‘Viper’ Gunaratne – Island’s first and only Rugby Coach educator trainer

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In any sport, when a player performs well, he is in the spotlight, but when a team performs badly, fingers are often pointed at the coach. The achievements of coaches rarely get highlighted. Just as players improve with experience, coaches too progress gradually by completing coaching levels and achieving many qualifications. Few of these coaches are special to the country, but when the coach is the ‘First and only’, they become valuable and unique.

It was Dilroy Fernando who was the first to break the International Rugby Board (IRB) hurdle and became the first Rugby Referee educator of the Island. After Dilroy opened the doors, three other Sri Lankans gained the same qualification. Moving up their coaching levels, Nihal Gunarathne in 2009 became the first IRB rugby coach educator of the island, followed by Sanath Martis and Ananda Kasthuriarachchi. Still the list is only a handful after Shamly Nawaz, Rohitha Rajapaksha, Rajive Perera, and Duminda De Silva became Rugby educators in 2019.

Of the three, one decided to excel above the others. In 2019 Nihal ‘Viper’ Gunaratne was appointed as a trainer, the first and only Rugby coach educator trainer of the island. ‘Kastro’ did his strength and conditioning levels and became an IRB strength and conditioning educator. Mothilal Jayathilake and Ananda Kasthuriarachchi are the only IRB strength and conditioning Rugby educators in Sri Lanka. This made Ananda Kasthuriarachchi the only dual Rugby Educator (coach and strength and conditioning).

Born in the hill country in 1956 to Saman Gunarathne and Violet Kaluarachchi, Nihal was the youngest in the family. His elder brothers (Norman and Edwin) and elder sisters (Chandra and Wimala) showered their little brother with unconditional love.

Nihal attended St. Anthony’s College, Kandy from Grade One and remained loyal to his alma mater until he bid farewell. Nihal fell in love with the oval shaped ball because of his brother, who played for Air Force, CR & FC and later represented Sri Lanka.

Certain things happen for a reason and maybe destiny. Nihal’s house was located near the Nittawela Grounds, and it was natural for the kid to get to the mountains to watch matches without having to purchase a ticket. This was one of the favourite activities of the kid in the late 1960’s.

“Mainly because of my brother I fell in love with rugby. In the afternoon together with my friends we played on the paddy fields and roads. We had to use slippers as our ball and passed it from one to another. In our days we did not even have plastic balls. When the plastic bottles were introduced, it became our ball. We produced about 15 national players from our village. It was in 1972 I started playing for the Under-17 team. Then in 1974 I represented the first XV team. I was made the vice-captain in 1975 and led the team in 1976 and the outstation schools’ team in 1977.” Nihal remembered his baby steps into the Hooligans game.

Nihal made sure he was not distracted by any other sport. He was into athletics and was a good 400m sprinter who won at school level. His athletic coaches would often request him to give up rugby and continue athletics, but nothing could change his mind. He had a clear interest and a goal; he wanted to be someone more than just a mere rugby player.

Soon after the 1976 schools’ rugby season, Nihal attended coaching classes at Kandy SC since he played for their ‘B’ side, the ‘Kandy Lions’. Usually the ‘B’ division matches were played prior to the ‘A’ division matches. Prior to walking into the grounds for warmups his coach, late Bertie Dias, would inform Nihal that he will not be playing. Nihal was saddened but Dias had something better to offer: a surprise. ‘Viper is going to play as Number 7’. Nihal was over the moon when coach Dias said this. Sadly, Nihal was on the field only for about 10 minutes in his first game before being red carded for a dangerous tackle and suspended for three months. In fact, the first player to be suspended during his first match.

In 1976, Nihal played for Kandy and in 1978 for a brief period he played for CR&FC. Once again, he was back in Kandy in 1978 and continued to play for the prestigious club till 1991, captaining them in 1984. He was loyal to Kandy; this was evident when he represented the club for 15 years till 1991 with over 200 games under his belt. In 1990 he coached the Kandy team while playing for them.

 Nihal got the opportunity to play for the Sri Lankan 15’s and 7’s national teams in 1978 under legendary coach Summa Navaratnam in the Rugby Asiad and Hong Kong Sevens. In 1978 he was employed by Ceylon Tobacco Company and coached them in 1986/87 and helped them become the mercantile champions.

