Getting the opportunity to play for India in 2016 was the happiest and proudest moment for me - Rugby player Sumitra Nayak
Indian women's Rugby team has been enjoying a fair amount of success since the last couple of years thanks to their promising rising stars.
Sumitra Nayak, the 21 year old rugby player from Jajpur is one of the rising stars in the Indian team and has frequently made headlines in rugby news. She has bagged medals for India and played an important role in scripting the country's bronze medal victory in the 2019 Asian Women Championship by scoring a penalty kick in a thrilling game against Singapore.
In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, Sumitra shared her incredible story which is marked by courage, sheer hard work and her mother's fortitude - all that went into making her whatever she is today.
Q 1) You were introduced to rugby when you moved to Bhubaneshwar, what did you love about the game and when did you feel it's a sport you should pursue professionally?
I started playing Rugby in 2008 in the Kalinga Institute of Social Science - KISS where both education and sports were provided for free of cost. I had only heard of Rugby before and didn't know anything about it before I had joined KISS in 2008. I remember seeing players running, taking an egg shaped ball in hand, rolling and tackling it which I found quite weird because I had never seen such a sport before. I did find it interesting but never thought I would play it professionally. However, in 2009 when I went to the playground with my friends after our class was over, there were many coaches present at the ground who were training. They called us and asked us to run for a hundred metres with a ball in our hand. I didn't understand much but it was quite fun and interesting. I was fascinated by the ball and played the sport out of sheer liking for it. I had never thought I would pursue this sport in my life.
Q 2) How big of a role has your mother played in the rugby player that you are today?
I come from a very small Duburi village of Jajpur district in Orissa. Girls in my village aren't given many opportunities to stand on their feet or take up sports. They mostly marry their daughters at the age 13-14. My mom however had other dreams. My father didn't provide us with any support in terms of finances or even our education. He would drink and was selfish while my mother would work as a domestic helper at people's houses and get us some money and food. My mother thought we didn't have a future there and wanted to move out of our village at any cost. The owner of the place where she would work encouraged and helped her to move into Bhubaneswar. Hence, my mother brought me and my 9 month old sister to Bhubaneswar where I didn't get an opportunity to study for the initial 2 to 3 years as there was no one to take care of my little sister. My mother felt that her decision of moving into a big study would make no sense if she is unable to provide us with education. However, she needed a hostel facility where I could stay without her needing to come to drop and pick me up from school and could focus on her work without worrying for me. She got to know about an institute where tribal children are educated along with being provided with food, accommodation, sports coaching for free and thus enrolled me in KISS in 2008.
Q 3) How did your coach Mr. Rudrakesh Jena help you develop into a better rugby player?
I had to give him multiple tests when I first entered Rugby. Rugby being a contact sport requires you to be physically fit so he gave me correct physical training by which I got selected in the rugby team. Sir helped me a lot since it's a very complicated sport, sharply contrasting to the way it looks. He guided me on various technicalities of the game including how to move forward and tackle. Sir also educated me on how to coordinate the team while leading the side.
Q 3) What is your proudest achievement in the sport of rugby so far?
I was nominated for an international Peace Prize in 2017. I was very happy since the nomination was centred around my life story and the background I came from. Although I didn't win, it was great to be nominated for such an honour. Also, getting the opportunity to play for India in 2016 was my happiest and proudest moment. Gradually the team kept growing and our performance too started getting better. Even bagging a bronze for India in 2019 in the Philippines was quite special and memorable.
Q 4) You came from a small village where girls were not allowed to play rugby. How challenging was it to pursue your passion and what obstacles did you have to overcome?
The people of my village didn't even know about the sport and the fact that even girls play it. The girls are barely educated since they believe we are only meant for marriages, but my mother didn't think like this at all and that was the reason we moved out of that place. People said a lot of mean things to us, discouraged our decision to move in the city and told us our lives wouldn't change there.
Q 5) What are the skill sets required to become a champion?
Firstly, you have to be very honest to be able to achieve your dreams. You have to put in a lot of hard work and effort. If you pursue something with an honest heart you will definitely get it one day. As a sportsperson, I would say hard work, team work, team coordination and sound communication is very important for success.
Q 6) How valuable was the experience and exposure of playing in England as India’s captain? What are the different things that you learnt?
