Bharatha Hegoda – only player to play club rugby for three decades

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To engage in a sport like rugby, one needs to be mentally and physically fit. Ruggerites would mostly retire from the game when they reach 35, mainly because of the workload involved, and yes, the Hooligans game is a deadly and tiring sport.

Seldom do you hear of a player engaged in competitive rugby for over three decades. Still playing at the age of 50? Now that’s something that would raise many eyebrows.

The story of Bharatha Hegoda is something unique and special. He started to play the oval-shaped ball game in 1972 at the age of 17, and the last time he played was in 2005 at the age of 50! His love for the game saw him changing schools, and because of the game he found the love of his life.

Born in the heart of Colombo (Kollupitiya) on 2 September 1955 to the late Kusuma and Dharmadasa Hegoda, Bharatha is the youngest of the family. He received unconditional love and care from his elder siblings – sister Ajantha and brother Ravindra.

Known as Greenland’s College, Isipathana was founded in January 1952 to transfer the surplus of students from Royal Primary. A decade after commencement, Greenland’s College was re-named Isipathana in 1961. Bharatha first attended Greenland’s from Grade One and then automatically became a Pathanian.

Just like many kids, he too fell in love with and wanted to play cricket for the school. He had played softball with his pals but now wanted to try out hard ball too. With the intention of playing for the team, he attended a training cum selection camp held to select players for the Under-17 team. There were about 25 students gearing up to showcase their talents. The kid wore pads for the first time in his life and played a few balls, failing to connect a few, and was not selected. The teenager was devastated and sad. There was no option other than to give up cricket.

“I was really sad and upset at not getting picked for the team. After a week or so, seniors went around the classes inviting anyone who would like to join the rugby team to come in the evening to attend a selection session. After giving up on my dream to be a cricketer, I thought that I should give a shot at rugby. About 60 students attended the session, and I got an opportunity to join the Under-17 team.” Bharatha remembered his initial steps to the game. 

From Under-17 level, in his 2nd year, Bharatha was able to find a spot in the ‘A’ team as a second-rower. In 1972 he was selected for the first XV team, which also happened to be the year Isipathana was banned from participating in the League due to an age issue which happened the previous season. He might have thought that his dream of playing the Hooligans game was just going to be a dream, but this was not the case. Since rugby was banned, the teenager decided to look for other avenues to keep himself active.

The late Kamal Jayawardena was the turning point in Bharatha’s life. Kamal requested Bharatha and a few of the Pathanians to join Dehiwala Central College and continue playing rugby. After speaking with the Principal, Bharatha enrolled as a student of Dehiwala Central (now renamed S. De S. Jayasinghe Maha Vidyalaya) because of his sheer love for the oval shaped ball game. There were also a couple of kids from Thurstan who enrolled.

The next three years (1973/74/75), Bharatha got the opportunity to play for Dehiwala Central, and this was his real start to the game to which he dedicated a number of years of his life.

Straight after bidding farewell to his school in 1975, he decided to join CH&FC. Playing in an Under-22 tournament he showcased his talents and grabbed the attention of the CH Management, since they ended up as champions. In 1976 he got the opportunity to play for the senior team and was coached and moulded by dedicated veteran coach Archibald Perera. Since the other players in the team were from top schools in Colombo, Bharatha felt intimidated as he was the only player from Dehiwala. He was often referred to as the ‘Dehiwala boy’, but the boys and the coach made the environment comfortable for him, and taking a step further, Archibald motivated the Dehiwala boy by saying he can one day be the best player in the nation.

Bharatha played the 1977 season for CH, and when one of his friends influenced him to join the Navy as a Cadet Officer, he decided to wear the Navy jersey from the 1978 season. Navy became a stronger team after Bharatha and a few other players joined, and they played some good and competitive rugby in the League. Bharatha was also instrumental in Navy beating CH in 1979.

After showcasing his talents at club level, he got the opportunity to represent the Sri Lankan team at the 1978 Asiad. From there onwards he was a key member of the XV-a-side team and the National 7s team. He first got into the 7s team in 1979 and played in the Hong Kong 7s.

