On one of my travels, I once invoked my mentor/coach to put into words what rugby meant to him. With gusto and a reflective amour-propre, he said, ‘It’s a way of life’. Behind the crude exterior of the game is a sophistication and art that typify a culture that is ingrained deep in its roots. Burly men and women who are at loggerheads on the field assume timid demeanors in front of the referee. This discipline meets camaraderie off the pitch when teams often congregate over a drink post the match, putting aside their differences.
But is this culture prevalent in India? Rugby is growing and its numbers will more than surprise you. India ranks second in Asia, behind Japan, and fifth worldwide with reference to mass participation in the ‘Get Into Rugby’ programme. Yes, there is a huge gulf in class with respect to the standards in rugby but strength in numbers helps lay a solid foundation for the sport to grow its wingspan.
Having been introduced in the colonial era, rugby in India has a rich history in Mumbai, through the Bombay Gymkhana Club, and Kolkata, via the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club. Both clubs play host to the All India, which takes place every year, alternating between the two home grounds, and boast of an enviable infrastructure. The club structure today has trickled into government organisations with teams being fielded from the police forces as well as the army, a side that has dominated proceedings in the national circuit in recent past. The entire length of the country is engaged in the sport from Jammu and Kashmir to Tamil Nadu.
But rugby has gone beyond chasing an oval ball for some. Paul Walsh, a former British diplomat, has dedicated his life to Jungle Crows – a firm, which he helped establish and based out of Kolkata, that nurtures young children from disadvantaged backgrounds through rugby. Along with the Foundation, Paul has also started #KheloRugby ‘ an initiative that addresses a range of social issues through a dose of rugby. The social project has touched 1000 lives and aims to impact several more, having already been recognised by the international governing body for the game ‘ World Rugby. Paul’s effervescent smile permeates through to his boys and girls who have become a cornerstone of Indian rugby. Sport truly does transcend more than just boundaries.
The nature of clubs that exist in the country epitomises rugby as a sport. Not all are the same but they are all integral to the Rugby India cog. And the integration would be incomplete without the inclusion of women’s rugby. Beginning in pockets, women’s rugby has started to find its feet and, in recent past, taken over the mantle of propagating the sport to the masses. The national team’s silver medal at the Asian Rugby Women’s Sevens Trophy in Laos helped shine the spotlight on the sport in the country with even the Honourable Prime Minister making note of this achievement in his ‘Mann Ki Baat’. Captain Neha Pardeshi, who has seen the growth of the sport since women’s rugby’s first steps in the country, is upbeat about the change that’s already sweeping the sport, “Initially, the sheer physicality would ward off potential players but today, even parents are pushing their children to take to the sport.”
Having rubbed shoulders with some of the best in the world, Neha feels that the national team needs more time together. “Training camps of late have been much more synchronized”, all of which has been made possible with Soci t G n rale coming on board to lend weight to not just the national teams but also to the grassroots development of the sport. Neha’s performances on the pitch have seen her rake in a nutrition sponsor, something she shyly alludes to.
As the national teams plough ahead, the focus of India’s parent body ‘ Rugby India is grassroots development. General Manager of Rugby India, Nasser Hussain, believes that the bottom-up approach coupled with the national team’s progress bodes well for the game in the country in the long run, ‘Given its demography, India, along with China, is a captive market for World Rugby’. Nasser reckons that sport’s inclusion under the Corporate Social Responsibility banner will be instrumental in the growth of Rugby India, a firm registered as a not-for-profit.
India’s platonic relationship with sports has hampered progress but there’s solace in the fact that the only way from here is up. Physical attributes have often been cited as qualities that Indians don’t possess, but the argument is left suspect when Indian wrestlers and boxers are often found contending for medals on the international stage. And our women in blue seem to be dispelling the myth, of late, with the oval ball as well. Breaking stereotypes has become the stereotype in today’s world but just how far can Rugby India’s boat sail?