Nearly two weeks ago on Sunday July 3, the Nittawela Rugby Stadium erupted not with cheers but with gunfire and mayhem as rugby supporters clashed in one of the sports worst incidents of violence.
The Kandy Air force game screeched to a halt as several busloads of allegedly air force personnel in blue trousers, shirts and air force caps according to eye witnesses, and some others in civvies arrived at the grounds half way through the match, mingled with the Kandy spectators and let loose a brand of hooliganism and chaos not seen before in the rich tradition of the game.
Player with T56
Kandy Sports Club beat Air Force Sports club by 18-11 in the Caltex A Division league rugby game but not before the game was suspended for 20 minutes and then resumed under tight security just before half time. The fighting began when Kandy SC were leading 13-3. The brawl turned particularly dangerous when an air force player wearing jersey 14 -Pubudu Kodagoda grabbed a T56 weapon from one of the personnel and allegedly fired into the air several times damaging the Kandy SC broadcast booth.
Investigations have revealed that the entire imbroglio and the set up was perhaps the result of a fight for star players between clubs and one of those star players now in the centre of the controversy is bright young winger Nuwan Hettiarachchi.
Bright young star
The 22-year-old Hettiarachchi playing for his country had an excellent game in the recently concluded HSBC Asia Five Nations Top Five Competition which Japan won for the fourth consecutive year. Wing-three-quarter Hettiarachchi crossed over to Kandy Sports Club from Navy Sports Club before the commencement of this year’s club season on the basis that his contract has expired.
In an interview with a local daily few weeks ago, Hettiarachchi who hails from the hills had said that he will ‘return home’ to Kandy and had already signed the contract papers with the Hill Capital club.
In response to the news article Navy SC had said that Hettiarachchi was still a member of its Voluntary Unit to which Nuwan had replied that his contract had already expired by May 23, 2011. Top level rugby sources told Lanka Independent Hettiarachchi had already sent a letter of resignation on May 23, and would be sending one again presently in the light of the present controversy.
Hettiarachchi was in fact issued a 14-day restraining order by the Colombo District Court effective June 17 preventing him from representing Kandy Sports Club. Indeed there was some doubt if the July 3 match would go ahead as planned as the Kandy Sports Club had threatened to pull out of the tournament and play only friendly matches instead due to the Hettiarachchi issue.
The local media quoted the Chairman Rugby of Kandy Sports Club – Lasantha Wijesuriya as stating that the issue would be satisfactorily resolved and the club took a decision to continue to play in the tournament and thus the July 3 game went ahead as scheduled.
However some allege that powerful elements within the Navy sports club may have instigated the scenes of chaos that took place Sunday July 3, while others say the violence was sparked off by Kandy supporters. The Navy team is captained by Yoshita Rajapakse, second son of President Mahinda Rajapakse.
Be that as it may the Kandy Sports Club administration quickly demanded immediate and appropriate action against the Air Force rugby player for discharging a firearm, more than once, on the field, during the said game. Local media reported that Dr Sarath Kapuwatte the Club President of the Kandy SC, in a strongly worded official communiqué requested Roshan Goonetilleke, the President of the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union (SLRFU) and former Air force commander to take prompt action against the player concerned. Lanka Independent learns that Kandy SC also lodged a complaint with the Katugastota Police in relation to this incident and identified the Air Force player concerned as one Pubudu Kodagoda.
PHOTO CAPTION: Navy rugby line up with captain Yoshita Rajapakse (centre)
Meanwhile Sri Lanka Navy has come under heavy criticism for arresting Nuwan Hettiaratchchi of Kandy Sports Club (KSC) as a navy deserter and keeping him in solitary confinement.
Hettiaratchchi, who is said to have signed a contract with the Navy Sports Club (NSC), was arrested by the Navy on June19 from his residence in Dangolla Kandy and was released on July 10 following a pardon by President Rajapakse. Five days before his arrest he has played against CH and FC while he was to play against the Army Sports Club the day he was arrested.
