Indian rugby’s birth pangs

Rugby in Chennai. The sport, which was until recently popular in only a few Indian cities such as Kolkata, Bengaluru and Mumbai, is gaining ground in other places in the country.-PIC: M. MOORTHY

Introduced by the British in India in the late 19th century, rugby never really took off. However, since the late 1990s, the sport has been slowly but steadily growing in the country, writes S. Dipak Ragav.

The British took cricket to their colonies such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. They also took rugby to these countries, and while the sport is as big and popular as cricket in the first three nations named, somehow it did not flourish in India.

Rugby was introduced by the British in India in the late 19th century and barring the Calcutta Cup, for which England and Scotland battle it out annually, there is very little contribution to the sport from the country.

However, since the late 1990s, the sport has been slowly but steadily growing in the country. Aga Hussain, the vice president of the Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU), has been part of the sport for a few decades now. He had led India in its first international match in 1998. He was also instrumental in establishing the first recognised national rugby federation.

“We came together and established it (the national federation) as late as 1995. Since then the federation has been recognised by the international body and the Indian Olympic Association, and recently by the Sports Ministry too,” Hussain said.

Aga Hussain’s son Nasser too played and led India in international competitions.

Rugby sevens, a truncated form of the game that lasts for only 15 minutes, has also helped the sport grow in India. This format is now part of multi-disciplinary events such as the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, and is set to make its debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Speaking about the growth of the sport in the country, Aga Hussain said, “Against all odds, the game has grown a lot in the recent past. A more heartening fact is that the game has found traction not only among men but women too.”

Rugby was recently included in the School Games Federation of India.

However, like every other sport other than cricket in India, issues pertaining to infrastructure and funding are the major stumbling blocks for rugby to move to the next level. “We don’t have enough grounds to play and, unfortunately, cricket grounds are out of bounds (for us). If you look at countries like South Africa and New Zealand, rugby and cricket are played at the same venue. But here, no other sport can get access to cricket grounds,” Hussain said.

“With better funding, I am confident we can definitely break into the top five in Asia in rugby,” he added.

While the sport was initially popular only in a few cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Bengaluru, it is slowly spreading to other parts of the country. “It is no longer confined to a few centres. There are players from Tamil Nadu in the national side. Delhi has a strong contingent with players from surrounding areas like Haryana,” Hussain said.

With the Army, CRPF and the state police recruiting rugby players, the sport has received a fillip in the country.

Another problem the sport has faced is that it is very physical and parents have been wary of letting their kids play rugby. To overcome this, the sport was introduced at the school level through touch rugby, which has minimal contact especially considering that the grounds here are not conducive for a very physical approach. “It has the same rules of rugby with passing, but no contact and there is little chance of players getting injured. We can play on any ground; we have even played on basketball courts,” said Hussain.

A major roadblock the sport is facing is that it is not being promoted and marketed well — there is very little international rugby available on Indian TV. However, conscious efforts are being made to address the issue and things are looking ahead. Recently, Chennai conducted the Asian Sevens Olympics pre-qualifiers. This is the biggest international rugby event conducted so far in the country. As a follow-up to that, an Indian sports channel has plans to show some international rugby competitions ahead of the Rugby World Cup, to be held later this year.

Nasser Hussain, who is the general manager of the IRFU, acknowledged that not much has been done to promote the sport in India. “We have very little funds and we had to make a call between marketing the sport and promoting it at the grassroots, and we went for the latter. But I believe it is now time for promoting and marketing the sport to move up to the next level,” he said.

With World Rugby keen on tapping into new markets like India and China, there has been a concerted effort to popularise the game in the country. In this direction, the world governing body has made India as a special project this year. This enables the IRFU to receive an enhanced grant to develop the sport in the country. A proper use of the grant can help the game grow in India.