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Women in Blue make history in rugby

The women’s 15s rugby team played its first international match just last year, and has already brought home a medal. In a sport marked by aggression, they’re breaking stereotypes at home and abroad

Anesha George

While most of India was cheering the Men in Blue through to the semi-finals of the Cricket World Cup, a video that went viral showed a bewildered Hupi Majhi, 24, crying, in Manila. She couldn’t believe their team had won in the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship Division 1.

It had been a tense 80-minute match against the higher-ranked Singapore, with the last 15 minutes being the most crucial. Right at the end, India’s Sumitra Nayak, 19, delivered a successful penalty kick. Now all India had to do was ensure that Singapore didn’t overturn the score in the last three minutes.

Team captain Vahbiz Bharucha, 26, recalls hearing the 80th minute whistle and collapsing on the field, looking up at the sky, her mind blank.

“It took a while for it to sink in that we had actually won our first title,” she says. “That didn’t last long; in seconds, all the girls had jumped on for a giant pile-on.”

The Indian women’s rugby team earned their bronze in a nail-biting 21-19 victory in June. It was only their fourth international match in the 15-a-side version of the brutal contact sport. Just last year, when they made their 15s debut, they had lost 30-5 to the same Singapore team.

“We’ve come a long way, from being a bunch of women just trying to wrap our heads around what we are supposed to do with this egg-shaped ball — to a bunch of winners on the international stage,” Bharucha says.

Gone are the days when the players were intimidated by the tough, high-contact, aggressive sport. “When we first started playing, we were all scared of how intense it was. It looked like everyone on field was wrestling but with a ball,” says Majhi.

“My mother’s first reaction when I told her I’d been selected for the national team was fear that I would injure myself or break an arm,” says Bihar’s Sweety Kumari, 19. “But then I told her about the many other fearless women playing the game and that I believed I could play as well as them.”

For Nayak, the fears did come true and a shoulder injury suffered on the field kept her from playing for about three months in 2013. “When the doctor told me I wouldn’t be able to play for months, that’s when I actually cried,” she says.

Rugby is relatively new to India. The men’s team is a little over two decades old, set up just after the Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU) was formed in 1998. It was only in 2001 that they were admitted into the International Rugby Board (IRB); they are currently ranked 86th on the 105-country world rankings for the game.

India’s national women’s rugby team was formed in 2009. They played the Rugby Sevens or seven-a-side game (sort of the T20, with the 15s being like the limited overs format in cricket).

The 15s is the more competitive format of the game, and the women started playing it last year. “The 15s is more physically demanding and needs careful strategising, which the women have been excelling at,” says former captain of the national men’s team and general manager of the IRFU, Nasser Hussain.

In March this year, IRFU brought legendary South African player Naas Botha on board as head coach for the men’s and women’s teams. “I think some of the women have it in them to become international players but their biggest weakness was getting confident about their moves,” Botha says.

In Asia, 32 countries have national rugby teams. Only seven have a women’s 15s team — Hong Kong, Japan, China, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Singapore and India.

The Indian women were first introduced to the format in a national tournament organised by IRFU in 2016. “The union realised that now we had enough players to try the 15s,” says team captain Bharucha. “We had the numbers, all we needed was the right training, so we could start playing international matches.”

That meant increased stamina — in a 15s game, players are on the field for 40 minutes at a stretch; it also meant training for greater endurance and strength because the 15s involves a lot of tackling. Regular training routines began to involve a daily mix of up to four hours of running, cycling, swimming and cardio training to push their bodies to develop muscle, stamina, strength and 

It helped that some of the women had been playing the relatively unusual game since they were children. Seven of India’s current national squad of 26 are from Odisha — five from just one institute, the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, or KISS. A residential institute for tribal children, KISS has had a women’s 7s rugby team since 2007.

There are over 120 rugby clubs and around 800 schools affiliated to state and district associations, with competitive rugby being played across 24 states. These clubs compete against each other to play for state-level championship and IRFU then organises national camps (since 2018, for the 15s women’s team) where players compete for a spot.

The youngest on the current national team is Parbhati Kisku, 18, a student at KISS. Kumari was named best player at the Asia Sevens Trophy in Brunei last year for her high score of 10 tries. The eldest is Sangeeta Bera, 36, a policewoman from Kolkata who had a son in 2015, took a break from the game, and returned to rugby last year.

“Training after having a child is hard because you have to first shed all the weight you gained and then train for stamina so you can last 80 minutes in the field,” says Subhalaxmi Barik, 30, a forest guard in Odisha who also had a son, five years ago. Bharucha, a physiotherapist, and computer engineer Neha Pardeshi, 25, are both from Pune. Most of the players have kept their day jobs, since rugby generates little by way of income, in India.

Some states do award players with prize money for representing the country, others try to offer government jobs. “One player from Bihar got about `6 lakh after an international game last year. We are currently in talks with the Odisha government to provide jobs to national-level players,” Hussain says.

The central government currently does nothing to promote the sport. “We don’t have a single dedicated rugby field in the country and are always at the mercy of other sporting associations,” Hussain says. “We are hoping to build a rugby centre in Odisha with help from the state.”

Botha’s aim, for now, is to try and help the women’s team register for at least 8-10 international games a year, so they can “master their moves and hone their skill”.

Now he is still scouting for more players, looking for taller, stronger players as well. “We are one of the smallest in build in the international matches,” explains Hussain. “But we can change that into an advantage by being less confrontational and faster on the field.”

(HT Media)

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