only the first leg was played due to the 1971 JVP insurrection (Wikipedia).

Today though there are not much crowds to watch club matches, Bradby Shield Rugby Encounters attract huge crowds.  In fact it is said that Kandy come to life only on two occasions in the year. The first is the Esala perahera the other is Kandy leg of Bradby encounter.

Isipathana College Colombo takes a special place in school rugby. Randy Keller who was an ardent spectator at all the matches that his father played for Havelock SC organised a team with his school friends and started playing friendly games at under 17 level in the year 1960. Their first senior team coached by the late Y.C. Chang (YCC) and led by Bryan Ingram won the first major game against St Anthony’s College Katugastota in 1963. Isipathana was officially affiliated to the SLRFU’s schools in1965. Mike Davis, an Englishman who represented CH&FC generally considered as a daring centre in mid-sixties, coached Pathans” for a short time at the request of YCC. Since then they continued to improve and became a dominant force in school rugby with their fast and attacking style of play. Pathans have won many tournaments over the years, including schools league title on 17 occasions.

Rugby is usually played at a semi-professional level or for recreation purposes in Sri Lanka. Since this has been the second most popular sport in the country SLR, the governing body, should attempt to elevate this game to a professional level.

When I was about to complete this article the news broke out that the Minister of Sports Roshan Ranasinghe has dissolved Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) as per the provisions in the section 32 & 33 of Sports Act No. 25 of 1973. A standing committee is set to be appointed on April 12 at the Sports Ministry premises (Daily Mirror 11th April 2023).

Hopefully, the relevant authorities will take the necessary steps to address the problems within SLR and help improve the game for the benefit of rugby loving fraternity.

Rohan Abeygunawardena

Writer can be reached at

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.



Copyright © 2023 All Rights Reserved. Powered by Wordpress