India is glued to the cricket World Cup. The likes of Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni are trending on social media. Most TV screens in the country come on at 3 pm every day, after English breakfasts in the west are over.
But far away from the euphoria of the cricket, in the Philippines, on Saturday, 26 Indian girls did something never done before by any Indian women’s rugby team — winning their first ever international 15s rugby match. Some left kids at home for grandparents to baby-sit, some had even left their jobs to do what they love. India beat Singapore 21-19 to finish third in the four-team Asia Women’s Division 1 Rugby XVs Championship.
The news was buried somewhere on Twitter. Rugby India had posted: “Our Indian Women’s Rugby Team creates HISTORY!!!” The word in all caps demanded instant attention. “India pull off a stunner against top ranked Singapore to register their first ever test match victory! We tip our hats to you ladies. Go INDIA.”
The tweet was hashtagged #JoinTheJourney. But it took a while before people really started understanding the enormity of the achievement.
A video posted by Rugby Asia, which showed one inconsolable player not being able to stop her tears after the win, showed just what this win meant for the team.
THE BEHIND THE SCENES STORY
On April 1 this year, the Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU), also known as Rugby India, made an appointment that can become a game-changer for the sport in the country.
Mention Naas Botha’s name to a rugby fan, and adjectives like ‘great’, ‘legendary’, ‘iconic’ and so on will flow automatically.
The former Springbok and four-time Rugby Player of the Year is the Head Coach of the Indian men’s and women’s teams.
Two months ago, the federation brought Botha on board for a short-term appointment, possibly to analyse if top-flight expertise can bring about the change they had been striving for. And it took Botha less than three months to create history.
“When I walk up and see their happiness, this seems so worth it. Everything we tried was worth it,” Botha said, talking to Timesofindia.com from Manila.
Botha brought with him his assistant staff as well. But to say yes to the job with a country that doesn’t have a lot of rugby history must have been a hard decision to make.
“We had no idea to be honest. Now, after this tournament, we have a nice idea. I think there is a job for us to get more girls involved in the game. We need to grow the game in India and in the end, it’s our job to go and find more talent that can make Indian rugby more successful in the future,” Botha added.
The traditional 15s is different from Rugby 7s, which is part of the Olympic programme as well. But that hasn’t deterred the federation from focusing equally on both formats.
“Our focus is on both,” said Nasser Hussain, General Manager of Rugby India, while sharing a lot more on the developmental and financial aspect of rugby administration in India. But before going there, the spotlight must be on the game’s main stakeholders, the players.
THE HISTORY-MAKING GIRLS
The team is led by skipper Vahbiz Bharucha. She has been playing the sport for a decade now, besides being a physiotherapist who clocks around 30 km a day of cycling, apart from hitting the gym during competition time.
The youngest member of the squad is 18 and the eldest, Sangeeta Bera, is 32. Odisha’s Sangeeta has left her children back at home to play the tournament, so has Subhalaxmi Barik.
“Whenever I leave home for a camp, my son falls sick,” Subhalaxmi told TimesofIndia.com. “This time also, when I was selected for the 15s, he had very high fever. I couldn’t go back home and was in so much distress. But my family supports me a lot at those moments; and when I think about the game, it helps me.”
Sangeeta from West Bengal, a working wife cum rugby player, could relate to Subhalaxmi, being in a similar space.
“To maintain a balance between family, kids, job and sports is very tough,” she said. “Not just us, our kids also make a lot of sacrifices so that their mom can play. Acchhe se maa ka pyar nahi milta unko (they don’t get enough of motherly love),” she said with a lump in her throat.
Hearing that, it’s quite evident that this bunch, which isn’t paid to play rugby for the country, is there on the pitch out of sheer passion towards the game.