Kolkata: At first glance it’s hard to believe that the group of 12 shy boys huddled together in a corner of a central Kolkata hotel lobby are world champions. The odd bunch, including some who first wore shoes a few years ago, are led by a gawky 14-year-old—Bikash Chandra Murmu—captain of the India under-14 team that lifted the International School Rugby Tournament in London on Saturday. The team, Jungle Crows, won the tournament, the de facto World Cup at that level, beating a more experienced South African team, Langa Lions, 19-5.

“It was a dream come true," said Murmu in broken Hindi, overwhelmed by the flashbulbs at a felicitation ceremony here. He and his team-mates—Chittaranjan Murmu, Babulal Malka, Rajkishore Murmu, Bukei Hansda, Niranjan Biswal, Hadi Dhanga Majhi, Sahadev Majhi, Gorang Jamuda, Narasingh Kerei, Barial Behera and Ganesh Hembram—hail from some of the most backward districts of Orissa.

“We beat Zambia, Romania, Kenya and Swaziland to reach the final," said one of the coaches, Sanjay Patra, in an email from London.

The victorious Jungle Crows team poses with the trophy at a Kolkata hotel

“Getting on the aircraft was scary, but fun," said an obviously shy Hansda, with an impish smile. Hansda can barely cobble together the words in Hindi and the rest of his teammates speak nothing, but Oriya.

“These boys are not frightened by bigger boys and they tackle really well," said Tim Grandage, who runs the Kolkata-based rugby team, Future Hope. Underlining the importance of tackling in a sport such as rugby, Grandage, whose team is made up of children picked up from the mean streets of Kolkata, said, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall when tackled."

The boys are from the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, a residential institution for tribal students in Bhubaneswar and are part of some 5,000 tribal students given free residence and education, from kindergarten to post graduation, according to Achyut Samanta, founder-secretary of the institute.

“What makes their achievement even more remarkable is that the boys started playing rugby barely four months ago," said Samanta.

The winning team draws its name from the Kolkata rugby team, Jungle Crows, which runs a development programme in a number of schools and non-governmental organizations. The Orissa boys were trained by Jungle Crows’ English Rugby Association coach Paul Walsh and Kolkata-based coach Sellen Tudu, apart from Patra, also a city boy. The team was formed only in May 2004.

Bikash Chandra Murmu, captain of the under-14 team, with Achyut Samanta, founder-secretary of the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences that provides free residence and education to the boys

“They are clever and well-organized and totally committed in attack and defence," said Walsh. Himself a hardened rugby player, Walsh is all praise for his wards. “Often, the boys got sick travelling in buses and trains, but it never stopped them," he said, adding, “Even when very cold, they stepped up and focused on the game."

“Being tribals, these boys are naturally gifted with fitness and agility, but what made the difference was the hard training that they did together," said Grandage.

“We practised for more than almost five hours every day, morning and evening," said Murmu.

“The tribals from Orissa have overcome marginalization and poverty to do the country proud in sports," said Samanta. “Rugby was a totally alien game for the boys and we never expected them to do so well," he added.

Jungle Crows’ victory comes at a time when junior rugby teams from Kolkata have been making a mark in the international as well as the domestic arena. The Tudu-coached Don Bosco Ashalaya team is now in Paris to play a series of matches and Grandage’s Future Hope made it to the quarter-finals of the All India and South Asia meet at the Bombay Gymkhana last week.

“Only the top 12 teams from India make it to the tournament, which was eventually won by the army," Grandage said.

“Rugby, as a whole, is picking up steam in India," said Agha Raza Hussain, vice-president of the Indian Rugby Football Union. “Apart from the army and the various police forces, individuals are taking to rugby in a big way," he added. Hussain, whose son Nasser is the captain of the national team, said measures such as hiring a coach from Fiji and a regional development manager from New Zealand, famous for its All Blacks (rugby team), would help in a big way.

However, Walsh laments the fact that big companies still don’t feel attracted to the sport. “Though we have had a great response from some corporates, namely, JCB India Ltd, BOC India Ltd and a few others, who support the Crows, we were unable to find a sponsor for this tour," he said.

While in England, the boys stayed with host families. “They made such an impression that there were lots of tears when they left," said Walsh. “Nobody had a bad word to say about the boys; they were tremendous ambassadors for India."

For now, Murmu, a class IX student, is soaking up the limelight and making plans of how to follow his dream.

No, he doesn’t want to become a professional rugby player; he wants to become a scientist.