Receiving the ball from the flyhalf’, Sweety Kumari runs wide past the outstretched arms of the first defender, steps infield dodging a rival winger, whizzes past two more defenders who fall helplessly as she zooms past them before two more defenders attempt to bring her down. But Sweety powers through and scores a try, leaving both defenders clutching at her ankles.
It was thanks to this stunning try versus the Philippines at the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship on June 19, 2019, that Sweety, a 19-year-old explosive winger from Nawada village in Barh Tehsil of Patna, caught the rugby world’s attention.
— Asia Rugby (@asiarugby) June 20, 2019
The try reminded me of the first time I saw New Zealand All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu on television during the 1999 Rugby World Cup, whose speed and power often left rival defenders helplessly holding onto his T-shirt or ankles as he scored a try.
Although India lost that match to the Philippines 32-27, Sweety’s hot form carried onto the next fixture versus Singapore three days later, scoring two tries and helping India win their first-ever international women’s 15s victory with a 21-19 win.
Once again, her incredible power and speed were on display. In one instance, she left four defenders in her wake.
“The match versus Singapore was probably my favourite experience playing for India, starting from the wonderful facilities to overcoming the pressure of scoring tries and winning the match for India. It’s something I’ll never forget,” says Sweety, in an exclusive interview with The Better India.
“My favourite part of the sport is running fast with the ball in my hands, deceiving defenders with subtle movements, stepping in and out at full speed, making my opponents look silly and showcasing my ability on the pitch,” she adds.
Even though this is a phone interview, the joy in Sweety’s voice over being selected as the “international young player of the year” by reputed women’s rugby website Scrumqueens is palpable.
“She impressed from the start, but it was this year that she started making a big impact scene in Asia at both sevens and fifteens. Described by Asia Rugby as the continent’s fastest player, her explosive pace and power has resulted in her top-scoring at most of India’s sevens tournaments, as well as scoring two outstanding tries their first ever test match win against Singapore,” wrote Scrumqueens.
Need For Speed
Growing up in a household with five sisters and two brothers, Sweety first made her mark in track and field in her early teens.
Running for her government school, district and eventually state, she ran 100m under 12 seconds during one particular track meet in Patna. However, a year after getting into track and field, she was introduced to rugby by Pankaj Kumar Jyoti, the secretary of the Bihar Rugby Association, during a state athletics meet in Siwan.
“Pankaj Sir told me that I had genuine speed, and convinced me that I would do really well in rugby. Although it doesn’t elicit major crowds today, the day isn’t far away when massive audiences will watch us play,” mentions Sweety.
“Just 14, she single-mindedly found out all she could about the game, created and organised a team, and entered the state championship. Within three years she was in the national U17 team, and last year the senior national team,” wrote Scrumqueen.
“Initially, all I learnt was to pass back and run forward during my first junior pre-camp. But, thanks to my coaches, I learnt how to run wide on the flanks, get past defenders and think about the game. While I am blessed with great speed, I consistently train every day to improve my running rhythm and ability to step in and out,” she says.
After playing a series of national-level tournaments, she eventually got noticed. Just two years after first picking up the game, she was selected to play for India in the Youth Olympic Asia Qualifier match in Dubai sometime around November 2017.
Interestingly, for the longest time, her parents had no idea that she was a rugby player.
“They thought I was still into athletics. However, that changed when I was selected to play for India and needed a passport to travel. In fact, my father was bemused when I told him about playing rugby. He asked me, “What is this sport?” Instead of explaining the sport and all its nuances, I told him he would one day watch me live on TV. Seeing my confidence, he helped me. Thankfully, I have received a lot of love and encouragement from my family,” she says.
Despite playing with real confidence, Sweety was very nervous before her debut.
“There was trepidation about how women from other nations would tackle me or use their physicality. Thankfully seniors in my team calmed me down. As I played one match after another, those fears disappeared. Today, instead of me fearing them, it’s the opposite. I have learnt how to dodge and step better, besides learning new techniques to beat these defences. This year, you will see a completely new Sweety, although the speed will remain,” she asserts.
Indian Rugby Legend in The Making
Today, she has fans around the world, particularly in the rugby-crazy Pacific Islands. Even at home, the state government has elevated rugby’s profile, offering jobs to talented players.
For Sweety, however, it’s all about raising India’s game on the world stage and getting girls from her village to pick up the sport.
“There are girls in my village who want to play rugby, but their parents won’t allow them to leave home and play in shorts. I have tried to explain the many advantages of playing sports at the highest level like experiencing the world outside, meeting new people, tasting different foods, visiting new countries and meeting celebrities. But some parents don’t see these benefits. They fear that their daughter might get hurt, break her foot and won’t get married,” she adds.
“India’s hopes of playing outside Asia appear limited with at least half a dozen better resourced and more experienced nations competing for Asia’s one or two spots in world tournaments…but if any one player can take her team to a higher level its Kumari,” wrote Scrumqueens.
There is no doubt that Sweety is a definite Indian rugby legend in the making!
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)