Remembering Capt. William Molegoda...!

The dust has long settled on a another Bradby, another Royal-Trinity - the dust raked by the enthusiasm of old boys, well-wishers, ardent votaries and, of course, the rampaging Royal Team, which simply pulverized a hapless, ill-equipped Trinity outfit.. This year’s outcome of the Bradby, perhaps, is reminiscent of a time when Trinity dominated school rugby and, of course, the Royal-Trinity, especially in the pre-Bradby era.

William Molegoda, who passed away recently is a product of that pre-Bradby era. Though the name may not be quite familiar to those involved in the game today, it is a name that is respected in ample measure in the circles that matter, amongst those who played in his time, those who administered the game and those who were fortunate enough to watch him in action. In an era essentially dominated by Europeans, he was in the vanguard that wrested much of the kudos from the colonial rugby masters by sheer grit of performance on and off the field. It won’t be wrong to say that he, along with other outstanding Ceylonese players in his time, stood up proud and got themselves recognized.

When an octogenarian, having led a quiet, unobtrusive life in his twilight years, passes away what does it matter to those who really didn’t know him. Hence, unfortunately his demise went quite unnoticed by many and surprisingly there was little or no account of the man and his life. Yet, William Molegoda was a man worthy of his steel, who lived a full life for fourscore years and more, made his contribution in full measure in every endeavour he lay his hands on and passed on beyond the touch line, leaving a trail of wholesome memories for those who knew him for his prowess on and off the field as rugby player and administrator.

By all accounts he was a fine specimen of an athlete. Between 1935 and 1938/9 he represented Trinity at rugby, cricket, hockey and athletics and shone in all of them. Yet, it was for his rugby that he is better known.

As a young playing member of the CR and FC in the early sixties, I used to wonder who the neatly spruced up gentleman was, always hovering around that dainty old CR club house, our other home, in the evenings when we were at practices on that placid playing field, still in his immaculate office kit. Even at that time of the day he looked quite fresh and sprightly. A few beautiful kicks to touch and a drop kick or two, full of perfect timing yet just casually taken with his leather shoes on were message enough of class and inherent traces of talent of yore.

Young as I was curiosity got the better of me to discover that this gentleman was none other than the then famous William Molegoda. As the years passed by I was fortunate enough to get to know him for what he was, a man of suave equanimity and a quiet sharpness. He was many things in his life time, mercantile top brass from the top drawer, as a Director at Colombo Commercial Company, volunteer Navy Capt., senior naval ADC to the then Head of State, President of the CR and FC (1964/65/66) and at the time of his demise Life Member and Trustee of our esteemed club, President of the SLRFU (1971 and 1980/81) and President of the Ceylon Hockey Federation. This must be a rare feat, indeed, being the head of two national sports bodies around the same time. Above all he was a fine man, who had all the time in the world for others.

William Molegoda was educated at Trinity College, Kandy. Gifted with a fine physique it was small wonder that he was to shine in the sports he had chosen: rugby, cricket, hockey, athletics, amply demonstrating the prowess of a fine athlete, in the generic sense, of the top order.

Yet, it is for rugby that he was best known. He first played for Trinity in 1935 and went on to captain his school in 1938. By all accounts the match against Royal that year was one of the closest and most absorbing in the series and has gone down in history as Molegoda’s match for the role he played both as player and as captain. Two of his contemporaries who played against him in that Royal-Trinity describe him and rate him very high as a fine rugby player. Both Gamini Salgado, that classic wing forward, and U. N. Gunasekera, solid wing three- quarter, who trailed his opposite number like a poacher on instruction from the Royal coach McRobison, list him as a most fearsome yet elegant wing three-quarter, whose speed left many a jilted tackler clutching thin air in exasperation and whose judicious boot kept many an opponent guessing.

That match is known as Molegoda’s match for the simple reason that he turned it around virtually single handed from a 00-13 deficit to a 14-13 victory in the dying stages of the game in one of the finest comebacks in Royal-Trinity history. Like that other William, William Webb Ellis, progenitor of rugby football, William Molegoda ran for dear life with the ball in hand, all the time hawking for that surprise element and innovation, something sadly lacking most of the time in today’s diskette rugby! He is also referred to as a fine man as well, a description he did not betray to the end.