When our bhaiyas and didis (seniors) went to England, we also had an intense wish to go there someday but never knew if that opportunity would ever come where we would get to fly in a plane, meet new people and play rugby in England. When we finally got the opportunity through KISS, it felt great, the experience was completely new as we were quite young. We had difficulty in terms of language and food but we somehow managed as we were trained a bit for all this too. The match was great as well and I learnt a lot, especially their time management and discipline.Their behaviour was also good and they were very down to Earth. Apart from that, the cleanliness there also had a great impact on me and when I came back I started educating and telling people about the importance of it wherever I went.
Q 7) You are an inspiration for so many girls out there who fulfilled their dream through hard work, dedication and passion. What is your message for girls out there who want to make a career in sports?
I strongly believe and tell other people that nothing is impossible to achieve. Your goals might be difficult but never impossible to accomplish. When we ourselves don't try, no amount of motivation or pushing from people will help us. You will face many obstacles in your journey and you should always overcome them courageously and move forward in the direction of your goals. I would like to say this especially to girls that when you feel down and hopeless, you will need to find and kinder your inner courage because no one from outside will give it to you. We have it all inside us and we only need to recognise it in order to realise our dreams. Unless we ourselves don't take a step forward people will keep pulling our legs backward.
Rugby has completely changed my life, it’s a misconception that rugby is a very difficult contact sport - Sandhya Rai, Rugby player
In a world without sports, Sandhya Rai, 20 born and brought up near the Baikunthapur forest, east of Siliguri, would quite possibly have been married, working in a tea garden just like her parents before her. This is the inevitable reality for many girls, especially in rural India but unlike most instances, this one is a happy story. Sandhya Rai is “India Unstoppable”, part of a global campaign by World Rugby to promote the sport, being one of only three women in India to be selected. Sandhya has not only surpassed incredible odds to be where she is today, she has also paved the path for others to join her journey and most importantly, shifted the mindset of those who believed that women are unfit to play sports.
In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, Sandhya Rai speaks about being introduced to rugby, earning the trust of the villagers, the role Rugby India has played in her journey, overcoming obstacles and words of wisdom for aspiring women looking to pursue rugby professionally.
Q 1) For someone from a remote village in West Bengal, how were you first introduced to rugby? What made you fall in love with the sport?
I was introduced to rugby in 2013, before that, football and cricket were played in my village but those were only played by boys. When we were introduced to rugby, proper coaches and clubs trained us and taught us the sport, which is when I fell in love with rugby.
Q 2) How difficult was it for the other villagers to understand that girls can play rugby? How did you earn their trust over time?
When I started playing rugby even the people in my village had no knowledge of this sport. They knew it’s an activity because there had been coaches that had come to our village to teach us various sports and would leave after a while. Similarly, rugby was introduced to our village but none of us had any idea that this sport would go on to become such a big part of our lives. We were only playing non-contact rugby for a year after which we were introduced to ‘real’ contact rugby. After 1 year, we were selected for various clubs that formed the girls team from our village Saraswatipur. We went to Orissa for the Under 19 All-India games and it was the very first time when a girls team from our village went for a competition. Initially, when we went to our parents for permission to participate and travel to Orissa, they refused because they feared this was a ploy for human trafficking and we would get sold in the big cities. After a lot of convincing, they agreed. We performed pretty well and progressed to the state level but we could not earn the trust of the villagers. They would accuse us of buying trophies from the cities and never had any faith in our achievements. When we participated in the Rugby India camps, our names came in the newspapers which began to change the mindset of the villagers. When we represented India and the villagers saw our photos on social media, they became supporters.
Q 3) A brief about your current status with Rugby India, your educational background and your role as an Unstoppable?
I was honoured to be named the Captain of the Indian U20 Girls team and also be selected to represent the Indian Senior Women’s National team. I’m currently in my third year of Sports Management and on a club scholarship. Not only is my expenses covered but I’m also provided with accommodation and given a stipend. Similar scholarship and stipend is also given to many girls from my village and this is a big support for us and has helped us pursue the sport.
I am privileged to be selected as an Asia Rugby ‘Unstoppable’ that would inspire girls and women to overcome their challenges and get involved in sport - as a role model, I hope I can give back to the sport that has given me so much.
Q 4) How has rugby changed your life? How much has the sport impacted the mentality of the people in your village and changed the lives of other girls?
