Advancing past the gain line

The rugby revolution is picking up momentum in the tribal areas of Odisha.

The hotbed of rugby talent: The players of the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences University. The institution has produced at least 15 woman players of international repute in the last 10 years.

On a bright and breezy morning, a bunch of youngsters gather at the KIIT Stadium in Bhubaneswar for sports practice. At one end, a group is busy at the cricket nets, while a second lot is practising football. In the middle of the field are 15-odd girls with a rugby ball. Among them is a 20-year-old, Hupi Majhi, the centre of attraction, showing her skills with the ball.

“Toss the ball high up in the air, and jump to catch it. The moment you catch it, look at the camera,” she instructs her fellow player in Odia, as the others line up for a photo session.

Almost 10 years into the game, Hupi Majhi, one of India’s best prospects in women’s rugby, has learnt the tricks both on and off the field. Coming from a remote village in Odisha’s Kendujhar district, she is the face of several hundreds of rugby talents that have emerged from the tribal belt.

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“For tribal girls like us, the village is our world. My parents were not in favour of letting me study in Bhubaneswar. Somehow, my brother-in-law took the responsibility and convinced them,” says Hupi, who is pursuing graduation at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) University in Bhubaneswar, an exclusive University for tribal students. “When I came to KISS, I saw students performing exceedingly well in rugby and going places to participate in tournaments. I also wanted to explore the world and travel in an airplane. So, I started playing rugby.”

A casual entry into the game soon turned into a professional one and Hupi, today, is a star player of the Indian team. She scored a joint-highest six tries in the Asian Women’s Rugby Sevens Trophy in Vientiane, Laos, in February and guided India to an impressive silver medal in the tournament.

A story of struggles

Of course, she has her own story of struggles, with her parents even objecting to her wearing ‘shorts’ while playing, but Hupi eventually overcame it all to not only win the confidence of her parents, but also register victories in the tournaments in which she participated.

Of late, Odisha, called the ‘hockey nursery,’ is also gradually developing as a nursery of rugby. With more and more tribal children showing keen interest, the state has been giving wings to the dreams of many more tribal girls like Hupi, by turning them into professional rugby players. KISS, in particular, has become the hotbed of raw rugby talent and has produced at least 15 woman players of international repute in the last 10 years. “In 2006, the Tag Rugby Foundation had visited KISS as a part of their Asia tour to promote grassroots level rugby. Their friendly nature and innovative coaching style attracted young children. Though rugby is a foreign sport, given the strength and stamina of the tribal children, it didn’t take much time for the children to pick up the skills,” says Rudrakesh Jena, the Assistant Sports Director of KISS, who has trained almost 200 national rugby players till date.

The role of KISS

“The Rugby programme in KISS started in 2006 and within one year, the boys’ team won the U-14 World Cup in London. In 2008, the same team again went to Australia to play their top clubs and won six out of eight matches. Looking at the success rate, rugby became the focus and other students also started showing interest.”

Leading the way: Hupi Majhi is the face of several hundreds of rugby talents that have emerged from the tribal belt.

 

For the training of the tribal players, a separate methodology was chalked out, which varied from the natural coaching procedure. The young girls were not directly taught the tit-bits of the game, they were rather first made to enjoy a different version. “Training tribal players is a challenge. So, we had to adopt a different method. After identifying possible player prospects, the senior players start training them in the basics. They are, in fact, made to play some fun versions of the game. When the interest starts trickling in, they are offered specialised training. So, we take our time to churn out the best from the (available) players,” says Jena.

The training method seems to have clicked with most of the players, who admit to taking up rugby casually, but are now proud to represent India. “I loved playing rough sports and I thought rugby to be the same. I started playing it and gradually learnt the techniques and rules. This way, I could enjoy as I moved up the success ladder,” says Sumitra Nayak, another player who has captained the India U-18 team.

Basanti Pangi, another player from the tribal-dominated Koraput district, agrees. Pangi was part of the World Rugby Game, which was held in Paris in July last year. “It was the egg-like shape of the rugby ball that attracted me to the sport. It was weird to see my friends running with an egg-shaped ball. I wanted to try it for fun. I kept doing it every day without realising I had already started mastering the trick!”

Major challenges

One of the major challenges while training the tribal children is nutrition, which is given due importance. Since there is a higher chance of many tribal children facing malnutrition, the diet is properly maintained and monitored. Each of the players are provided with milk, eggs and fruits on a daily basis.

Language, too, is a concern, as most of the tribal communities have their dialects and don’t speak the state language, Odia. “Communication barrier is taken care of, as senior players in the team act as translators if there is a problem. But sport is about body language, and most of them are really good at grasping the game by merely judging the body language of the opponents,” says Jena.

Promoting rugby

Various programmes that have come up to promote rugby in India are also helping to make the sport popular at the grassroots level. ‘Get Into Rugby,’ an initiative of Rugby India to develop the sport, is a hit at institutions like KISS. “Coaching is what makes the most difference in shaping a player’s life. Initiatives like these give a huge boost to the sport, as the young players get exposure to foreign training early in their playing career, which is otherwise not common in other sport, including the popular ones. With right training and proper infrastructure, the sport has all chances of overshadowing the others,” says Jena.

In November last year, the Odisha Government also chalked out a new scheme to encourage young tribal population to take up sports. However, rugby doesn’t feature in the list. As per the scheme, the state government has formed committees at block and district levels to spot tribal talent and hone their skills. In the first phase, teams in seven sports — athletics, archery, kho-kho, kabaddi, volleyball, football and hockey — will be formed.

Proud to represent India: Sumitra Nayak took up rugby casually but now enjoys playing the sport.

 

“Though we have tribal boys and girls taking up rugby, it still cannot be considered a popular sport. KISS takes the major credit for promoting the sport in Odisha. The Government will definitely look to include rugby in the second list if more youngsters show interest,” says R. Vineel Krishna, Sports Director, Government of Odisha. For the founder of KISS University, Professor Achyuta Samanta, this is the beginning of what he believes will be a great future for rugby in the country. “Though short in stature, it is the strength and potential of these girls that has changed the notion that rugby is a foreign sport. They play with confidence and ease, and at this rate of success and popularity, the sport will only achieve great heights.”

With most young girls coming from Maoist-infested areas, rugby has given them a life, which was otherwise impossible. Now, they want nothing but to keep playing till they can.

“It is impossible to think of a life without rugby now. Even when I go home during vacation, I practise rugby and also teach the basics to the young boys and girls of my village. Earlier, I was just any other girl in the village, who helped her mother with household chores, but today I have an identity — Basanti Pangi, member of the Indian rugby ream, and this identity is my pride and honour,” says the young player, as she joins her team-mates for a round of practice.