Chennai: The sports ground at the Anjuman-E-Himayath-E-Islam orphanage in the heart of Chennai is a scramble of running feet, flaying arms and flying objects. There are six-year-olds playing an amateur game of cricket on one side, intruding into the space of a slightly older bunch of soccer players who seem to be kicking at everything in sight, including, occasionally, the ball.
In the far corner of the ground, a group of skinny lads are tussling over a rugby ball, instead of the ubiquitous cricket ball, with a burly Armenian overseeing the proceedings, barking out orders and instructions at intervals.
Sometimes, a player falls, ball in hand, on the hard grassless ground, the rest throng around him, and a cloud of dust envelops them.
This is life for the under-19 team of the Chennai Cheetahs.
The senior team, not on the ground on the day, are one of India’s top teams and were the champions of the All India Rugby 7’s in 2004 and in 2006.
The senior team has earned Chennai a spot on India’s emerging rugby map, topping the list of 29 teams, across all the divisions. In the first division (of which Chennai Cheetahs is the champion), there are twelve teams.
The rest are in the second division, which is called The Callaghan Cup. The Cheetahs lost the 2005 championship for the first division title to a team from England that participated on a special invitation.
Standing on the sidelines of the practice session, Mohan Krishna, president of the Tamil Nadu Rugby Football Union (TNRFU), one of the people responsible for the rugby renaissance in Chennai in 1997, explains the trials and tribulations of the club.
“In ’97, I was working in NIIT, and some of us used to play rugby informally,” he says. “At that time, there was not much rugby in Chennai—but there was a decent rugby-playing population in Bangalore—mostly expats—and a group of Frenchmen in Pondicherry who had a team, so we used to travel to these two cities and play against them.” This was the seed of the rugby union, which was funded by the first rugby players in the city themselves. “I put five thousand (rupees) someone put three thousand, here and there, that sort of thing,” says Krishna.
The revival was sparked by American businessman Patrick Davenport, who played for University of Detroit, and brought his passion for the game with him when he settled in Chennai.
He, along with Mohan Krishna, decided that for the game to sustain itself, it had to attract people who wished to take up the game—that meant going to city schools and selling the sport—and getting instructors to help with the game. The Chennai Cheetahs, Krishna says, usually went to the national tournament every year, lost, drowned their sorrow in a few beers and came back.
This became routine and Krishna, along with fellow member and player Shyam Nagarajan, decided they had had enough. They needed some professional help; by then, they had created an enthusiastic talent pool of 25 schools and had about 1,000 kids who had tried their hand at the game.
Help came in the form of Emil Vartazarian, who has played 18 of India’s 20 international Rugby Test Matches, and is regarded by many as India’s best rugby player.
Of Armenian descent, Emil was sent from Iran to school in Kolkata by his parents when he was 10. He had struggled through the ranks from the Armenian College, Kolkata, played on the national rugby team, and been a professional soccer player, but he was at the crossroads when the offer from Chennai came.
“I had no idea which sport I should pursue, my soccer was not working out well, and there was no money in rugby,” he says. “At this time, I met Mohana Krishna and Shyam Nagarajan, and they offered me a job as coach—and I thought, make a living out of rugby? Why not!”
After Emil took over as technical director of the rugby union, the team began to shape itself.
“The commitment here is fantastic—in fact, it is the only place in India where rugby is played throughout the year. Everywhere else, it is seasonal,” says Emil.
With a coach to explain the science of the game, and one who led by example, the team’s performance soared. It was ranked fourth in 2003, according to Krishna, and then in 2004 it won the title. The toughest competition for Chennai Cheetahs comes from the Indian Army and the Bombay Gymkhana club. It will go into the 2007 edition of the tournament—slated to begin in September—as the defending champion and as the favourite to win.
“The set-up in Chennai is very good—they have one person concentrating on rugby on the field, one off the field,” says Tarun Appanna, technical director, Karnataka Rugby Football Union (KRFU) and a player in the rival Bangalore Rugby Football club. “Since Emil has been appointed, the teams from Chennai have really improved. They have tapped the talent in the schools... so they have established a good talent pool, they have seven or eight coaches who permanently coach these kids until they are good enough,” he adds.
Vartazarian, Krishna and other rugby players and aficionados have a larger goal in mind—to put India on the world map in the sport.
Currently ranked 81 in the world, India is far behind Asian giants such as Japan, Korea and China.
Vartazarian says it will be seven or eight years before Japan even agrees to play against India, and Krishna says without hesitation that the country doesn’t stand a chance against neighbouring Sri Lanka which has 200-300 club teams battling it out in a hotly contested league season.
The performance of the Chennai side and the growing popularity of the sport in India has attracted sponsors. Mobile telephony firm Hutchison Essar Ltd sponsors the Indian team, Keiron Energy has put some money into the Chennai Cheetahs in the recent past. Puma has sponsored rugby kits in the past and IT company e4e Inc.’s local office has sponsored four tournaments, and will fund the airfare and the kit for the Chennai Cheetahs when it travels to Malaysia to play matches with club teams there.
“We are quite aware of the current positioning of rugby in India, but elsewhere in the world it is not a second-rung game,” says Narasinga Rao D., vice-president of operations, e4e India. “So we are confident that rugby is on a growth plane, and we are keen to grow along with it,” he adds.
“We can be in the 40s (rank, in the world) in a very short period of time,” says Vartazarian confidently.
He himself is one of two Indians chosen to play for the Asian Barbarians, a rest-of-Asia team that will take on Japan soon.