Rugby has completely changed my life. I could never have imagined travelling outside the country, sit in an airplane. We have been selected because of our hard work and the Indian Rugby team has given us the platform to express our talent. If there was no rugby, we would have been married by now or would be working as a tea garden labourer and would not have been able to complete our education. Rugby has allowed us to dream of a brighter future, get educated and achieve something in life.
Q 5) Why have there been eight to nine girls from your village Saraswatipur who have represented India but no boys so far?
The boys in our village have always played multiple sports such as cricket, football and don’t just focus on rugby unlike the girls. I think that they believe there is not much of a future in rugby because of the stiffer competition as 70% of the people who play rugby in India are men. They also have to take care of their families and even those who play rugby work at the same time. As there is no support by the government, financially or otherwise, they don’t envision a future in this sport despite playing at the national level.
Q 6) As someone who has been in a position of overcoming many obstacles to achieve your dream, what would be your advice to young girls who want to pursue sports professionally?
There is a misconception that rugby is a very difficult contact sport and I would like to tell other girls that they should give the sport a try. It’s a very fun and interesting game and just like we tackle our opponents while playing rugby, I want others to tackle their problems in life head on. It’s impossible to progress without support and it’s important to seek help from your family and friends and work towards achieving your goals.
It’s very difficult to break social boundaries, but I want to represent India at the Olympics - Indian rugby player Sweta Shahi
From a rural village in eastern India to an international sevens player, 23 year old Sweta Shahi is the first woman from Bihar to represent her country at Asia Rugby events. Her journey is nothing short of inspiring and is a valuable lesson in doing what it takes to achieve your dream.
In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, Sweta Shahi speaks about her journey so far, her challenges and inspirations, the role of her father, proudest achievements, being an inspiration for girls, training during the lockdown and her ultimate goal.
Q 1) When did you start playing rugby and what motivated you to take up the sport professionally?
Ans: I was first introduced to rugby in 2013 when I saw a movie featuring a rugby match and I really liked the sport. I was involved in athletics before that and had no knowledge about rugby but was then introduced to the Secretary of my State (Bihar) Rugby Association who thought I could excel in the sport. I faced a lot of pressure in my village because rugby is a contact sport and women traditionally have not played it where I come from. Despite that, I continued following my passion and soon represented the Indian team. In 2018, I was selected as one of World Rugby’s 15 Unstoppables which featured 15 inspiring women from different countries.
Q 2) What were the challenges that you faced in becoming a professional rugby player? Who were your inspirations?
Ans: Every athlete faces difficulties and challenges to pursue their dreams and I faced social, economic and family issues. In our village, we have large families and members from my paternal and maternal families consider females to have a limited role, especially with regards to participation in sports. It’s very difficult to break those boundaries and the only way I could pursue my passion was by listening to my parents and nobody else which greatly benefitted me. I do have social pressure and I’m regularly criticized about playing sports because I’m a woman but it does not bother me. I belong to a family of farmers and everyone is aware of the situation they are faced with. In spite of the economical problems, my father always encouraged me and tried to provide the means to pursue my interest in rugby.
Q 3) How important of a role did your father play in the player you are today?
Ans: My father has played the most important role and he has always supported me. When I started playing rugby, nobody was aware of it but he would take me to the ground so that I could practice. He would wait until my practice was over and as there was no team or coaches, I would watch Youtube videos with him and practice accordingly. If I would make mistakes, he would bring it to my attention and help me rectify them. Youtube has also played a big part in helping me become the player I am today.
Q 4) What achievement are you proudest of in your rugby career so far?
Ans: The proudest moment for me was when I was selected for the Indian team. However, my goal is that rugby players get recognition from the Government for their achievements in the sport and they are supported economically so that it’s a viable career option. This is especially relevant for women in rugby as without recognition and support, it will be unsustainable to continue this for a long term.
Q 5) How do you feel about being an inspiration for girls to take up sports? What would you like to say to them?
Ans: For any career that you want to pursue, it’s very important to show your potential whether it’s sports or studies. People are not aware of our capabilities, we have to show them to get support and encouragement from others. When I proved my capability, I got encouragement which helped me reach the position where I’m in, in spite of coming from a small, remote village. If you start looking for support without using your own resources and capabilities, it won’t work. If you want to pursue your goal, you should seek encouragement from your family and not bother about the comments and criticism from the society at large. When you achieve your goal, the same society which criticised you will praise you, which will be a further source of support and encouragement to achieve more.
