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The women who won India its first rugby medal — mom, students & gym trainer

The 15s women's rugby team, barely a year old, won India a bronze last month in the four-team Asia Women's Division 1 Rugby XVs Championship in the Philippines.

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New Delhi: The women of India’s 15-a-side national rugby team, which brought home the country’s first international medal in the sport on 22 June, embody much of what they admire in the sport: Collaboration, sacrifice and grit.

The team, barely a year old, won India a bronze last month in the four-team Asia Women’s Division 1 Rugby XVs Championship in the Philippines, defeating a higher-ranked Singapore 21-19 to announce their arrival on the scene.

Its youngest player, Parvati Kisku, is 18, and its oldest, Sangeeta Beera, 34. Some are mothers, while others have escaped lives of abject poverty.

They come from all over the country — Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra — bringing with them their local languages, sometimes not knowing English, the language of their South African coach Naas Botha, or Hindi.

But in the game, “it just doesn’t matter”, says Meerarani Hembram, the team’s fly-half who is one of five players from Odisha’s Santhal tribe. “What matters is that we come together and play for each other.”

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From a men’s club sport to international glory for women

Until a decade ago, rugby was a man’s sport in India. The first recorded match can be traced to colonial times in 1872, played between the British in Kolkata. It remained an exclusive “club” sport till around the late 1990s, played popularly in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

“In the early 2000s, there was a serious effort to develop the sport and reach out to more people,” says Nasser Hussain, former captain of India’s national rugby team and managing director of the Indian Rugby Football Union (also known as Rugby India), the governing body for the sport.

“Professional women’s rugby only started in 2009,” Hussain added. “Since then, our promotions have been targeted equally towards men and women. All we want is more people playing the sport.”

It is a significant year for many in the women’s team since it is the first time they are seriously playing the sport, encouraged by Rugby India’s investment in grooming and training them for international matches.

“I was drawn to the sport the minute I saw it,” says Vahbiz Bharucha, the national women’s team captain who saw her first match in Pune in 2006, as part of Rugby India’s ‘Get into Rugby’ programme, an awareness initiative. She began playing three years later. “I loved that girls were literally tackling each other on the field, and laughing and hanging out outside of it,” she says. “It looked like a carnival.”

Sumitra Nayak, who plays half scrum and was responsible for scoring the winning point in the victory against Singapore, says she first saw the game in 2009, while she was in school.

“I thought the whole thing was weird, to be honest,” she adds. “I’d never seen an egg-shaped ball and people falling all over each other for it. But I was intrigued. And when I started playing, there was no going back.”

Rugby is a contact-team sport where the aim of the game, much like other sports, is to score more points than your opponent. Running with the ball, kicking it, and passing are all allowed, but passing forwards is not. In other words, players must pass the ball backwards to their teammates in order to avoid a penalty.

Points are earned by kicking the ball into the opponent’s goalpost, running with the ball and touching it down on the opponent’s side, or kicking it into the goal post after touching it down.

The women’s 15s team was only formed last year, and members of the winning squad selected through training camps held in Bhubaneshwar in April and June 2018.

News of their win travelled fast across social media, with Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and actor Amitabh Bachchan congratulating them on Twitter, but faded into oblivion just as quickly, overshadowed by news of the ongoing cricket World Cup.

“The truth,” says vice-captain Neha Pardeshi, “is that rugby, especially women’s rugby, doesn’t get much attention. We’re used to it.”

But for a sport played overwhelmingly by white men, India’s win in Philippines signifies rugby’s quiet reach across the country: It is played officially in 25 states and is included in the curricula of the Association of Indian Universities as well as the School Games Federation of India.

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Battles on and off the field

For some, this success didn’t come easy — it has meant fighting off judgement and doubt, rejecting marriage, and time away from children.

“If I wasn’t playing rugby, I would have been married by now,” says Priya Baisla, 25, who plays outside centre. “I was going to get married in 2012, after finishing my 12th grade… The Jat-Gujjar community that I come from is very conservative. My parents always insisted on giving us an education, but when I started playing in 2011, I wasn’t even allowed to wear shorts. A lot has changed since then.”

Resisting her parents’ demands for marriage meant the risk of a fallout, but it was a risk Baisla was ready to take. “I decided to prove to them that rugby was worthwhile. I worked hard and, in 2013, was selected to be part of the national team,” she says. “I went on to become a referee. This calmed my parents down, though they still tell me that, ultimately, I will have to ‘settle down’.”

Sangeeta put her life at risk for the game. “I gave birth to my son three-and-a-half years ago,” she tells ThePrint. She ruled out a Caesarean section for fear it would impede her performance in the future, and insisted on a natural delivery — even though her child weighed 4 kg. “The doctors said it wasn’t possible, but I refused the surgery. Doing the operation meant a longer recovery time and possibly giving up rugby altogether. That wasn’t an option.”

After she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, she was back on the field in three months. The time she spends away from her son on account of national and international matches takes a toll, says Sangeeta, who also holds a job in Kolkata Police.

“It’s stressful being away from my child, especially when he’s unwell. I must manage my job in Kolkata Police, raising my child, taking care of my ageing parents and staying in the rugby team all at once,” she adds. “A lot of people used to judge me for leaving [home] for tournaments. But I never cry for him [her child]. He’s always so proud to see me play.”

Playing alongside women who face the same level of judgement offers some respite: “We can always band together and encourage each other to ignore it and push forth,” says Vahbiz.

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What lies ahead

Five of the 15 players are Santhals from Odisha, an impoverished Scheduled Tribe whose members also reside in Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam.

Over the years, rugby has found a strong footing in Odisha and among its Scheduled Tribes, thanks to the the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS). It’s the only institute in the world reserved exclusively for tribal students, covering their education from kindergarten to post-graduation.

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 a major reason for their interest in the sport.

Parvati remembers when her brother returned from London with a cup in hand, and how her family and village welled up with pride: “He’d been outside of India when we couldn’t imagine leaving our villages. I wanted to do the same.”

Interest among women in rugby is growing in states like Odisha, Jharkhand, and Bihar, says Hussain, who credits KISS’ training programmes and investment into the sport for this surge.

Simply playing the sport, however, doesn’t financially sustain any of its players, who must look elsewhere for a steady income. Compared to cricket’s $5.3 billion industry, rugby makes a “nominal” amount, says Hussain.

India has just one sponsor for rugby, the French multinational Societe Generale, which has been working at the grassroots level since 2015. “There’s no prize money for winning tournaments. Whatever support we get is largely from sponsorships and World Rugby, the world governing body for the sport,” Hussain adds. “We get very little support from the Ministry of Sports.”

‘We need more’

When the women aren’t playing, they are working or studying. Vahbiz is a physiotherapist, Neha runs her own sports management company, and Priya is a trainer in a gym. Meerarani and four other players are currently enrolled in KISS, studying physical education. They hope to secure a job that will supplement their pursuit of rugby.

“My brother was in the national team too,” says Meerarani, “but he’s stopped playing because he needs a steady income, and is looking for a job now. He’s hoping to get one with the government.”

She hopes studying physical education will let her stay in touch with the sport, even if she stops playing.

“We need more if we’re expected to perform better in the games to come,” she says. “We need better infrastructure, more coaches, more scholarships. The central government needs to put this in place for us.”

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