His low tackles were akin to a bite by the most venomous snake endemic to the island, the Russell’s Viper, hence earning him the moniker ‘VIPER.’
This is none other than the legendary rugby player who represented Airforce, CR & FC and Sri Lanka, who dominated play in the early seventies. Famous for dealing the opposition with painstaking tackles, this indomitable player was revered as one of the most aggressive players of that era. The advancing of years has certainly not diminished his spirit, as he still holds sway in the rugby sphere by being an active member of the CPRFU (he was also the erstwhile President of the CPRFU), acting as the match commissioner at many matches, and playing a pivotal role in promulgating the sport in many rural areas in the Central Province. His passion and knowledge of the sport is exemplary. His contribution towards rugby was not merely as a player but as a coach. It is not merely his prowess in the field, but his other interests as well, which adds to the essence of who he is; with a keen eye for creativity, he spends hours landscaping his garden. With a broad spectrum of knowledge in many subjects, such as cricket, motor mechanics and politics, he is such an interesting persona to be around.
Fans still recall his dynamic moves dished out with aplomb against the opposition irrespective of size and form.
His affinity towards politics can probably be attributed to his birthday which falls on May Day, the second child of five children born to Simon Gunaratne and Violet Steel, Viper Gunaratne displayed a major love for rugby; a sport which had taken the hill capitol by storm. “Half of the Kandy players were British and on many occasions Trinity College rugby was more superior to club rugby.”
“Rugby matches were played at the Nittawala Grounds which was part of a rubber estate. Apart from rugby I played cricket, athletics and was the hockey goalie of Vidyartha College. In my first year for the Defense Services, I scored five tries during the first game; I was selected for the Adams Bridge Trophy. I was part of the Ceylon Poolists which comprised the movers and shakers of the game; Wing forwards-Maurice Merrynon, Sari De Silva, Gamini Fernando, Keith Paul and Jeewaka Attapattu in 1967.”
His face would light up as he recalls the 1969 match against Blackheath, 1968 Bosuns – combined English clubs against which the Defense Services played well, the two matches against the All England side in 1971 etc. “I captained the Air Force in 1970 and Defense Services in 1973.”
The first time our national side beat a foreign side was in the match played between the Combined Paris Universities from France in 1971 and Sri Lanka at CR & FC. These matches were dotted with many memorable moments; one such was the instance I tackled their wing three quarter from the blind–side, resulting in him being thrown out along with the corner flag. We had the one of the toughest referees; Ashi Cader at the match. Their number eight was a towering 6’6″, Frenchman who caught Tony Silva by the collar and lifted him and he said “no no not me,” said he with amusement.
“Freedom fighter George E. De Silva’s son Percy De Silva (the first Sri Lankan to play for CR & FC and he was Mrs. Bandarayake’s Legal Draughtsman) was a good friend and he was also the first Ceylonese to play for Ceylon.”
“During the 1971 insurrection, we had to go before a certain time due to curfew and once Hajji Omar’s Benz stopped in front of the SLBC. I was in my blazer ad I went under the car and disengaged the gear lever with blazer and all!”
He recalled rugby stalwarts such as the SLRFU’s William Molligoda who was his senior, Summa Navaratnam who was his 1971 coach, Mahesh Rodrigo who played rugby and cricket (scored a century against West Indies), Kavan Rambukwella his coach in the National side, Didacus De Almeida, who played with him and was considered as one of the best centers ever produced by Sri Lanka, Gamini Fernando, who played opposite him but was very much senior, IGP Rudra Rajasingham, President of the CR & FC champion ‘71 side, Puggy Gunaratne (CV) was Vice President of CR & FC in ‘71 and used to bring ‘kiribath’ for all the players in the morning and the four scrum halfs at CR & FC; veteran Tony Sirimanne, Malik Smarawickrema, Dudley Dissanayake and Tikiri Marambe, who were school leavers and part of the team in 1971.
During an Air Force game in 1966, this hard-hitting, tough-as-nails player tackled an equally formidable player called ‘Bull’Khalid, who was over 6 feet tall, proving that size is immaterial when it comes to bringing a man down. This fearless tackle earned him many fans, including Harry Gunathillake, who had inquired his name!
I listened with wide-eyed amazement to the anecdotes from an era when it was considered a prestige to play this high-spirited game in which one is pummeled and pounced with adrenaline oozing through the veins of the players and surging into the crowd of spectators until the last whistle is blown. An exhilarating game from kick-off to the end, and fortunately for me, it is my favourite sport.
“During my tenure in the Middle East, I played cricket as the opening batsman for Jeddah/ SriLankan Airlines and Yambu Youth and rugby for Yambu Barbarians, being the only Sri Lankan amidst top Welsh, English and Scottish players.” He had a fan following over there as well. “During a brief hiatus, I coached Vidyartha College in 1984/85 and 1996 and Ananda College from 1976-78 and a number of players went onto to represent Sri Lanka from both institutions during this period. Both schools won the prestigious William Goppawala Trophy during the years I coached them.”
A heartfelt plea
He is of the view that we should develop our very own countrymen from their young days to play this game. He is also of the view that getting football players involved would be an added advantage, specifically in mastering the kicking technique. With many universities, schools, the defense services, police and more, there is so much of potential to be tapped.
“We need more individuals who have a passion and a true love for the game. We need to develop rugby and create more clubs,” was his impassioned plea. “The schools structure is excellent and over one hundred players leave schools only from Kandy per se, with only a handful pursuing rugby as a career whilst most players simply quit. Due to this, the uncertain future of the game cannot be gainsaid. It is a shame to see civilians playing for the services. During the pre-war era, it was the services who won without any civilians. Then, the Air Force’s strength was far less but now it is more, but still they obtain the services of civilians.” As per ‘Viper’ Gunaratne, rugby is a drill and it is very easy for the servicemen to tackle this game.
“During my tenure as President of CPRFU Mohan Samarakoon, Dilip Kumar and I got a team from Australia called the Warringa’s from Sydney. Despite many pleas we were unable to contact the higher authority which is the SLRFU as they seemed uninterested. We were unperturbed and continued the training classes in collaboration with the Warringas. About one hundred eager players from all age groups attended these training workshops. There were also two exhibition games played between the women’s and men’s teams as well. It was splendid to watch the teams play. It gave us a morale boost to know that such teams are interested in coming to Sri Lanka and conducting training programmes on their own accord. If there is a proper union, we can invite many foreign teams to come over here and conduct workshops and train our players like the good old days. It is unfortunate that the CPRFU does not have an office and sometimes the meetings are conducted at home. I did a feasibility study on potential grounds but no one is interested. Many schools lack the basic requirement which is a ground to play or practice and resign themselves to playing at the municipality grounds. Schools such as Sri Sumangala, Sarasavi Uyana, St. Sylverster’s and others who are relatively new to the game face this plight,” added he with the hope that the authorities or rugby enthusiasts who wish to see the continuation of the game, would go that extra mile for the love of the game.
As aforementioned, ‘Viper” Gunaratne has more to him than meets the eye and his wealth of knowledge and expertise is not merely found in the rugby arena. He is also a horticulturist, a writer whose pen is more lethal than the sword and a person who is unafraid to speak his mind and stand up against injustice. They say behind every successful man is a woman, and Viper Gunaratne is no exception as he has an extremely supportive wife in the beautiful Lalani Gunaratne.
He may have retired from the active game, but he has certainly not lost his passion for all things surrounding rugby. To Sri Lanka, this legendary sportsman will always be the indomitable ‘Viper,’ a force to reckon with in the glorious field of rugby!