I’m happy that perspectives of females are changing and they are getting exposed to wider possibilities in sports. When I’m invited by schools to talk about sports, I meet many girls who are keenly interested in pursuing rugby. They get inspired and share their dreams with their parents. Their parents contact me and seek guidance on how to help their daughters realize their dreams.
Q 6) How have you been training during the lockdown?
Ans: During the lockdown, I have not been able to focus on rugby but I have been concentrating on maintaining my physical fitness. I use Google Meet to communicate with the other girls and help them maintain physical fitness. The active playing career for an athlete is very limited and the lockdown is stopping many from actively playing sports which is ending many careers. I feel really bad about it.
During the lockdown, schools and educational institutes are operating online without interruptions and students can concentrate on their careers. However, this is the worst period for sports as we cannot play. For example: if an active playing career is 10-12 years, losing two years is a big loss and it's very demotivating.
Q 7) What is your ultimate aspiration as a rugby player? Do you think that goal can realistically be achieved?
Ans: For any athlete, playing the Olympics is the ultimate dream. To achieve that, the entire team will have to work collectively to achieve that goal. I am 100% committed to achieve this objective and have complete faith in the team that we can reach the Olympics. Rugby India is also working very hard to promote the sport and I’m optimistic we will achieve this goal.
Indian Rugby team can become as good as our Cricket team says Sweety Kumari winner of International Young Player award
Indian women's Rugby team has been putting impressive performances and are establishing themselves as a rising force off late and Sweety Kumari, the wonder girl from Bihar is one of the important flag bearers of this change. With her several match winning performances, the 20 year old has established a name for herself in the World of Rugby with sheer hard work, grit and determination and is often looked upon as a future Rugby legend.
Born in Nawada village of Bihar, the Indian winger took up sports at an early age alongside her brother. Despite playing Rugby like she was born to play it, the rising star in an exclusive interview with SPOGO revealed Rugby wasn't her first choice of sport and was introduced to it by Mr. Pankaj Kumar Jyoti, Secretary, Rugby Football Association of Bihar. She said, "I was initially into Athletics and was introduced to Rugby only in 2014 when I had gone to participate in a state level athletics event. There I came across Pankaj Kumar Jyoti sir who recommended the sport to me and suggested I would do well in it. I told him I wasn't aware of the game but he assured me to give it a try and that's how I started playing Rugby."
Overcoming challenges is an important aspect of becoming a successful athlete. However, alongside the physical, financial and infrastructural challenges in India's sporting culture, the female athletes in our country also have to defy the cultural and social ones to realise their dreams. Speaking about her set of challenges Sweety commented, "There are many challenges an athlete faces, especially when you hail from a small village. You are not allowed to wear t-shirts and shorts and can't leave the house easily. There is a shortage of good grounds and players have to travel 70-75 kilometres in trains to reach them."
Sweety also has the distinctive honour of being the only Indian and Asian to claim the title of the ‘International Young Player of the Year'. When asked about how proud she is of the achievement she said, "I felt really proud as no Indian had ever achieved this feat before. Not just from India, I'm also the first player from Asia to be bestowed with this honour and therefore it is even more special," Highlighting the core values of Rugby and like a true team player, she did not forget to mention her teammates and immediately added "I received tremendous support from my teammates and that's the reason why I could achieve all this."
Responding to the question about her nickname the 'Scoring Machine' and her best memory so far, Sweety fondly shared "Yes my teammates call me the 'Scoring Machine' and there are many memorable on field moments with them but the most special one was our test match against Singapore which we won from a very difficult position. We had scripted history by winning that game so that would be my most memorable pick."
Not just that, in a display of her leadership skills and the will to undertake gritty initiatives, Sweety had come up with her own team at the age of just 14! Elaborating on the story she said, "When I first started playing I thought the existing team wasn't performing well and I always felt the need of having a quality side from Bihar to represent in the National Championships so that we could win Gold Medals. Therefore I decided to speak to sir (Mr. Pankaj Kumar Jyoti) about it and expressed my will to lead the side and he agreed along with handing me the captaincy of Bihar. From there on I decided to lead from the front and work towards building a great side."