His illustrious rugby career spanned from the mid thirties to the early fifties, during which period, he represented Trinity, Combined Colleges, Kandy Rovers, the CR & FC, the Ceyloneses, Low Country and Ceylon and played in the company, at various times, of such household names in rugby as B. Aluvihare, Rudra Rajasingham, who fed him with good ball from the position of centre three-quarter, Summa Navaratnam, at one time the fastest man in Asia, Malcolm Wright, Bert Olhums, Percy Perera, Archibald Perera, Percy de Zilwa, Mahesa Rodrigo, Geof Weinman et al.

Just to get a glimpse of his prowess one has only to dip into the newspaper accounts of his time, which were full of nothing but praise for him. He was referred to as "a speed merchant with a fine turn of speed, not afraid to go for the line and bring his man down, too, with a bang." That was a reference to him when he was playing for the Kandy Rovers in 1937/38 while still at school.

Referring to the All-India Cup final of 1949, the Sunday observer of October 9 headlined: "Molegoda’s opportunism Gives Ceylon Rugger Victory." Calcutta were leading 03 pts to 00 till four minutes before the end when as renowned sports writer S. P. Foenander put it "in fast fading light, Ceylon made their final counter-attack soon after, Hendry (Calcutta’s serum half) had been disabled and had dropped back from his usual place. Molegoda, who received the ball after it had been handled by Simpson, Weinman and Rodrigo went over in glorious style for Dewing to put on the finishing touches with the conversion to give Ceylon a lead of 05 pts to 03 which they held onto till the final whistle."

That description was only indicative of many more glorious tries he scored in his career, too numerous to mention here When I hailed him at the funeral of another great rugby stalwart, Kavan Rambukwella, he quietly whispered in my ear, sporting a cherubic smile as he always did, that he was next in the queue. That was him, indeed: quietly making his point. And sadly enough, so he was. William Molegoda played, managed and administered the game when it was at its pristine glory and endeavoured to keep it there.

He loved the game and gave back what he got from it at the highest level. Yet, he was not totally averse to the changes that were taking place around the game and was prepared to accommodate in his own mind the inevitability of change not compromising, however, on its finer values. As he cautioned, in 1972 in his address, as outgoing President, at the AGM of the SLRFU, those who were to administer rugby against drilling into players the ‘win at all cost’ dictum: "When winning becomes the one and only aim, adventure becomes too risky. The flowing moments which make rugby so fascinating to behold are lost. The fear of losing destroys the very concepts of the game. The joy of playing is stifled, healthy rivalry is destroyed and the game degenerates."

A caution issued in 1972, virtually prophetic, as the cognescenti would recognize it today.

Similarly, as the President-elect of the Ceylon Hockey Federation, he urged his officials stating that: "We the officials must set an example to the players and drive them to greater heights and that discipline plays a major role in any sport-a principle he followed to the end."

For his services to the game of rugby football, he was elected an honorary life member of the Union in 1994 during the tenure of the Presidency of Rudra Rajasingham, another rugby stalwart in his day. To quote the letter of citation dated March 5, 1994 under the signature of Rudra Rajasingham, President of the Union: "The SLRFU at its AGM this year, unanimously elected you life member, for your sustained and outstanding contribution as a player and an administrator.

"This is the first occasion since the inauguration of the SLRFU in 1879 that the Union decided to honour those who have made a signal contribution to the game.

"The Union recalled your outstanding performance as a player and your contribution towards the development of Rugby Union Football in Ceylon/Sri Lanka and as President of the Union and its special representative at International Rugby Union Conferences abroad.

"It has been my privilege to have watched you in action as a player and later to have played alongside you. I now have the pleasure of informing you of your election as life member...."

The man with a suave equanimity and a quiet sharpness was gone only a few months after Kavan bade us good-bye. His greatness lay not only in the mastery he displayed on the field but also in the many ways he gave back to the game to develop it and keep it in its pristine glory. He revelled in a great game, regaled enthusiasts with his mastery, charted the ship, as it were on even keel.

It is true that all of us have to pass on.. William Molegoda led a full life, made his contribution and passed on, leaving behind a cherubic smile and the sanguine memory of a man who did things effectively in his own unruffled way with a quiet dignity - a useful lesson for all of us who love the game of rugby to follow. Couldn’t one say that he was a complete sportsman, a model that one could very well emulate, as player and administrator! He could still be sporting his cherubic smile in quiet dignity.