Rugby thrives in India
Rugby in India is growing fast, especially in a city like Kolkata.
Kolkata also has its rugby history - under the old name, the city played a major role in the inception of the oldest international Rugby Union fixture in the world - the Calcutta Cup, the annual match between traditional sporting rivals England and Scotland.
Now, though, Kolkata is looking to the future - and the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi - by developing its own players with the help of coaching and support from around the world.
The bustling city of Kolkata is the capital of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal and is home to a metropolitan population of some 17 million people. It has changed quite a lot from the old days when it was known as ‘Calcutta’, but the link with the sport of Rugby has not diminished - if anything, it has strengthened.
The Calcutta Cup - the oldest Rugby Union trophy in the world - was established after a game was played in the city in 1872. Nowadays England and Scotland fight for the title every year, but seldom travel to West Bengal.
So, another version of the Calcutta Cup is also competed for by Rugby clubs in the Kolkata area. Of these teams, one of the newest is the Kolkata Jungle Crows - established by visiting Britons - but they are already making waves in Indian rugby.
The Crows have created a thriving junior programme, fielding teams at Under 13, Under 16 and Under 19 levels, and they travelled to England in 2008, becoming the first Under 13 side to represent India at international level.
Chris Yorke is one of the coaches with the Jungle Crows and since taking up his role with the team, he’s been impressed by the attitude and commitment of his players, in spite of the fact that facilities are limited.
“I’ve got younger brothers and I’ve played with many different clubs in England and what you see there is guys who haven’t got their scrum caps or shoulder pads saying that they can’t play Rugby that day,” said Yorke.
“But here, we’ve got guys who haven’t got boots coming on the pitch. No gum shield, no scrum cap, but they’re still out there out throwing themselves about with as much physical aggression as any English kid does, and that’s been quite inspiring.”
In a city where there are an estimated 50,000 street children, the club works closely with a local charity called Ashalayam, which offers help and support to underprivileged youngsters.
Salien Tudu is one of the many former street children the club has helped. Since joining the team four years ago, the 19-year-old has learnt to speak six languages and freely acknowledges the positive impact that the sport has had upon his life.
“I want every child in my village, all the tribal kids - especially the boys - to be brought up with a rugby ball. That is my aim. I never saw a rugby ball when I was a kid. I first saw a rugby ball in 2004, but I don’t want that for my younger brothers and all the other youngsters in the village. They should be brought up with a rugby ball,” said the Jungle Crows player.
Currently, there are 17,500 registered players in the country and India are ranked 81st out of 95 nations in the International Rugby Board World Rankings.
Whilst the team continues to grow as a 15’s side and strives to qualify for the next Rugby World Cup, the short-term goal, according to Greg Davey, the IRB’s Development Officer for India, is to put together a competitive Sevens team for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which will be held close to home in Delhi.
“I do think they are more suited to the Sevens than to fifteens because of the way they are brought up, because of the way they’re made up, their physical make-up. They’re certainly very fast, they’re quite agile which are all very important factors in the Sevens,” explained Davey.
“There is a very strong plan that has been put together by us to take the team to the Commonwealth Games in 2010, so the players in the squad will almost become semi-professional for the next two and half years.”
India’s success in Sevens has been limited so far, but to help with their development, a coach from Fiji, a traditional powerhouse of Rugby Sevens, has been brought in. His name is Usaia Biumaiwai and he commands a lot of respect.
With plans in place to move the Game forward at an international level, and with people at all levels of society joining in the sport thanks to the work of clubs such as the Jungle Crows, the future of Rugby in India looks to be in safe hands.