Sharing her thoughts about Indian Rugby and the things needed to be done in order for it to compete with teams like New Zealand and England, she said, "I think the Indian Women’s Rugby team is quite good, we are performing consistently and winning medals. We are at par (if not better) when compared to other team sports. We can do even better if we are provided with good support from the Government and can compete at the Asian Games and hopefully very soon at the Rugby World Cup."
My dream is to see the Indian Women’s Rugby team compete in the World Cup - Rehmuddin Shaikh, Assistant Coach of Team India
Excelling at any sport cannot be achieved without the right guidance. Coaches have rarely received the limelight, appreciation or credit they deserve for their contributions and it largely remains an underappreciated job, especially amongst the lesser known sports. However, for those who truly understand the nuances of a coach’s craft, it requires immense man management skills, emotional intelligence and precise attention to detail.
In this exclusive interview with SPOGO, Mr. Rehmuddin Shaikh, assistant coach of the Indian Women’s rugby team speaks about his journey and involvement with Rugby India, his challenges, grassroot participation, mental health and his future goals.
Q 1) How were you first introduced to rugby? How long have you been involved with Rugby India?
Ans: It’s been 21 years since I have been associated with rugby and I’m still playing the sport. I was introduced to multiple sports by volunteers of an organization and rugby was one of them, the other being cricket, football and kabaddi. When we were given the option to choose a sport and I chose rugby because it was something new and I really enjoyed it. I have been a part of Rugby India since 2016 and was also a part of the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
Q 2) What are the challenges that you have faced as Assistant Coach of Women’s Indian Rugby team? How do you overcome those challenges?
Ans: One of the challenges that I have faced as a coach is instilling confidence amongst the girls so they believe in themselves and that in turn brings out their strengths. Most teams we play against have players that are generally bigger and stronger than our girls - which often results in our girls being intimidating (psychologically). As a coach, addressing this is a real challenge I've had to overcome - whereby we have to block these negative perceptions and make the girls believe in their abilities and potential, which can often be missed.
Q 3) What can be done at the grassroots level to get more participation in the sport of rugby?
Ans: As part of the workforce of Rugby India, I am involved with the development of the sport in the Western region, particularly with grassroots initiatives like the 'Get Into Rugby' (GIR) program in Maharashtra in areas such as Chandrapur, Thane, Nanded, Kolhapur, Solapur to name a few. As part of the GIR program, if anybody needs coaching in any district in Maharashtra, our team helps deliver sessions with the focus on Training & Education and ensuring they become self sufficient. We start with the basics and gradually as their understanding of the sport improves we proceed to World Rugby Level 1 coaching followed by Level 2, 3 and so on similar to football’s A license, B license or C license.
Q 4) How different are the training methods abroad as compared to India and why?
Ans: In terms of training methods and resources, India is at par with other countries - we have amongst our workforce qualified and certified World Rugby Trainers, Educators, Coaches, Match Officials and Medics. Having said that, what is lacking (when compared to other countries) is the availability and access to infrastructure and facilities to implement these training methods. In other countries, facilities are used for multiple sports and not dedicated to just one sport or only to sports that brings them medals. There are cricket, football and hockey grounds in India but there isn’t a single facility for rugby.
Q 5) According to you, what does India need to do to catch up to the rugby standards of countries such as New Zealand or England?
Ans: If the sport of rugby receives some more support and facilities by the government, the condition could be a lot better. Also, people aren't much aware about our game which leads to less participation. There is a lack of knowledge and understanding of the game. Besides, players who join us also look forward to some benefits and rewards to support their family and if they don't get any they stop playing or look elsewhere. If players receive benefits and incentives and are provided good facilities the interest levels would increase. Rugby India recently signed an agreement with the Government of Odisha specifically for this wherein financial support would be provided directly to the players participating in the India camps, this would certainly help improve things a lot.
Q 6) Why is the Indian women’s rugby team doing better than the men’s team?
Ans: From my experience and observation as Asst. Coach of the Women's Rugby Team, I think they are very passionate about the game and play it wholeheartedly. When they lose a certain game, they walk out of the field with a heavy heart and tears in their eyes, with a realization of the mistakes they have made in the game; which I feel is something the boys don't do (or have stopped doing). They retrospect the game and take a note of their mistakes and try not to repeat it when they next take the field and I feel that's the reason why they are progressing ahead.
