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OPERATING SEVEN HOTELS – Part 44

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CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY

By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil

President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada

Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum

chandij@sympatico.ca

At the beginning of 1981, I was transferred to the John Keells corporate office in Colombo. I was proud to get this opportunity to work within the largest group of companies in Sri Lanka. I had been promoted from my previous post of Manager, Hotel Swanee to number two of Keells’ hotel company, Hotel Management & Marketing Services Limited (HMMS). My wife and I quickly settled in well into the Colombo social life style with regular trips to Keells hotels on the weekends. I also re-commenced judo at the Central YMCA. Having stopped judo for six years to focus on building my career as a resort hotelier on the south coast, I was happy to get an opportunity to practice judo, and study for judo grade promotion tests once again, whenever my busy work schedule allowed me to do so.

It was a big adjustment to get used to the corporate culture of John Keells which was very different to the living in and working at resort hotels. Since the nationalization of tea plantations by the socialist government in the early 1970s, John Keells commenced diversifying to multiple industries, including tourism and hospitality. In 1981, some 33 years after Ceylon/Sri Lanka gained independence from British colonizers, John Keells was still headed by two Brits (Chairman Mark Bostock and Deputy Chairman David Blackler). Nevertheless, I liked the atmosphere at the head office as John Keells had a unique and dynamic culture. It faced the historic Beira Lake built by the Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century to prevent Colombo from being re-captured by Sinhala kings and their armies.

John Keells Corporate Office in 1981

Having associated with the group’s chairman since 1972, initially through rugby football and then as a hotel manager, I was an admirer of Mark Bostock. I was extremely grateful to him for fully sponsoring my first, overseas trip and training in London in 1979. My personal friendship with him continued in 1984 when my family was invited to visit his family in their home in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent for an overnight stay during my graduate student years in the United Kingdom. Later in 1985, he supported the re-hiring of me to John Keells to manage their two largest hotels (The Lodge and The Village) as the General Manager.

Mark Bostock, was a great visionary leader but a little eccentric. All the executives came to work in our company cars dressed in shirt and tie, but our chairman took pride in coming to work on a scooter from his home in Colombo seven. His usual attire was a white shirt, no tie, white shorts and long white stockings, exactly the way he dressed for work during his early career as a tea planter. He enjoyed a good drink. One day at an office party, his wife was annoyed that he had a couple of extra drinks. She stopped addressing him as ‘Mark’ and said to him, “Bostock, time to go home. I will drive!” They left immediately. She was a very proper English lady and they made a good couple. I also knew their daughter Clair who was studying hotel management in the United Kingdom.

In addition to the directors, senior executives, executives and secretaries, there were office aides who served us excellent tea regularly. They also brought us our mail and office memos. During this pre internet and email era, we depended on them to have speedy inter office communications. One of the earliest memories at the corporate office that I fondly remember is how Mark Bostock often distributed memos from the Chairman’s office personally. “How are you settling in the head office, Chandana?” he asked me in my first week during one of his visits to my office. “Here are some memos for you”. He handed over a few papers to me and left very quickly. It was his clever way of getting some exercise while checking different offices and engaging in a causal conversation with all levels of his vast growing team.

At that time, most of the directors in the top of the group hierarchy were tea specialists or chartered accountants. They usually hired male management trainees with a middle-class English-speaking upbringing and from good schools. Most of those trainees had excelled in sports. These trainees were in their late teens and had no post-secondary education. John Keells tended to hire the attitude and train the skills. Those who learnt the ropes quickly and were dynamic, rose rapidly in the corporate ladder to board positions with impressive stock options. Once they got in, hardly anyone thought of leaving John Keells. They played a “long stay ball game” which provided job security, fun and great career prospects. They also had to play corporate politics and watch carefully where the wind is blowing.

