Rugby? “What’s that?” one might be tempted to ask, but in most people’s eyes, it is a game where a bunch of people ends up running up and down the field in order to gain possession of the ball. However, it isn’t as amateur as that. Rugby is a very technically sound game with the great use of strategy and organization.
Rugby is a major sport in some of the most economically developed countries like all four home nations of United Kingdom – England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. It is popular in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. France has the best rugby league in the world and the best players of the world play for French clubs. The sport is growing fast in countries like Japan, Italy, Argentina, and the United States.
India, which is often stereotyped as a land of sweltering heat and cricket – the complete opposite of what comes to mind when one envisions rugby. But the problem with stereotypes is that they turn a partial truth into a universal one. Therefore, while many Indians may not participate in rugby, those who do, seem to consider the sport as a part of their identity.
Shaking off the age-old perception that it is a game of the elite and not suited to Indian climate, rugby seems to be slowly getting a foothold in the country. You never know, it may well be on course to soon emerge as a popular sport for the masses.
While the sport isn’t exactly flourishing, it is fighting for space and recognition. So is Neha Pardeshi, the captain of the Indian women’s rugby team.
Rugby is not as popular in the country as in the other European countries. But over the past decade, India has consistently been developing as a serious contender in the Asian rugby circuit. So to increase its value in the Asian countries, the managing body, Asia Rugby decided to come up with a series – Asian Seven Series in 2009.
Led by Avani Sabade and coached by Fiji’s Usaia Buimuiwai, India took part in the Asian Women’s Rugby Sevens Tournament for the first time at Pattaya in Thailand. “That was my first tournament outside the country. I did not play the tournament, only sat on the bench and observed everything from close quarters. I knew that I need to improve,” said the 23-year-old excitedly while speaking exclusively to The Logical Indian.
Born and brought up in Pune, Neha was only 15 back then. The Indian women’s team started participating in tournaments regularly after that and so has the scrum-half. (The scrum half is the key player in the team. She is at the center of all that happens and is the link between the forwards and the backs)
Neha started off with fencing, handball and was a national-level athletics star. “Rugby is not just about tackles. But more of aggression and speed. It is too fast a game to play well unless your concentration is in the right place when it counts the most,” she said.
Neha has learned a lot over her eight years of playing women’s rugby but most importantly she stressed anyone, any shape and size really can play rugby. “You don’t have to be big and strong to play rugby. You must make a commitment to work hard on your mental game as well as your physical one. And that is what matters.”
Neha had a distinct edge. The Pune girls were the only ones who played proper rugby and played it regularly; no other Indian city had women’s rugby.
When she chose rugby, her family did not have a weird reaction. Instead, Neha was told that she should try and play hard and attack the opponents. Unlike many sportspersons of her age, she enjoyed her family support throughout.
Back in 2009, India was ranked 14th in Asia. But participating in more competitions in the next couple of years gave them exposure. “We played against Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, and other teams during that period to garner more experience,” recalled Neha, who works in the marketing division of a private firm based in Pune.
Rugby Sevens is the shorter version of Rugby Union game with 7 players on each side. The game made its debut at the Summer Games this year at Rio de Janeiro. In 2015, at the pre-Olympic qualifiers, India put an impressive showing beating higher-ranked teams like Iran, Korea, and Guam in the process of reaching the finals. But they lost against Uzbekistan and missed the flight.
After a couple of weeks of gruesome training early this year, the women put on a superb show at the Rugby Development Sevens Series in Chennai, winning the bronze medal. They beat Indonesia 71-0 in the 3rd/4th playoff match to finish a highly commendable third in the competition.
Earlier the sport was restricted to the major metros but now it has spread to other cities and into rural India also. So the last few years have been good in terms of development. “We are absolutely crazy about the game but people don’t really know if anyone in India plays rugby which is sad,” added Neha.
Last month, the Computer Science graduate from Fergusson College was handed the captain’s armband ahead of the Asian Rugby Sevens Championship held in Colombo. “It’s an overwhelming feeling. I am glad that I have been chosen as the captain, but I also understand the responsibility that comes with it. I shall try my level best to take the sport forward and bring glory to the country.”
“It was amazing to play particularly against Japan. 4 of the main seven players including the captain played at the Rio Games. We gave our best and defended well. There were a lot of positives which we are going to implement in the near future.”
Rugby’s inclusion in the Olympics, after an absence of more than 90 years, increased the popularity of the sport globally. The Sevens tournaments, which have done so much to build interest and are similar in nature to Twenty20 competitions, are spread across the continents. With the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics to be hosted in Japan, this is an exciting time for Asia.
A fan of Usain Bolt and Richie McCaw, Neha believes the awareness of the sport has to come first, the problematic attitudes can come later. “We started as the 14th ranked team in Asia. Look at us now. We are beating higher-ranked teams on a regular basis and are ranked 8th in the world. More tournaments like the Asian Rugby Sevens should be organized to attract more people. This will help them get attached to the game as even I started liking the game like this.”
Neha had been once an athlete disgruntled with the lack of attention given to sportspersons taking up rugby as a career. However, what she has seen over the past few years changed her opinion. “When I started eight years back, the scene was not that great. But now players enjoy the support of Rugby India. I had too many hurdles to cross personally. Yes, there is possibly more that can be done for the sport. There are sports which are given more importance over other sports. But right now it is so much better than what was happening in 2009,” she said.
Everything around sports is evolving. It is very different from the time when she took up rugby after watching Rugby Football Club (RFC, Pune) take on a team from Hong Kong in an exhibition match. “All this has been possible because of the amount of money being pumped into rugby by private sponsors. But there is still very less support from the government. Getting a field to play on for regular practice and for the players to feel comfortable, that’s one more issue. Associations are reluctant to let out grounds.”
“But I still believe if given the right support by the government in terms of resources, being in the top 5 in Asia would be very easy,” she concluded.
It’s important that one enjoys the game and hopefully women’s rugby will get its due share of popularity in the coming future. Neha at least seems hopeful.