You probably missed the news of how, last month, the Indian women’s 15-a-side team (XVs) won the bronze medal in the four-team Asia Women’s Division 1 Rugby XVs Championships in the Philippines, defeating a stronger and higher ranked Singapore team, 21-19.
Consider this—The team was put together only last year, and a majority of the members come from tribal areas, and rural parts of the country in states like Odisha, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Bihar.
Aside from playing rugby, they have other jobs—physiotherapist, police and gym trainer—to support themselves, while some are still studying in universities.
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Reading their stories makes it evident that they have endured everything, including a language barrier and abject poverty, and have beaten the odds
Take the example of 34-year-old Sangeeta Beera, who is the oldest member of the team. Almost four years ago, she stood firm in her determination not to have a c-section for the birth of her son fearing that the long recovery time would affect her performance on the field.
Even though the child was born at a whopping 4 kg, she underwent the intense pain of natural birth and was back on the field in just three months.
Then there’s Priya Baisla, the 25-year-old outside centre, who would have probably gotten married right out of school had she not picked up the sport.
How did the game become popular in India?
“Women’s rugby in India began in 2009 at a professional level. While the women played Rugby sevens, originally known as seven-a-side rugby, it was only about two-three years ago when they expressed a real interest in the more popular XVs format. We organised national tournaments for women in the XVs format alongside men, and were surprised by how quickly they took to it,” says Nasser Hussain, former captain of the national team and managing director of Rugby India, the governing body for the sport, speaking to The Better India.
Although the rules are more or less the same, there is a difference in the number of players and duration.
For XVs, it’s 40 minutes each half for 15-a-side matches. It is more strategic and tactical in terms of the way it’s played, whereas Sevens, which is seven players on each side and 7-minute-halfs, is more free-flowing and easier to understand.
“National-level tournaments were our preparation ground. They set the benchmark, and we understood that they were ready for the XVs tournament. From four teams (including state and club-level teams) at the end of 2016, they will have 20 state and club teams playing against each other in the national tournament, this year,” says Hussain.
Hussain explains that in the last few years, the focus has been on the women’s team, and they have been exposed to more international tournaments than the men. It was a strategic decision because of how the women have excelled and the potential they possess.
“They’ve gone ahead and proved us right, coming second in Asian Sevens tournament a couple of years ago, winning the game in Manila and the under-18 girls side finishing fourth among 12 Asian countries in a recent tournament. It’s not like we are neglecting the men, but with a limited budget, the emphasis is on women,” he says.
Beyond the national team, however, the real magic is happening at the grassroots level. The ‘Get Into Rugby’ programme, a World Rugby initiative, has successfully made its presence felt in 26 states, spreading the word about the game with local schools and communities.
In the past decade, these states have seen active participation in the men’s, women’s and age-grade level (under-14, under-17, under-20, etc.) tournaments.
“The major focus has been on the age-grade level competitions. If you look at our calendar of events in terms of national tournaments, 80% would be age-grade tournaments. We do roughly 20-odd national tournaments in a year, of which 4-5 are catered to the senior group. Here, women see a clear pathway for them to proceed from the age levels into the senior setup,” informs Hussain.
“We are pleased that the hard work the girls have put in has paid off, and they secured their first win in only the fourth XVs format match they played,” he adds.
Speaking to The Print, Vahbiz Bharucha, the team captain, exclaims, “I was drawn to the sport the minute I saw it. I loved that girls were literally tackling each other on the field, and laughing and hanging out outside of it. It looked like a carnival.”
She watched her first match in Pune nearly 13 years back, as part of Rugby India’s ‘Get into Rugby’ programme, and picked up the sport in 2009.
Funding and the future
Rugby India is mainly supported by World Rugby.
While support from the Central level is nominal, the Odisha government has yet again taken up the mantle of supporting rugby as it did with hockey and athletics.
“The Odisha government has been very forthcoming and supportive in terms of providing facilities and holding our national training camps. We have even partnered with the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS), and they have helped the team attain high-performance progress,” says Hussain.
According to this report in The Print, “KISS became a torchbearer for rugby in 2007 when the under-14 boys team of seven came back with the school-level World Cup from London. Helming the team was Paul Walsh, a former diplomat who founded the Jungle Crows Foundation, dedicated to popularising rugby in India. Some of the current female players’ brothers were part of that team, and that is a major reason for their interest in the sport.”
Despite all the progress, there is a long way to go for the team. The women know that rugby won’t bring home a sizeable income, and still need a secure job to supplement their pursuit of the sport.
Nonetheless, the passion is there, and they are determined to make their mark.
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(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)