What began as an experiment in 2009 on the muddy field at Bombay Gymkhana has turned into an absolute phenomenon in the country. Indian women, especially from the rural pockets of the country, have taken up rugby with an unexpected fervor and have started making a mark in it.
The Indian Rugby and Football Union organized the first national tournament for women in Mumbai in 2009. At the time, the teams were made up with players borrowed from sports like athletics, Kabaddi, Kho-kho and football. But by the end of 2020, just over a decade after that event, there are 2760 registered female rugby players in the country.
“One of the reasons why women’s rugby has caught on could be the lack of opportunity, especially in a team sport and in a more structured, organized fashion” says former India captain Nasser Hussain.
“That’s something that we managed to stumble upon during our development. All of our activity or initiatives are gender inclusive. What we noticed was the enthusiasm amongst the female participants. The response has been overwhelming.”
Indian rugby also got a lucky break as Rugby Sevens was added to the Olympic programme in 2009, and re-introduced into the Games at Rio 2016 . Not only did the world body launch a drive to develop the game globally, but also made it easier for the Indian federation to avail of government funds.
“Sevens is a version that’s easier to introduce to new markets, new regions,” says Hussain.
“The way we see it is sevens is a progression to Rugby 15s. We start off with ‘Get Into Rugby,’ which is grassroots mass participation programme, pre-dominantly non-contact rugby. The next step is Rugby Sevens and then eventually moving on to Rugby 15s.”
While Indian women played their first international Rugby Sevens international tournament in 2009, they debuted in the more traditional 15-a-side format in 2018.
A lot of the talent, in Indian women’s rugby, is surprisingly drawn from the tribal belt in Odisha and West Bengal. Bihar, a state not particularly known for its sport, has also started to come into the mix.
In the current Indian squad of 22, seven are from Odisha, three from West Bengal and four from Bihar. Maharashtra, which includes traditional rugby hubs of Mumbai and Pune, has only five in the national squad.
One of the ideal examples of what the rugby outreach programme has done for young women in the hinterlands is Sweety Kumari. The 20-year-old’s tryst with organized sport had started with athletics, but she was smitten by rugby the first time she tried her hand at the sport. She first entered the Indian national system as a junior but has quickly risen through the ranks.
Asia Rugby named her the “continent’s fastest player” while Popular women’s rugby website Scrumqueens named her the ‘international young player of the year’ in January 2020.
“I was a sprinter, and quite good at athletics,” says Kumari, who hails from Nawada village in Barh tehsil of Patna, Bihar. “But I knew with the training and support I had in the sport, I could only go so far. But only a few years after taking up rugby I got an opportunity to represent India in a sport.”
For Kumari, like many of the women in the Indian rugby team, the game gave them an opportunity to see a world not only beyond their village, but outside of the country.
“I got my passport made after I was selected for the Youth Olympic Games Rugby Sevens Qualifiers in Dubai (in 2017),” says Kumari.
“My parents didn’t even know till then that I had switched to rugby nor had they seen the game before,” says the explosive, whose father is a handyman and mother an anganwadi (kind of a rural child care centre) worker.
“I used to like athletics also. But it’s a sport where everyone competes with the other and there is no camaraderie between the participants. Once I joined the rugby set-up, saw how well we were treated, how the girls supported each other, had one another to talk to about doubts and fears, it was a different feeling altogether. This is more like a family and I really enjoyed being part of one.”
The Indian team, which is still in its developing stage, has had modest success at the continental level. Their best result came at the 2017 Asian Rugby Sevens Trophy in Laos, when they won the silver medal. In 2019, India defeated the higher-ranked Singapore 21-19 to win their first 15-a-side match and bag a bronze in the Asia Women’s Div-1 Rugby 15s championship.
“The first time I played an international tournament, I was worried how we would match up to the taller and stronger girls from other countries,” Kumari, who is just over five feet tall, recalls. “We are small but not afraid of tackling.”
Living in a developing country where women are rarely treated as equals, they are used to being the underdogs.