Surabhi Date: An Indian in All Black country

How a girl from Pune made it to an Auckland rugby club

Surabhi Date (in blue T-shirt) during a match against China in Pune in 2013.
Surabhi Date (in blue T-shirt) during a match against China in Pune in 2013.

Auckland was shrouded in black. It was early September, spring was in the air, and the Rugby World Cup was approaching. Every shop window in the city was dressed in black. Chocolates, scarves, water bottles, caps, T-shirts, jackets, mugs—they all came in that colour. In short, to use Henry Ford’s words, you could have anything in any colour as long as it was black.

No sporting event or team is more important for New Zealand than the Rugby World Cup, which ran from 18 September-31 October, and the All Blacks. For Surabhi Date, it was like a monochromatic wonderland. It was one of the things Date had most looked forward to when she won the New Zealand-India Sports Scholarship last year and decided to pursue a postgraduate diploma in sport and exercise from the University of Auckland. Date, from Pune, is not just another student—she is also a former captain (and current player) of the Indian women’s rugby team.

“The atmosphere during the World Cup was just unbelievable,” the 24-year-old says excitedly over the phone. “Everyone is absolutely crazy about the game. I know everyone in India says they are crazy about cricket, but this is a totally different level. There were processions held and obviously once the team (New Zealand) won, they had a victory parade in Auckland.”

For Date, the contrast could not have been more pronounced: Rugby has little following in India. The Indian men’s team is currently ranked 76th in the world out of 102 teams—the countries ranked below India, like Pakistan and Mauritius, can barely be called rugby-playing nations.

The Indian women’s team started participating in tournaments only since 2009, and that too sporadically. The Rugby Union, the world governing body, has not yet started ranking women’s teams even though the women’s game has been in existence since 1982.

“People here were very surprised to see me. They don’t really know if anyone in India plays rugby,” says Date. “Unfortunately, the university I go to does not have a rugby team. But there was a club nearby, called College Rifles; I started playing with them once I shifted here.”

That’s where she heard that the Auckland Rugby club was holding trials. In August, Date created history when she got selected for the Auckland Thunder club’s development squad—she is the first and only rugby player from India, male or female, to play for a team outside the country.

“I was honoured to play with some of the best women’s players in the country, with the national team and even the national team captain,” she says (it didn’t last too long though; she was dropped from the squad after a couple of months).

Date (second row from front, extreme right) with the Auckland Thunder club’s development squad.
Date (second row from front, extreme right) with the Auckland Thunder club’s development squad.
“It is certainly a first for women’s rugby in India,” says Nasser Hussain, the long-serving Indian men’s captain who is also the general manager of the Indian Rugby Football Union (Irfu). “Just to be scouted for is massive, considering the magnitude of the sport in New Zealand. As a player, I’m sure the exposure she will get by playing on a week-in, week-out basis will be immense, and just being in a very professional environment will be a huge learning curve for her, and we hope that she can share her learning and experience with the girls once back home.”

Date was among the players when the Indian women’s team made its debut in 2009, at the Asian Women’s Sevens Championship in Pattaya, Thailand. With the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Delhi on the horizon then, rugby—more specifically rugby sevens, a truncated version of the game that was part of the CWG—was getting some attention. Irfu used that opportunity to host its first national tournament for women, the All India Women’s 7’s, in 2009 at the Bombay Gymkhana (although there was no women’s rugby at the CWG). It was to double up as a selection trial for the Asian Championship. While the girls were enthusiastic about the new game and a fresh opportunity, most of them came from other sports disciplines like football, kabaddi and kho-kho, a practice that is still prevalent. The Pune girls had a distinct edge. They were the only ones who played proper rugby and played it regularly; no other Indian city had women’s rugby.

“I was an athlete and used to play tennis,” recalls Date. “I started playing football at Khare’s Football and Rugby Academy (in Pune) mainly for cross-training. They used to play rugby over there in the monsoons, so I just joined in. Rugby has a lot of rules but once I started playing and started to get the hang of it, I started enjoying it. We used to play at the club with the guys, which was an advantage for us. We started copying their styles and just got better with time. We used to play exhibition games back then.”

No wonder then that in the 2009 team, 11 out of the 13 women were from Pune. There was a lot of buzz around women’s rugby then. The media was captivated by the idea of Indian women not only extending their athletic horizons but doing it through a seemingly brutal sport. But once the novelty wore off, rugby was sent again to the back-burner. Was India’s conservative mindset towards women’s sport partly to blame?

“No one really knows that we play women’s rugby in India,” Date says. “That awareness has to come first, the problematic attitudes will come later.”

The physical nature of the sport, she thinks, is the primary reason children are dissuaded from taking it up.

“Parents get scared because they think it is violent,” she says. “But I have spoken to a lot of parents over the years, since I used to coach back home in Pune, and once you sit them down and talk to them it should not be very difficult to convince them to send their children into the sport.”

With her parents, Date followed a less diplomatic approach.

“I started rugby when I was 14. I did face some opposition from my parents. But my case was completely different,” she says. “I was a very clumsy child to begin with and used to get injured very often. But most of my injuries were not because of rugby but because I hadn’t warmed up or cooled down properly or wasn’t training correctly. But my parents started associating that with rugby.

“I didn’t really convince them; I was just too stubborn and kept playing the game. Also, I knew that I had nothing to say to contradict them. Fortunately things went well and I was selected for the national team and also made captain.”

She took over the mantle in 2010, when she led the team out in the Borneo 7s tournament. She was just 19 then. Then she captained the team at the 2010 Asian Games.

“Playing for India and captaining India was obviously the biggest honour,” she says. “Since I had played in a few international competitions, I came here (New Zealand) expecting it to be of a similar level. I had been playing well in India, but playing with these girls is just completely different. They are big, strong and extremely skilled. After the first day I knew I was going to have to work hard here! The intensity of rugby, of contact rugby, that was a huge surprise for me.”

While playing the game in New Zealand is what had made her apply for the scholarship in the first place, she admits to feeling a little lost on their rugby fields, which are more like stomping grounds.

“Most of the girls here are twice my size, they are extremely fast,” she says. “It’s quite difficult to stay up with them. There is not much competition in India. So, from playing one all-India tournament in a year I have progressed to playing every weekend here. I was very scared in the beginning and got hammered a lot but I am slowly getting better at it.”

The more you fall, the faster you have to learn to get up. Rugby is a sport that almost revels in pain—as the saying goes, “Footballers spend 90 minutes pretending to be hurt. Rugby players spend 80 minutes pretending not to be.”

With professional opportunities for women ruggers still limited across the world, the road ahead is uncertain for Date. But having witnessed that All Blacks magic first-hand, she is ready to fight for her place in the scrum.

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