Growing up in a house overlooking the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club (CCFC), my seasons were defined by the sounds of sport. Winter was heralded by the crack of leather against wood; spring by the more muffled sounds of hockey stick hitting ball; summer by denser football thuds. But the roars and raucous cheers, and occasional drunken post-match singing, signalled that rugby season was upon us.
There had been matches every Wednesday and Saturday for the Calcutta Cup (a dozen years younger than its more famous namesake, contested annually by England and Scotland) and, every alternate year, the rather grandly titled All India and South East Asia tournament would come to town. I’d jump over the wall and immerse myself in this game which, in those days, had no context or media coverage and little recognition in India.
It helped that I had a direct connect; my school’s old boys had a team that, in those days, was among the best. So there was plenty to cheer for and about, and those years formed a bond that, though severely tested over time, never snapped.
The All Blacks performing the Haka at the ongoing World Cup in New Zealand. By Dita Alangkara/AP
Now, rugby is back on my TV screen, swifter, higher and certainly stronger; the ongoing World Cup, with its tales of heroism and heartbreak, has rekindled my affair with the sport.
Back then, Calcutta’s rugby was a metaphor for the city itself, since renamed Kolkata—cosmopolitan, passionate, a bit chaotic and pretty much out of sync with everything else. It was a niche sport—there were four teams when I started following the game, later expanded to six and now several more—but not elitist. The white-collar “boxwallah” members of the CCFC and the plebeian Calcutta Police met on the same level-playing field; there were Armenians, Anglo-Indians, Parsis, the odd Chinese Calcuttan, an adopted Scotsman and enough Bengalis to dispel the notion that theirs was not a martial race. Rivalries were fierce and bitter, especially between the two most successful Calcutta sides, LMOB (La Martiniere Old Boys) and Armenians, and between the teams from Calcutta and Bombay (now Mumbai). It was the only time I have been a partisan member of a partisan sporting crowd.
Nonetheless rugby was amateur in the sense of gentlemanliness, down to the post-match send-off in which the losing team formed two rows to applaud the winners off the pitch. Or even the unwritten rule that says the opposing team must not disrespect the Haka, the Maori war dance that precedes every match the All Blacks play.
The sport itself had several elements that, for me, elevated it above even football in aesthetic terms. The line-out, that tightly choreographed moment when the ball would be thrown in and a hulking six-footer lifted gracefully in the air by his teammates to receive it. Another was the sight of a line of backs sprinting down the pitch, passing the ball down that slanted line at full pace; or even a lone wing tearing down one flank, side-stepping and jumping over tackles.
Ball bearers: There’s still as much beauty in 80 minutes of rugby as in any team sport, exemplified by Italy’s Marco Bortolami. By Christophe Simon/AFP
Obviously, the standard wasn’t that great but they were heroes to us, especially Milford Hennessy, a raging force of nature, and Nandu Chandavarkar, still the most graceful rugby player I have seen.
All those memories have come alive in the past month, through a slightly different prism. Rugby has come a long way since the 1980s; it is now professional at the highest levels (amazing to think that it turned pro only in 1995) and, if size is any yardstick, has more teams in this World Cup (on in New Zealand till 23 October) than there were at the cricket equivalent some months ago. That’s brought the attendant scams and scandals but there is still as much, if not more, beauty in 80 minutes of rugby as in any other team sport.
In India, its profile is raised, its reach expanded; the policemen and club-goers have been joined by expat students, slum children and even tribals from Orissa (who recently beat a team of children from the South African townships). There is increased women’s participation and many more schools have picked up the game, even though my school’s old boys’ team seems to be sadly off the radar. The most significant new entrants, though, are the Armed Forces—a no-brainer, really, given the sport’s physical demands and highly codified structure. There’s more money in the game now, thanks ironically to rugby’s upmarket image, and also to the pulling power of actor/player Rahul Bose—and consequently, a dozen-odd national tournaments.
Rugby’s definitely looking up though it isn’t obviously anywhere near the same scale as its sibling sport, cricket—both were imported and imparted by the British and deemed “elitist”, unlike the more proletarian football. It has the following; all it needs is more exposure—a little TV coverage wouldn’t hurt. Maybe then it can regain its place on the sports calendar in terms of popularity, perhaps even spread some of its gentlemanly genes to other sports. There’ll be one loud cheer from my corner.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Espncricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at email@example.com