The Indian women’s rugby team has made its presence felt: Neha Pardeshi

The first week of June presented a historic moment for the Indian women’s rugby team, who played their maiden traditional 15-player or 15s rugby tournament in the newly introduced Asia Rugby Women’s Championship – Division 1 at the Queenstown Stadium in Singapore, along with fellow debutants the Philippines and host Singapore.

The country which had so far gained experience playing the shorter 7s matches were eager to test their skills in the longer format from June 2 to June 8. Weaving great hopes, the team led by skipper Vahbiz Bharucha took the field against two of their continental rivals.

India opened their campaign against the hosts and clearly the favourites Singapore. It was an eye-opening 30-5 defeat for the visitors but India had nothing to lose in the tournament knowing that they were playing the longer 80 minutes version of the game for the first time. Incidentally, the Indian men’s 15-a-side team had also made their international debut against Singapore, in Singapore, in 1998, which they lost 80-5.

The following game against the Philippines also handed a 19-5 loss to the Indian Eves, however, this time, they showed some great nerves to resist the forays made by the strong-built opponents. Beyond the results, the tournament showed what potential India hold that can be unfurled in the coming days. The difference in formats is obvious between 7s and 15s are obvious with 15 players rather than seven sharing the 100m x 70m rugby field, constricting elbow room. Additionally, the total game duration in Sevens is 14 minutes while each half in 15-a-side lasts 40 minutes.

“Stepping outside the comfort zone is what we players do”

“It was a watershed moment for us, traveling to Singapore to play our 15s tournament was a dream come true for all the players who shed their blood, sweat, and tears to make it to this stage. We played our hearts out for the entire 80-minute stretch of both the games and I am proud of the gallant fight the women put against the teams,” says Neha Pardeshi, who leads the side in the 7s Rugby, to The Bridge

When asked about the takeaways from the tournament, Pardeshi analysed, “Owing to our familiarity with the 7s format of the game, we were definitely the fastest team in the tournament as the shorter format is much swift. However, we realized that the 15s is more about contact game.

“Although we put our best efforts on the field, the players of the other two teams saw the better off us owing to their strength.” She added. “We were initially taken aback by the size of our opponents but by the second game, we were able to shed our fear and encountered them with a full pack. Afterall, stepping outside the comfort zone is what we players do.

The 26-member team that went on to lock horns in Singapore has a diverse set of players ranging from 17-35. The team comprises nine players from Odisha, seven from Delhi, five from West Bengal, three from Maharashtra and one each from Goa and Bihar, the senior-most player being Sangeeta Bera from the Kolkata Police Force.

Bera, who is also a 100-meter dash specialist had played her last rugby game in 2015. She was on a two-year hiatus after giving birth to a boy. Such was her dedication that even though the doctors suggested a cesarean delivery, she opted for a normal delivery knowing that the former method would have troubled her in pursuing the sport. Besides, her duty in the police department also demands her to go on investigating murder and robbery cases.

Also read: Rugby in India-The onward journey

15s rugby is a physically demanding game with 80 minutes of high-intensity scrumming and running and kicking. Another senior player, Subhalaxmi Barik has subsisted on only four hours sleep daily for the last three years since the birth of her son Sushant. Barik, who is also a forestry department guard in Odisha, used to routinely chase down elephant poachers and wood smugglers in dense forests of the belt.

The most talented player in the 26-member squad is probably the full-back Sandhya Rai. Her strength and agility make her one of the most dependable players, who can capture high balls while making split-second decisions. The daughter of a daily wage earner from West Bengal’s Siliguri made her way to the national team displaying impressive game sense and improvisations.

The stereotypes that were broken

When asked about the experience of playing alongside these talented set of players, Pardeshi said, “Every member in the squad is a fighter in their own right. Every one of them has their own set of stories that are nothing short of inspiring. Vahbiz and I have been there in the squad from the beginning since 2009 and it has been a wonderful journey playing alongside them. Besides, we also have six under-18 players in our squad, which makes us a diverse bunch.”

Pardeshi has set her own example by breaking stereotypes and a role-model for many women athletes across India. The 25-year-old scrum-half has been involved with sports since her childhood. Pardeshi, who started off with fencing and handball and was a national-level athletics star apart from being a Computer Science-graduate from Pune’s Fergusson College. She was handed captain’s armband in 2016, before the Asian Rugby Sevens Championship held in Colombo. She led the team to emerge as the champions in 2017 Asian Championship in Laos.

The team is an inseparable entity of Pardeshi’s life who also praises the coach, Nasser Hussain, who was once India’s men’s rugby team captain and one of the best players of the game from the country. “Our coach is a major support system for us who guides us in every course of the game. He made us undergo a three-and-a-half-week camp at the Bombay Gymkhana before our Singapore sojourn, which had given us a lot of exposure of the longer format of the game.”

Rugby has come a long way today in the country and it is growing rapidly, having been included in the school calendar University level games. The footprint has significantly increased with states like Odisha coming forward to inculcate the rugby culture among the tribal section of the society. With regards to the Women’s 15s format, the sport has grown leaps and bounds. Today we have dedicated 26-member team with players handpicked on the basis of their performances in the national zonal rugby 15s. The Asia Rugby Women’s Championship was a stepping stone for the country.

Marking the dawn of India’s arrival, women’s rugby has a long way to stride and a history to create.