In the running as Most Popular Player
Funnily enough the Sunday Observer a government newspaper cited Three national players, Kandy SC’s fly – half Fazil Marija and full back Nuwan Hettiarachchi and CR&FC captain Dushan Lewke as the front runners in its Most Popular Rugby Player/ Team Contest 2011. On June 19 the very day Hettiarachchi was ‘arrested’ from his home in Kandy the newspaper reported it had recieved votes in the first week’s count of the Sunday Observer/ Caltex Most Popular Rugger Player and Most Popular Rugger Team competition.
“Fazil Marija and Dushan Lewke were also the sectional winners of the contest which have helped them immensely in their career. Nuwan Hettiarachchi is a player who has made a big impact in the local rugby arena excelling in the on going Caltex ‘A’ Division League tourney and in the recently concluded Asian Five Nation Tournament,” the paper said.
Questions have now been raised as to why the Navy arrested a contracted player for disobeying the contract terms and conditions without taking legal action against him.
“This is the finest example as to how our forces have taken the law unto their hands. As we all know, there was a tremendous pressure for Hettiaratchchi who has brought much fame and honour to the game in general and to the Kandy Sports Club (KSC) in particular to play for the NSC from one of the powerful navy officers.
“There is no doubt that the arrest was made on his instructions. This was the first time we have ever heard of taking a sportsman into custody for violating contract terms and condition. Had he been a naval employee who has held office in Sri Lanka Navy there is no fault in arresting him for deserting the forces. But in this instance, Hettiaratchchi has never worked for Sri Lanka Navy but only a contracted player to NSC,” a high ranking Naval Officer on the condition of anonymity told the Lanka Independent.
Violation of Fundamental Rights
According to him, arresting Hettiaratchchi for violating contract terms and conditions is violation of his (Hettiaratchchi’s) fundamental rights.
“If Hettiaratchchi disobeyed the contract then disciplinary action would have been taken against him but arresting a contracted player is something very unusual,” he added. Meanwhile the clash that erupted between the Kandy and Air Force supporters on July 4 has raised concern among the rugby fans.
“Clashes between the rival camps in any sport is common these days. However the clash between the Kandy Air Force spectators turned to an ugly twist when Air Force player Kodagoda opened fire to the air in the playing field to scare away the Kandy spectators. Do we really need to come to enjoy a game of rugger to witness the power of forces personnel?” Kamal Siriwardena who has gone to witness the match all the way from Colombo queried.
According to Siriwardena, the Nittawella grounds was packed to capacity when a small argument turned to a big clash resulting in Kodagoda firing to the air to scare the angry spectators.
“More than 3,000 air force personnel in uniform and civvies thronged the Nittawella grounds, one source on the condition of anonymity said. According to the eye witnesses more than 2000 were in uniforms and the rest were in civvies. The airmen who were in civvies had taken seat among the Kandy spectators. During the height of the match where the Kandy players were in good command of the play all this erupted,” the sources alleged.
According to the source, it was the airmen that were responsible for the violence that turned ugly when Kodagoda grabbed a firearm from one of the navy personnel who was escorting the players and fired into the air. The sources said Kandy spectators were manhandled by the airmen and who were also badly assaulted by the air force personnel in civvies.
“The play had to stop for 20 minutes. If this trend continues it would be bad for the game of rugger. Why cannot the players of the other clubs receive victory and defeat alike in good spirit?” he added.
Kandy Sports Club have won the tournament continuously from 1992. They have won the 16 times out of 19 occasions and have been
IMAGE REPRINTED FROM THE SUNDAY OBSERVER internet edition of June 19, 2011
triple champions ten times.
“It was the commitment and discipline of our players that has brought them success. The backing they have received from their officials and the support from their fans has really made them a formidable force in local rugby today,” he said.
The source further claimed that last year’s final between Kandy and Air Force was also plagued with violence though not nearly as bad as this time.
