Sunday, April 30, 2017

Raveen Antonio’s sleights of hand

Raveen Antonio took to swimming in Grade One. He moved to athletics and diving three years later, graduating to football, cricket, and rugby. He didn’t just indulge or dabble in them, he took to them and gave the best he could with what he had. Rugby being a passion of his father, it was only natural that he’d take to it after encountering everything else. In the end, when he did move to it, he specialised. Again, natural.

When he first started playing, though, he didn’t have a clue, whether to play or to score. The first time he faced a match, he was in Grade Seven. His Coach had just one thing to tell him: “Take the ball and run to the other side.” He wouldn’t have known about his position or for that matter how important positions in general were in the sport. As time went by, though, he came to understand. And to appreciate. Last week I met Raveen. He had a lot to tell. A great deal, in fact.

Because of the rapidity and violence entailed in it, rugby has over the years earned an unlovely sobriquet: “A game for hooligans played by gentlemen.” What that observation implies, of course, is that players can’t think beyond what they play, that they are incapable of leading lives as colourful as the matches they get to be in. In other words, that those who take to rugby are incapable of achieving anything other than what their Coaches and Trainers get them to do. I personally disagree, which is where I return to Raveen.

Raveen’s story begins with his father, Raj. Having played football for his school (Kingswood College) and later his country, and hailing from the only city where cricket takes a backseat to rugby, he had learnt enough to ascertain those points aspiring players could improve on. Because he himself had not pursued rugby, he would have wanted his son to take to it well when, in 2009, he got into the Under 12 Team at his school, St Joseph’s College. “Our first match that year was against D. S. Senanayake College,” he remembers, “I was a prop forward but didn’t know what I could do. So I just took the ball and ran, ran, ran.”

Things moved quickly thereafter. In April that same year (barely two months after that match), he was selected to the Under 14 Team, from which he soon graduated to the First XV. “That was unexpected, to be honest,” he laughs, “Particularly when we ended up being the All Island Plate Champions, having faced off Trinity and Kingswood.” He continued playing Under 12 matches, soon getting into the Under 16 Team. Given this, he naturally felt the need to improve on what little he knew.

So what exactly did he do? “First and foremost, I began watching matches. That’s a primitive way of studying a sport, but it helped me tremendously. By this time I was a fly-half AND an inside centre. These positions are quite constrained. They don’t have the luxury of time that a prop forward has. The fly-half, for instance, links the scrum-half with the back line. To play well, he must be able to take decisions quickly.” His father, no doubt aware of how important this was, got him to practice as many kicks as much as he could at home: “I ended up breaking the railing upstairs,” Raveen grins.

It’s obviously a result of all these encounters, tough as they’ve been, but he has until now been able to captain the Under 14, Under 16, and Under 18 squads. As of today, he’s the Vice-Captain of the First XV team, which brings me to his school and the other lives he’s led in it.

Rugby at St Joseph’s College has certainly picked up in recent years, enough to compensate for the defeats and lesser victories encountered on the cricket field. Raveen rattles off a list of names of those who have helped his squad: Nilfer Ibrahim (the Coach), Dinesh Kumar (the Trainer), Anuranga Walpola, and Dev Ananda.

“They have their own preferences," he explains to me, "Walpola sir focuses on the forwards, Dev Ananda sir is the kicking Coach, and Niluka sir attends to the three-quarters. At the end of the day, though, they all congeal into one team. That’s essential, because inasmuch as a rugby squad depends on how 15 players take on 15 specific tasks, those players need to come together for a cohesive, all-rounder team.”

From here I move on to the strategies he’s learnt over the years. This obviously brings up those players he continues to look up to. I therefore ask him to list them out and explain how they’ve helped him personally.

“From those who’ve inspired me, I can name Carlos Spencer, Johnny Wilkinson, and Dan Carter. All fly-halves, but different to each another nevertheless. Spencer, for instance, is not famous for his kicks, but he quickens the game. He has speed and this he uses for the line. That’s important. Wilkinson and Carter, on the other hand, are good at kicking, so they are exceptional at gaining territory and making it easy for their teams. That’s important too, since it eases the pressure rugby squads usually face on the field.” In other words, it’s about adjusting your strategy to consecutively attack, defend, and ease up: the essence of rugby.

Raveen began playing in 2009. That’s seven years down. What of those other lives he’s led? He has been involved with his school’s English and Sinhala Literary Associations, is the Vice President of the Colombo District branch of the Legion of Mary, has played and plays the guitar, has been a Steward, and is the current Head Prefect. Having opted for Commerce for his A Levels, he managed to not just pass his exams, but pass them with flying colours despite participating in BOTH rugby and athletics, scrounging up three A’s. He’s currently following a course in ACCA (Accountancy being the field he prefers) at Mercury Institute, Kollupitiya. All in all, a veritable assortment.

These have moreover not been achieved at the cost of other sports. I’ve mentioned swimming, diving, and athletics. Raveen continues to pursue the third of these, having emerged as a top player at the National Meets (though he didn’t get any colours) in 2012 (at Bogambara), 2013 (at Tangalle), and 2014 (at Sugathadasa), particularly as a Javelin thrower.

What of the hard yards he had to wade through? “Well, it was tough getting through the last two years. Not only was I the Vice-Captain of the First XV, I was also engaged with a horde of other activities. Added to that, I had to come to Colombo from my hometown Malabe. Once or twice I thought of quitting athletics, because I didn’t think I could make it with my academics. My friends, however, prevailed on me to not do that. Call it a miracle, call it sheer willpower, but I managed to survive.” He has, however, not pursued Rugby nationally while at school, though he hopes to do so now that he’s been unburdened of his exams.

Before I wrap up the interview, I ask Raveen as to what he considers as his most memorable match. He doesn’t hesitate: “The one we had with our traditional rival in 2015. St Peter’s had retained the Shield for 15 years. We had either lost or gone for a draw for 15 years, in other words. That was my third year playing for the First XV. The hours passed, the encounters got more intense, and there was tension on both sides. In the end, after trying for over a decade, St Joseph’s walked home with the Shield. To this date, we have retained it. That explains how and why we’ve gone up.”

Last year had this to say about the Josephian Rugby Squad: “Inexperienced Josephians face arduous task.” The reference was to two facts: one, the loss of several key players to other teams, and two, the lack of experience among new players. Both these pointed at the grave responsibility thrust on the senior squad members. Of these, the centre and the fly-half were key constituents, with Raveen holding the latter position. Having faced a horde of formidable rivals, they waded through the year with a set of crucial victories, recording negligible but nevertheless commendable leads with them all. This year, not surprisingly, they have performed better.

I believe Raveen says it best: “When we win, our morale gets boosted. That’s rugby. You win, you go up. You lose, you stay behind. On the other hand, there’s no such thing as permanent defeat or victory. I believe that’s helped me through school, my academics and other activities, and life in general. Am I grateful? Yes, to my father, my coaches and trainers, my friends, and last but not least, Almighty God.”

Rugby players are endowed with physical dexterity. They know when to expend effort and when to preserve if not repress it. That’s life on the field and life in general. Probably that’s what Raveen has learnt so far. Probably he’s yet to learn it more completely. We can never tell. We can, however, observe. And we can wish. For the best.

Written for: The Island YOUth, April 30 2017