Nihal is commonly known as ‘Viper’ Gunarathne in the rugby and sporting fraternity, but he is actually Viper Junior, since his brother Edwin was originally called ‘Viper’. “The name Viper belonged to my brother. In 1971 Air Force played a match against the British planters’ side. Edwin was a deadly tackler which saw five of his opponents seeking medical assistance. Soon the opposing players used to say ‘be careful of that Viper’. This was the name they gave him after seeing how he played, tackled, and sprinted. The British reporters used to call him ‘As A viper’ and the next morning the newspaper heading would read “A viper in the Air Force team sends five to the hospital.’ Later when I started to play the game I was called ‘Viper Junior.’ Nihal shared the story how he came to be called Viper.

It was in 1987 Nihal started his professional coaching career starting with his alma mater St Anthony’s. Nihal then was roped in by Dharmaraja College, Kandy and coached them for five years until 1992. Main aim of Nihal was to be someone other than just an ordinary coach. He was someone who used to question everything and himself, explore and gain knowledge about studying the game and various techniques of coaching. After 1992 he was away from rugby for about 10 years. This was because he traveled to Australia to complete some training courses and took on coaching a few junior teams.

After his return in 2005 he was appointed as the Director of Rugby at St. Anthony’s College, Kandy until 2008. In 2005 St. Anthony’s was demoted to ‘B’ division but the return of Viper only strengthened them as they became the unbeaten ‘B’ Division champions, and the Singer Sevens champions in 2005 and 2006.

With so much coaching experience and qualifications, Viper was in big demand by schools to coach them. From the Hills Viper came down to Colombo and worked as the consultant coach of S. Thomas’ Mount Lavina in 2010, and then moved to become the Director of Rugby at St. Joseph’s Colombo in 2013. Whenever his Alma Mater wanted his services, he was back with the boys to coach them. In 2016 he once again coached the Anthony’s side before going on to become the head coach and Director of Coaching at Isipathana in 2019.

Viper did not only coach schools, but he also made sure to provide his expertise to the clubs too. After coaching Ceylon Tobacco (1986 and 1987) and Kandy (1990), he coached Hornsby Rugby club in Sydney in 2004 when he was there to complete his rugby coaching courses. He was the head coach at Sri Lanka Army in 2018/2019 and then coached the CH & FC boys in 2019/2020.

It was in 2019 that he became the only Sri Lankan World Rugby coach educator trainer and is currently a member of the East Asia Trainer Panel. Being a Rugby Educator and a trainer Viper has conducted an uncountable number of seminars and has produced over 500 licensed coaches. He has also rendered his services as visiting lecturer at the sports science diploma and MSc Course of the University of Peradeniya in 2009.

Coaching and educating were his passions and what he loved doing more than just playing the game. Viper Junior made sure to extend his support and knowledge gained to other countries as well. He has conducted Level 1 and 2 coaching at Lahore, Pakistan for World Rugby in 2015. He has also attended the World Rugby CPD programme in Japan 2015 and India 2016.

“I was never pressured by my parents; I had the freedom to do what I wanted and this helped me balance sports and studies. Right now, I am living with a family of three Doctors. My wife Professor Roshitha Waduge who I married in 1990 is a professor in Pathology, my daughter Nilupuli is a doctor in the Matale Hospital and my son Hasthika – who played his Junior Rugby for Trinity College as a fly half and who was a classmate of Tharindra Ratwatte – is doing his final year in medicine. My son, who decided to concentrate more on an academic career after his junior rugby, has a vast knowledge of the game and even teaches me at times. My daughter who studied at Mahamaya College played basketball at School.” Nihal spoke about his parents’ support and his family.

Nihal ‘Viper Junior’ has over 40 years of Rugby in his body and all he loves is to talk about the game, study about the game, research about the game, and educate many around the globe. Adding to his list of coaching, he has coached the Sri Lanka Under-20 team in 2007, Sri Lanka youth team in 2010 and 2011 and the Kandy combined Schools from 2010 to 2012 and in 2015.  This is one reason why this passionate gent is the chairman of coaching at Sri Lanka Rugby since 2020 and is a member of the Technical Committee.

Finally, this 66-year-old, yet young at heart down to earth gentleman, wanted to thank all his coaches at school, clubs, and at the national team who helped him to reach this far. Viper Junior, who has great respect in Asia, also remembered a few of his role models. The names included Gowder, Madugalle, Denzil Kobbakaduwa, Hisham Abdeen and Chandrishan Perera to name a few.

By Vimukthi Adithya