The power behind
Royal's rugby success
Laga's human qualities obscure his coaching skills
The sharp, incessant ring of the telephone virtually made me jump out of bed. Reflexively, I looked at the clock which showed 11.30 pm (on 20th May, 2002). Muttering to myself, I got up, went towards and picked up the phone.
'Branu Machang!' bawled the voice at the other end. 'I am in Singapore and the Chinese lady at the Sri Lankan Airlines counter is not allowing me to board the flight saying I am a Western Somalian. She thinks I am some kind of a terrorist.
Probably she has not heard of Western Samoa. If you don't do something now, I will have to take a flight back to New Zealand' and so saying he hung up. It was that amiable 'Gentle Giant', Tavita Tulagaese, more affectionately known as Laga, who was on his way to Colombo to take up the assignment as coach of the 2002 Royal College rugby team. I quickly sprang to action and contacted the Sri Lankan Airlines Duty Manager at the Katunayake Airport and told him verbatim what Laga had mentioned to me.
'Ah! It is that Western Samoan coach' he said and assured me that he would set things right. After an agonizing one-hour wait, l received a call from the airport that Laga was cleared and would be boarding the flight as scheduled. With a sigh of relief, I was able to return to sleep, albeit only for three hours, as I had to be at the airport at 4.30 am to meet Laga.
His pick-up from the airport and drop off at the flat went without incident and on the way, we exchanged pleasantries. After seeing him into the flat, I told Laga to have a good rest and that he would have to come to the grounds that evening to meet the boys who were anxiously waiting for his arrival.
In the interim, Nizam Jamaldeen, the former Isipathana MV, Police SC and Sri Lanka fly-half, who was appointed as Assistant Coach, had put the team through their paces. So when Laga took over, in his own words, 'the boys looked good.'
Under the capable hands of the Laga/Jamaldeen combination, the 2002 Royal College First XV rugby side progressed well. The team went from strength to strength and the superlative rugby they dished out at each game was certainly a treat to watch.
When Laga departed from the shores of Sri Lanka in 2001 after his first coaching stint with the Royal College rugby team led by Harin Kaluarachchi, he left behind a track record of an unbeaten season. That year, Royal won the Bradby Shield defeating Trinity in both games, the Gunaratne Trophy with a handsome 30-0 win against St. Thomas' and retained the Milroy Fernando Trophy by virtue of being the holders despite a nil all draw.
But the year 2002 team led by Zulqamain Hamid saw Laga taking Royal rugby to greater heights. He not only was able to guide the team to an unbeaten season once again, but in doing so they also had the distinction of re-writing the record books on many an occasion.
The Gunaratne Trophy game against St. Thomas' saw Royal eclipse the previous record of 34-0 (established by Michael Muller's 1973 Royal side) with a scintillating 38-3 victory. Next was the Bradby First Leg which Royal won 39-0, thus recording the highest margin of victory.
This record however, was shortlived, as in the return Bradby in Kandy two weeks later, Royal once again blanked Trinity 44 - 0. This was not only the highest margin of victory, but it also established a new record for the highest score surpassing the effort of the 1998 team led by Shanaka Perera whose side scored a 42-11 win in the Bradby Second Leg at Kandy.
Also the aggregate of 83-0 in the 2002 Bradby games is another record overcoming the 61-6 score set up in 1976 by the Manik Weerakumar led team. As if this was not enough, playing in the President's Trophy tournament after an absence of many years, the Royal team notched up a score of 43-3 in the quarter-final game against St. Thomas', which incidentally is the highest score by any team in a final round game. In the final against Wesley College played last week, Laga 'promised' me that we would win with a score of 30 points.
Although the final score-line was only 20 points to Royal and six against, I did not begrudge the 10 points that he could not get the team to achieve. The intermittent rains before and during the match put paid to any such thought. After all, in the final analysis, Royal had won comfortably. What the Royal score would have been if it was a dry day conducive to open rugby and easier ball handling is certainly worth thinking about!
The human side of this wonderful personality can be aptly described by an incident in the second Bradby. I was near the Royal dressing room at Bogambara before the commencement of the First XV game. The team had returned after the warm up session and I was privy to some scenes of great emotion that unfolded.
To many of the seniors including the captain and vice captain, this was their last Bradby game. They patted, hugged and cried on each other's shoulders and suddenly everyone went up to Laga and hugged him in a symbolic gesture of farewell. Laga was wearing dark glasses and when he came out, I could not help but observe tears rolling down the big man's cheeks.
Such was the affection which the team had for him and he reciprocated magnanimously. This was Laga! Royal College, I believe, was very fortunate to have procured his services. He is not only a good coach, but more importantly a great human being. The fact that he interacted well with the team and the boys was indeed a strong point. The boys simply loved him. The situation could well be described as "the coaches" dream team and the team's dream coaches". He moulded the side to become the best schoolboy team in 2002.
Born on February 24, 1974 in the village of Sugafou in Western Samoa, Laga hails from a rugby family with his father and three brothers all having played the game. His parents (father a Church Minister and mother a nurse) brought their children up in a religious environment and these inherent qualities made it easy for him to co-relate with his charges - the young rugby players of Royal. Despite, his giant frame, he is very docile by nature and a great quality in him is that he rarely loses his temper even during adverse or frustrating moments.
In 1983, the Tavita family moved to New Zealand and relocated in Auckland. In 1999 he married his childhood sweetheart Bussy by whom he has two children - a boy and girl. Having been in Sri Lanka previously as player and coach of the CR&FC, it is only natural that his love for this country made him name his daughter 'Ceylon'.
In a tribute to Assistant Coach Nizam Jamaldeen, Laga says, 'Jamal is a great team man and he certainly was an asset to the side. Also, the kicking skills which he imparted to the boys was extremely helpful and they did benefit a lot from his experience.'
Well done Zulqar and the Year 2002 Royal Rugby Team! Well done Laga! Well done Jamaldeen!
- Branu Rahim