Q 7) How much do you emphasize on mental health for the rugby players training under you? How do you build mental resilience for your players?
Ans: Mental health is very important. Over the last few years, through our association with the Govt. of Odisha, wherever we have our National camps we ensure the players are taken great care of - not only are they provided with good facilities, infrastructure and looked after but also the minute details of player welfare are looked after well in terms of diet, nutrition, recovery and injury rehabilitation. These things often take off a lot of burden from their head, easing mental stress. Additionally, going forward, the possibility of players being paid would also help create a more positive mindset.
Q 8) How much do you think Team India can achieve in the sport of rugby in the future?
Ans: As far as the Women's Rugby team is concerned, we have players such as Vahbiz Bharucha, Sweety Kumari and Shweta Shahi who are highly talented girls having great skills and speed, which is of utmost importance in the sport of rugby. I think, if these players and the team are given the right support and exposure, we can see them competing with established teams and make a mark within Asia in the next two to three years. As the Indian Rugby team coach it is my dream to see our women play in the World Cup in the near future.
India’s Women Rugby captain Vahbiz Bharucha is inspiring the next generation to pursue sports
Just like any superhero, Vahbiz Bharucha lives a dual life. A physiotherapist by profession, her superpower lies in the sport of rugby that has led her to become the Indian Women’s Rugby captain. While most superheroes in movies and comic books are men, Vahbiz has broken down barriers and preconceived notions through sheer grit, hard work and determination and is an inspiration for future generations of girls looking to pursue sports.
In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, Vahbiz elaborated on her journey so far, maintaining fitness during the lockdown, development of rugby at the grassroots, the importance of mental health and her future goals.
How did your interest in rugby begin? When did you feel it’s a career you can pursue professionally?
I was in my 10th grade in the year 2009 when the coach from the KFANDRA (Khare's Football AND Rugby Academy) approached my school to introduce rugby as a sport into the curriculum. After his meeting with the principal, he was introduced to my then batchmate & now teammate Neha Pardeshi and me as we both were the star sportswomen of our school. He informed us about this club in Pune and also invited us to a friendly game being played between the KFANDRA Women, Jammu Kashmir and The Hong Kong Hotties which was happening in Pune over the weekend. Neha and I hopped onto our vehicle and went over to this tournament. We were both taken aback by the energy, enthusiasm and passion of the women there. As soon as our board exams were over, on the 21st of March, 2009 was when I joined the game of rugby and never looked back. What appealed to me the most about the game was the respect and teamwork the game taught and demanded. To answer the 2nd question, I never really thought of rugby as a profession or even thought about it as a driving factor. All I was aware of was that this game really brings out the best in me and I enjoy every little bit of it.
For a country not known for rugby especially for women, how challenging has it been to be a female rugby player? How have you overcome those challenges?
This has never been a challenge. Even the sport that's given the most importance in our country, it's women have had to prove themselves massively. In a patriarchal system it's something we take into our stride and just keep our focus on the performance because nothing speaks louder than that. However, having said that, our National Union - the Indian Rugby Football Union has been very fair towards its women in terms of opportunities, approachability and problem solving. They have made us feel respected and safe.
How have you been maintaining your fitness and preparations during the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing lockdown?
I have been training 6 days a week for close to 2 hours through the lockdown until now. Our national team coaches had sent us some weekly running, strength and conditioning programs which I followed to the T. These workouts consisted mostly of body weight exercises and focused on improving our strength, endurance, power and speed (basically make us war ready ;p). In my other life, I am a professional physiotherapist. I do home visits and use bicycling as my mode of transport. There's where I cover my endurance by clocking an average of 25- 30km per day.
How much of a boost is it that the state of Odisha has partnered with the IRFU to develop the sport? How much of an impact will it make at the grassroot level?
This is a massive step and will prove to be very beneficial in growing the interest of the youth. Out of 12 players in our national team today, about 8 have another job that brings home the bread and butter and the rest are students who still depend a lot on their parents for their financial needs. If an athlete can make it to a national camp without worrying about the time and money lost in the bargain, that's all one ever wishes for. That while I fuel my passion, the flame in the kitchen of my home cannot be put off. With this partnership, this load has been taken off the athlete's shoulders completely. This also creates a projection for younger players who are still in the grassroots as something to work hard towards, because now with the money involved, this is possible. It will increase the competition levels and efforts of all the existing national team players, thus raising the bar of performance to a completely different level.
