It’s not the kind of event that would amplify stories about Indian women’s coming-of-age athletic success. But by winning the silver medal at the Asia Rugby Women’s Sevens Trophy in Vientiane, Laos, on Saturday, India continues its silent but sustained growth in women’s rugby.
India won five of their six matches in the competition, including a dominating 22-7 victory over hosts Laos in the opener and a 5-0 win over Pakistan. They lost their final pool game 0-29 to top seeds South Korea in the two-day event.
“It is a fantastic achievement,” says Nasser Hussain, a former India captain who was the team coach for this tournament. “It was one of our best performances, considering the number of teams and their quality. We have made a final before, but seven countries were competing and they were all almost on the same level, apart from Korea.”
As an integral member of the Indian Rugby Football Union (Irfu), rugby’s governing body in the country, Hussain has seen the growth of women’s rugby from close quarters. When the Indian women’s team debuted in Asia, or any international competition for that matter, in 2009, the run-up to the event was spent in hurriedly organizing passports for the women who would be the country’s first representatives in the sport. A national tournament, the first of its kind, held a week earlier also served as a selection trial for the Asian Women’s Rugby Sevens tournament, where India would compete in division two.
That team, which included several players from the country’s hinterlands and from sports like football and kabaddi, lost all the three matches it played in Bangkok. India’s first win in women’s rugby came against Korea, 22-7, at the Asian Championship 2010 at Guangzhou, China, where they eventually finished 11th.
In 2015, India made the finals in the six-nation preliminaries to the 2015 Asian Women’s Sevens Championships held in Chennai, where they lost to Uzbekistan. In December 2016, India, coached by Hussain, claimed a bronze at the inaugural Asia Rugby girls Under-18 rugby sevens in Dubai.
“The team has been doing really well since the last two-three years,” says Hussain, who has also played professionally at the Tynedale RFC in England.
“A lot of the players in the women’s team now have come through the rugby programme that we had started. Right now, we think women’s rugby has more potential in the country and, with the right support, experience and exposure, they are bound to do well. After the result in Laos, we will be among the top 10 countries in Asia,” says Hussain.
With the sport having been received well in the 2009 experiment, Irfu structured domestic programmes for the girls. A senior nationals for women is held along with the one for men. In September, Irfu introduced a 15-a-side national tournament too.
Around the world, rugby is seen mainly as a club sport. India, however, has been able to move away from its urban strongholds of Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata. Six of the team of 12 for the tournament in Vientiane are from Odisha. One of them, 19-year-old Hupi Majhi, was the joint highest try scorer (6) at the event.
Hussain, who made his international debut in 1998, knows that the biggest problem that afflicts India in this brutal contact sport is “size”. He has been a part of India teams whose players were seriously underweight when compared to their opponents, and it is proving to be a roadblock for the women as well.
“The skill level is on a par or better than most teams we compete with but we are relatively weak in fitness,” he says. “Even in this tournament, the average height of our team was about 5ft. While the rest of the teams were about 5ft, 5 inches to 5ft, 6 inches.
“Currently, the areas (in India) that are playing the sport are the Odisha belt, Bengal—we have some players from the tea plantations there—and then traditional centres like Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata and New Delhi. We haven’t yet been able to tap talent from places like Haryana and Punjab. The programmes introduced there are about a year-and-a-half old, so they might take some time to get attuned to the sport.”
India hasn’t readily embraced the sport, but rugby, with its sheer dynamism, has the ability to mould attitudes. It may take more than the clank of silver to get India hooked on to the sport—but that isn’t deterring the women.