Bharatha did not like the culture and rugby environment at the Navy, as he felt his freedom was curbed, and wanted to move out. “One of my friends knew that I wanted to move out from the Navy, and he invited me to re-join CH. I obliged, but had to pay a fine to the Navy (Rs 800/-) – a big sum during that time which I could not afford. I told my friends about this and two of them got together and paid the amount and pushed me to play for CH. I came back to my first club in 1979 and continued to play for them until 1982, while captaining them in 1981. In 1982 due to a knee injury, I had to step back from the game for a while, but came back in 1983.” Bharatha remembered the drama that he was involved in when he came back to CH from the Navy.

Bharatha played for the national XV’s team in five Asiads from 1978 to 1988, and played for the sevens team in five Hong Kong Sevens from 1979 to 1985.

During his time at CH, he was instrumental in CH lifting many championships. Few of them were the sevens championship in 1980, League in 1982, Clifford Cup in 1983, runner-up of the Premadasa Trophy in 1984 and winning the trophy in 1985, 1986 and 1988. In 1991 he decided to bid farewell to club rugby for a while and decided to play for CH ‘Kabaragoyas’. Four years later he was once again invited to Join the CH team in 1995 by Tony Amith, since they lacked a 2nd row forward. In 1995 at the age of 40 he was back in the CH team proving that age is not a barrier to play a demanding sport like rugby.

He continued to play for the ‘B’ team till 2005 until he reached his half century. It indeed was something quite unbelievable and astonishing to hear an athlete playing a sport like rugby for three decades. He started playing club rugby when he was 20 and continued until he was 50. This in fact was a record as he is still the first and only player to play over three decades of rugby. Whenever he was injured, he would come back quickly and more strongly.

After bidding farewell to the game, Bharatha worked under Malik Samarawickrama, and in 2010 was appointed a national selector. While serving in this capacity, he also worked as a Match Commissioner for the Sri Lankan Rugby Union. In 2013 this dedicated gutsy ruggerite decided to move into coaching and took on the coaching job at St. Benedict’s College in 2013. His dedication as a coach had positive results, since the Bens were promoted to the ‘B’ Division in 2014. Bharatha coached Bens till 2015, during which time they improved by leaps and bounds.

In 1983 Bharatha married Sherine. Their love story has a beautiful beginning as Sherine was a sister of one of his teammates at CH. Sherine would visit the grounds to watch matches, where she fell in love with her brother’s teammate, which ended in a marriage.

Sherine and Bharatha are blessed with a daughter (Vimasha) and a son. Vimasha is married and mother of a 13-year-old. There is some connection with rugby in the entire family as Vimasha got married to a rugby player who played for St Joseph’s, and later, just like his father-in-law, represented CH&FC. While her father used to play for CH, young Vimasha would visit the grounds to watch him play, and just like her mother, Sherine, who was out in the grounds to watch her brother play fell in love with her father, she fell in love with a junior player in her father’s team.

Bharatha’s son was also a good rugby player who captained St. Joseph’s in 2008. Later he played a couple of years for his father’s club, CH.

“My parents were very supportive and helped me a lot. They never wanted to put restrictions or hamper my freedom. I was given the opportunity to decide what I wanted in life, be it studies or sports. My father was always behind me, looking into my needs and always motivating me. He would visit the grounds to watch all my matches. He would go to the grounds before me and wait till I arrived at the grounds. He would always sit in a corner and watch me play. Then the next day he would always buy the newspapers to see whether my name was in it. He would then take the paper cuttings and keep them safe. Who I am and what I have achieved right now is all because of my involvement in sports. It taught me teamwork, what winning and losing is and helped me to learn about people.” Bharatha commented on the support extended by his parents and what support has added to his life. 

Engaging in a demanding sport for over three decades is not an easy task at all, but Bharatha was a different kettle of fish. Finally, he wanted to thank all his coaches and teammates who helped him in different phases of his life.

By Vimukthi Adithya