Last year, “the air force wanted to shift the match from Nittawella to Bogambara. So the final was played at the Bogambara stadium. It was sad to say that on this particular day too the airmen instigated violence which is not good for the sprit of any sports in the country. Unless this trend is stopped by the relevant authorities the spectators would certainly avoid the matches in future,” he warned.
Kandy SC at fault
Meanwhile Air Force Spokesperson Group Captain Andrew Wijesooriya told the Lanka Independent that Katugastota police have initiated an investigation based on the complaint lodged by the KSC. “An investigation is being carried out by the Katugastota police. Hence I’m unable to speak to the media. However I can brief you about the incident,” he said.
Group Captain Wijesooriya also assured this website that the Air Force has already given its fullest support to the Katugastota police to carry out the investigations. According to Wijesooriya, it was the Kandy spectators that first annoyed the airmen by throwing stones and half broken bottles to the playing area when there was a big tussle among two players in the middle.
“The KSC spectators threw stones and half broken bottles towards our players. This was clearly visible in one of the video clips that was aired by a private TV channel,” Wijesooriya alleged. Wijesooriya also refuted allegations leveled against Kodagoda for opening fire.
“This is all to bring the Air Force Sports Club (AFSC) into disrepute. Those who have gone through the video clips know exactly what really happened at that moment. In order to disperse the angry KSC spectators who were well armed with stones and empty bottles, one of the members of the escort squad opened one round into the air. The allegations leveled against one of our players for using a firearm and shooting into the air are baseless,” he added.
Denies Kodagoda fired into the air
According to him although Kodagoda was seen grabbing a firearm from the escort squad the video clips clearly shows that
he was only grabbing the firearm but there was no evidence as to whether he fired or not. “The TV slides clearly show that the moment Kodagoda grabs the firearm the shot has been already fired into the air,” he said.
It is learnt that statements from all AFSC players, the escort squad members and the officer in charge have been obtained by the Katugastota police as part of the investigation.
Meanwhile Navy Spokesperson, Commander Kosala Warnasuriya told the Lanka Independent that Nuwan Hettiaratchchi was arrested because of his involvement with the KSC at a time he has signed a contract with the Navy Sports Club (NSC) to play for the Navy rugby team.
“How can he play for yet another club when he has come to an agreement with the NSC?” queried Warnasuriya.
However the navy Spokesperson was unaware as to when Hettiaratchchi came to an agreement with the NSC and what the contract period was.
When asked whether the arrest was made on the request of a powerful Air Force Officers who also happens to be a member of the Navy rugby team, Group Captain Warnasuriya denied the charges adding that it was the ‘normal procedure’.
Detained at Welisara
According to Warnasuriya, Hettiaratchchi was detained at the Welisara Naval base for deserting the Navy and was released when President Mahinda Rajapaksa pardoned him on July 5.
Asked what punishment Hettiaratchchi could expect for violating the contract agreements, the Navy Spokesperson said that he would not be punished because of the pardoned he has got from President.
“It is up to the Sri Lanka Rugby Federation Union (SLRFU) to take disciplinary action against Hettiaratchchi for playing with the KSC while on an agreement with the NSC,” he added.
According to Warnasuriya, Hettiaratchchi is not an employee of Sri Lanka Navy but only a contracted player for the NSC.
Something ails Sri Lanka sports
Certainly something ails Sri Lanka sports, and it’s not the players. From Cricket to Rugby to almost every other first division sport, political interference, power play and greed have marred the spirit of the game, debilitated its players and stunted its bright futures.
The warped nature of politics is such that when Kumar Sangakkara highlights the state of Sri Lanka’s cricket administration he is reviled for it by the powers that be. Sangakkara had no choice. The problems of Sri Lanka Cricket were so intense and the voices of the players so ignored by the administration that he had to speak out and he had no other platform than an international one. It was an impassioned plea for help. A plea for help not only for the game of cricket which he loves but for sports in general in Sri Lanka now afflicted by a cancerous gene called politics.
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