Rugby has a reputation for being a contact, even a violent sport. However, how important of a role does mental health play for a rugby player to perform at the highest level?
I am so happy this is being discussed. Mental health plays a huge role in any player's performance. If you look at it in relation to the physical body, an athlete cannot run at top speed if her ankle has a sprain. She will run, which will cause more damage to that sprain in the long run. This same thing happens in the mind and that's how a healthy mind leads to a complete change in performance. A player with good mental health can make their team win a losing game whereas a player who is dealing with a lot of internal pressure and hurt can lead their team to losing a winning game, which in turn affects their mental health even further.
What needs to be done to encourage more girls to pursue rugby on a recreational or professional level?
Getting more girls to play will encourage more girls to play. If brothers and male members of these families can be educated and shown the benefits of the game not only on the field but also off the field, it will help gather a lot of girls to play the game - recreationally and professionally.
What can the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports do to support and promote rugby? How important is media representation to get more support from the government?
I am not in a position to answer the former question as I am not equipped with enough knowledge about this but I believe they already are in talks with the Union for some plans in the pipeline. Media representation is the most important thing in today's day and age as it's the fastest way to reach millions and trillions of pairs of eyes. It is because of this very medium that so many thousands of Indians who never knew rugby existed now know that India has national teams that perform on a regular basis.
What are your goals and aspirations for the future? Do you believe that the Indian Women’s Rugby team can make it to the Olympics one day?
Yes, I do believe that India will make it to the Olympics one day and make an impact too! That's a long term vision of at least about 7 to 10 years from here. My short term goals are that we move from 9th rank in Asia (Women's Sevens ranking) to the top 5 in Asia within the next 3 years (from whenever competitions resume) and in the fifteens game to move up from 14th in Asia into top 10 within the next 5 years.
Women’s rugby has received an overwhelming response in India
Rugby is a sport which is not commonly associated with India. There are no All Blacks and their famous Haka to intimidate opponents before the game has even begun. Most people on the streets would never have heard of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Jonah Lomu or Brian O’Driscoll, but the sport is quickly growing, especially in the tier 2 and 3 cities of India. Why is that?
In this exclusive interview with SPOGO, we are exploring that question with the CEO of Rugby India, Mr. Nasser Hussain. He’s the former captain of the Indian Rugby team and has featured in the XIX Commonwealth Games in Delhi, XVI Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, XV Asian Games in Doha, Qatar and the Asia Rugby Championships from 2004 to 2013.
How much of an inspiration has your father been in your love for rugby? How was the experience of playing alongside him?
He has undoubtedly been an inspiration and a driving force behind my involvement in the sport. I remember in my early days going to watch him while he played for the club team. I have some recollection of messing around the field with a rugby ball, throwing it around without knowing anything about the game. He encouraged me to play sports in school and take up rugby professionally. I started in 1995 at the age of 15 and there has been no looking back since. I’ve been lucky and privileged to have a father who was involved in the sport and having the opportunity to play alongside him not just for the club team but also for the national team. When India played its very first game internationally, my dad was the captain and I was the youngest player in the team. It wasn’t always easy because of the father and son relationship, because I had to do extra compared to other players but looking back, they are fond memories and will stay with me and my dad as well.
How has the interest in rugby grown from 1998 when you made your debut for India until today? What do you consider the reason for this?
There have been massive strides, back in the day it was only played by a few clubs in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore so there were only a handful of teams and only one major tournament in a year. Since then, there has been tremendous growth in the game and one of the major driving forces behind this has been the National Governing Body for the sport in India i.e. the Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU) aka Rugby India as they are popularly called. Their strategic focus and vision has contributed to the growth, especially at the grassroot level since the last decade. Reaching out to the youth and the masses has been significant and successful and we have managed to get the sport included in the School Games Federation of India (SGFI) at the Under 14, 17 and 19 level for boys and girls. Multiple national level tournaments are held across the country throughout the year so there has been huge strides that the sport has taken which is largely due to the IRFU Board members and other stakeholders who are driving it forward.
How challenging has it been to promote rugby in India? How can those challenges be overcome?