In 1981, we knew that ‘charismatic’ Ken Balendra was destined to become the first Sri Lankan chairman of the group within a few years. Since he had such a good relationship with the two Brits at the helm, some of us in a light-hearted manner, referred to him as ‘Blackstock’, of course behind his back. We also fondly referred to him as ‘Ken Bala.’ One day when I addressed him as ‘Sir’, he tapped on my shoulder and said, “Chandana, call me Ken.”

Having managed the Maintenance and Projects Department at John Keells for a few years, my father-in-law, Captain D. A. Wickramasinghe (Captain Wicks) had been promoted by the board to re-organize and manage the outbound travel company of the group, Silverstock. That company focused on Buddhist pilgrimages to India and Nepal.

As all at the corporate office worked a half day every Saturday morning, I was ready in a shirt and tie for my first Saturday at John Keells. “Chandi, change into something more casual on Saturdays which is the Beer Day @ Keells”, Captain Wicks suggested to me. When I asked for clarification, he said that, “On Saturdays we work for a couple of hours catching up on outstanding work and plan for the next week. Then everybody is served beer and we socialize a little before going home for lunch.”

Building a Corporate Hotel Team

Hotel Management and Marketing Services (HMMS) was a small office at that time as it was started in 1979 with just two people, Director – Operations, Bobby Adams and his secretary. I became the first Manager – Operations in 1981. Our team quickly expanded to have an Engineer, Credit Controller, Hotel Reservations Coordinator and a Management Trainee. There was a vacancy for a Food and Beverage Manager on my team, so I initiated the recruitment of a well-qualified and experienced hotelier who had been educated in Beirut, Lebanon and at the oldest and the best-known hotel school in the world, The École hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland (Chris Weeratunga) to that position. Later, when I left John Keells, Chris was promoted to my position.

Accounting and financial services were provided by a team led by Senior Finance Director, Vivendra Lintotawela (who later in the year 2000, became the Group Chairman). He was very focused on raising our average daily room rates. Sales and marketing support was provided by Walkers Tours. The central purchasing unit of John Keells coordinated most of the purchases for our hotels.

HMMS team managed seven properties in 1981. There were four resort hotels on the South West coast – Bayroo, Swanee, Ceysands and Ambalangoda. I often went to Habarana to be engaged in operational projects at the Village and for pre-opening projects for the Lodge. The Kandy Walkin project (later opened as Hotel Citadel) was still in the planning stage, but I used to occasionally go to the Keells holiday bungalow on that site with my family and friends visiting from Austria. It was a beautiful spot close to the Mahaweli River.

Managing Temple Trees, the residence of the Prime Minister and his family, was a demanding management contract. I visited Temple Trees occasionally to support Fazal Izzadeen, our manager there and his team. Given the personal friendship Bobby Adams had with Prime Minister R. Premadasa, the Director – Operation had to be personally involved in managing this prestigious property. Being a perfectionist, Mr. Premadasa did not tolerate any sub-standard quality in maintenance, upkeep and cleanliness. Fazal did a great job in keeping the second family of Sri Lanka content with the services we provided, and more importantly, off our backs.

In Colombo, we had negotiated to take over the management of Ceylinco Hotel. “Finally, the Ceylinco deal was signed and sealed today Chandi. I would like you to take over the management of this hotel and re-organize it from now on. I know your style, and as you prefer, you have a totally free hand”, Bobby informed me. He knew that I had a personal friendship with the Ceylinco Group Chairman, Lalith Kotalawala, which was useful in taking over Ceylinco Hotel housed in, at one time the tallest building in Sri Lanka. Lalith and his wife Sicille, loved Hotel Swanee, where they used to visit occasionally when I was the manager there.

Taking over the Management of Ceylinco Hotel

One of the first things I did at Ceylinco Hotel was to have one on one discussions with each member of the management team of Ceylinco Hotel. The hotel manager decided to leave after the change. My choice for the new manager was to internally promote the Food & Beverage Manager of Ceylinco Hotel, Kesara Jayatilake as the Hotel Manager. Bobby thought that we should appoint a manager experienced with HMMS, but when he realized that I was very keen about Kesara, Bobby agreed with my suggestion.