It has been a challenge and continues to be. Being a sport that’s not popular in terms of following and understanding, educating the masses has been a challenge which we are addressing. There is a usual mix-up between Rugby and American-Football and there is a misconception that it’s a dangerous sport and we are trying to change that mindset. Yes, it’s a contact sport but not necessarily a dangerous sport. We have had to be creative and innovative in terms of our approach such as reaching out to schools with the non-contact ‘Touch Rugby’ version of the sport. It follows the same fabric of the game but looks at various aspects such as teamwork, sportsmanship, leadership, decision making and respect which are the core values of rugby. In the last 4-5 years we’ve rolled out the ‘Get Into Rugby’ (GIR) programme, a World Rugby initiative towards growing the game and we have incorporated it with Touch Rugby to make it easier for schools, teachers, parents to accept rugby because it’s the non-contact version and once the athlete/participant is ‘Rugby Ready’, they will progress and move on to the contact version of the sport. World Rugby carries out an annual review for GIR and in 2019, India ranked number 1 globally, in terms of participation reach through the GIR programme and has been number 1 in Asia consecutively over the last three years. I can confidently say that the Get Into Rugby programme has played a significant role in introducing the sport and had a massive impact in growing the game in India.
What has been the response in promoting rugby for women? Where do you get most of the talent from?
Women's rugby got introduced only in 2009, it's been only ten years that they have been involved in the sport, the response we have received has been overwhelming and exceptional, it's something that we did not envisage. To be honest, we were quite weary when we were introducing women's rugby but we have been proven wrong and the kind of response and hunger we see amongst the women to learn and be involved is fantastic.
Surprisingly a lot of interest comes from tier two cities, smaller towns and villages. A lot of our players are from rural and tribal India and it's been amazing to stumble upon this. What we have realised is the lack of opportunity available to women in sports, especially a team sport and we have managed to address that and provide the girls of our country a structured programme which they are more than willing to participate in it. The hotbeds for women's rugby are Odisha, Bihar, remote areas of West Bengal, districts of Maharashtra, likes of Delhi, Haryana as well as Kerala from South India. Also, something that we as Rugby India have stressed upon is that all our programmes, at least in the last 5-7 years are gender inclusive. There is no programme, event tournament or initiative that we would do only for men, it has to have women and girls involved as well and the numbers are increasing day by day. In our National level tournaments we get 24 to 25 states in the men and close to about 21 -22 states in the women that participate, so they are pretty much at par and considering they have been only involved in the last ten years, that's quite significant.
How realistic are the aspirations to make it to the 2024 Summer Olympics? What needs to be done to achieve that goal?
Honestly, it's quite tough for 2024. We have in our internal planning looked at L.A 2028 and are trying to work towards that. We have also made a presentation to that effect to the Ministry of Sport as well and they have been very receptive of it and positive in terms of the feedback that we have got. No doubt we will still strive to be part of 2024 but realistically I think 2028 is something we should be focusing on. Yes we can use the milestones in between; be it the Commonwealth Games or the Asian Games that fall from between now and 2028 as the events or stepping stones towards the Olympics. There are a couple of things that we have actually highlighted and one of the reasons we reached out to the Ministry of Sports was the re-categorisation of rugby. Currently rugby is categorized by the Ministry under ‘Other Sports’, the lowest category, and we have tried to make a case for this to be reviewed and the category changes to ‘Priority’, which is one level higher and being an Olympic sport, one would fall into that category. The minute that happens, we will get a lot more support from the Ministry in terms of the annual calendar, training and competition and the support towards facilities and infrastructure which probably are our major challenges that we face currently. If we manage to address this, it would free up a bit of resources that we can focus on the high-performance side and directly on our Olympics target.
What are your goals from Rugby in India in the future? How do you plan to achieve them?
It's been a good journey and we are going through an exciting time at the moment. I would personally want to see the sport getting the recognition that is due from the ministry and enhanced visibility from a broadcasting standpoint. We are also seeing corporates taking notice and one worth mentioning is Societe Generale, who are our current partners of Rugby India. Not only have Societe Generale invested in the National teams and top end of the sport but also supported the grassroots development. Investing towards both ends of the sport is testament to their long-term relationship and commitment towards growing the game. I think we need to get more corporations taking notice and looking at investing with a long-term perspective. From an achievements point of view, I think it's only a matter of time to break into top 3 or top 5 in Asia. That's something we could probably do in the next 5 years if we were given the right support, resources and backing in terms of infrastructure as well.