With six popular restaurants and bars, this hotel needed a manager who was a specialist in food and beverage operations. In addition, I was impressed with Kesara’s well-established social connections in Colombo. After his promotion as manager of Ceylinco Hotel, Kesara was extremely loyal to me until his untimely death a little over a decade later, after managing a few well-known hotels in Sri Lanka, such as Lihinia Surf and Browns Beach Hotel. He was my good friend and I sorely missed him.

The rooftop restaurant of Ceylinco Hotel, Akasa Kade was a charming place. It was famous for its Sri Lanka specialities including egg hoppers. Music for dancing at Akasa Kade was provided by the popular band named after its legendary band leader and the lead singer, ‘Sam the Man’. It was also very popular for business lunches. I loved going to Akasa Kade in the evenings

I transferred a few food and beverage management and supervisory stars who worked with me at other hotels, to Ceylinco to strengthen Kesara’s team. We introduced theme events and opened a new evening restaurant using the front car park of the building which was never full after office hours. After brainstorming with the new management team of Ceylinco Hotel, we developed a concept unique to Sri Lanka in the early 1980s and gave the new restaurant a Sinhala name – ‘Para Haraha’ (Across the Road). It was the first ever side walk café in Sri Lanka.

An Assignment in Hong Kong

In the midst of my busy schedule with HMMS, Bobby Adams entrusted me, on short notice, with a very special assignment in Hong Kong. He wanted me to quickly plan and organize a large Sri Lankan and Maldivian food festival at the Hotel Furama InterContinental, Hong Kong. It was an important, two-week tourism promotional festival, in partnership with a few organizations. They were represented by well-known leaders of the tourist industry, such as M. Y. M. Thahir of Walkers Tours, Pani Seneviratne of Ceylon Tourist Board and Ahamed Didi of Universal Resorts, The Maldives.

The InterContinental Hotel Group was expected to be represented by a senior Sous Chef from their five-star hotel in Colombo. The festival included 28 large buffets for lunch and dinner over 14 days, promoting Sri Lankan cuisine and a few dishes from the Maldives. The Hotel Furama InterContinental had agreed to provide three of their cooks to assist the Guest Executive Chef representing Sri Lanka.

At the eleventh hour, the Executive Chef of Hotel Ceylon InterContinental, who was a Swiss-German, had refused to release his second in command to travel to Hong Kong. He had been concerned that the support in Hong Kong was inadequate to produce 28 large buffets over 14 days. He wanted three Sri Lankan additional chefs from his brigade to be provided with air tickets to Hong Kong. That request was not accepted by Air Lanka, the airline sponsor of festival.

The reputation of Walkers Tours (a key subsidiary of John Keells Group) as the main organizer of the festival was at stake. Bobby asked me, “Chandi, we need someone like you to rise to the occasion. Can you please help our company by organizing all aspects of food for this festival in Hong Kong?” I planned the menus, calculated quantities of all ingredients and purchased a few key buffet decorations on the same day from Laksala, and took off on an Air Lanka flight to Hong Kong the very next day. Having ceased to be an Executive Chef, two years prior to that, it was a challenging assignment for me, but I always loved a challenge!

During the flight, I was thinking of my father’s advice given to me just before my trip. He said, “Chandana, try your best to do even a short trip to China after the food festival. Future global tourism will be divided into two – China and the rest of the world! Don’t miss this opportunity.” As a former state visitor to China in the 1950s and the author of the first-ever Sinhala book about China in the 1960s, my father had a deep knowledge about China’s past and the present. Therefore, I was not surprised by his prediction for the future, although in 1981, it was difficult to imagine how China would eventually become one of the four top tourist destinations in the world.



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Features

Glimmers of hope?

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The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis

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By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.

FERTILISER ISSUE

1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.

Recommendations

1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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