Among the many Indian athletes travelling to the Chinese city of Hangzhou with dreams of excelling in the continent’s biggest sporting spectacle - the Asian Games - are a group of less-known women who are on a mission to fetch India its first medal in rugby.
Hailing from the country’s pastoral hinterland, a good many of them are fighting social stereotypes and economic hardships while preparing to make their mark in a sport where India has been able to achieve very little in the past.
Ask Hupi Majhi of Kendujhar, Kalyani Patil of Kohlapur or Shweta Shahi of Nalanda and they will promptly narrate the remarkable changes wrought by their decision to play rugby. They are among the 12 players named by Rugby India to represent the country in the rugby sevens event at the upcoming Hangzhou Asian Games.
“I always dreamt of flying in an aircraft to a foreign destination. Rugby realized that dream for me,” says Hupi who left her home in Dhatika village (in Odisha’s Kendujhar district) on the offer of a scholarship in the capital city of Bhubaneswar. “I was introduced to rugby when in high school. I was good at football and that helped me in getting familiar with rugby. I really liked the way it was played,” Majhi says while reflecting on the transition that has happened in her life. That was the way out of the economic straitjacket that confined her family’s aspirations to the meagre income coming from the small farm in the village.
Hupi’s confidence was shared by Shweta, who is now a role model for hundreds of aspiring rugby players in Bihar. Seen as one of the best rugby players in the continent for her ability to outpace the opponents in terms of speed as a ‘winger’, Shweta’s is a story of diligence and determination as she ploughed the lonely furrow to reach the present state of excellence.
“I was selected to the national pool by Rugby India coaches when I attended one of the events in Odisha in 2013. As we did not have any rugby infrastructure in Bihar, I was asked to follow the individual training drills on YouTube and practice at home. I did not have a smartphone then and had to request the wealthier neighbours to access YouTube and continue my rugby training. I used to get up at four in the morning and went on to practice the lessons learnt online with my father and brother, who were my training partners. I have been with the Indian team since 2015,” says Shweta, who is from Bhadari village in Bihar’s Nalanda district.
Her travails did not end there as she and her family had to face the taunt of the villagers for wearing shorts during practice. “My family had to hear taunts from the villagers about me wearing shorts and playing a men’s game. Now my success has changed everyone’s behaviour and lots of girls from the village are going out to pursue their dreams. They are attending colleges and also playing sports of their choice.”
Shweta is happy that she could inspire much-needed change through her fight against adversities. “I campaigned with my brother, who is also a rugby player, to promote the sport in various schools in my region. I used to motivate the students by citing my example and in the process got a lot of boys and girls to play rugby. We have a healthy number of registered players now and Bihar is winning medals at the national level,” Shweta said with a hint of pride.
Kalyani Patil, who plays as a winger, is quite happy with the way she made it to the national team. Hailing from the Padali village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, Kalyani applied her knack for the armed Indian martial arts ‘ mardani khel’ to excel in rugby. Like many others on the team, Kalyani overcame her modest economic situation and used her grit and resolve to get selected for the Indian team. “Wearing shorts and playing men’s sports was looked down upon by many in my village. But my coach (Dipak Patil) and my father have been very supportive,” says Kalyani, whose father works as a security guard in Kohlapur town.
“My brother also plays rugby and is really good in the ‘ mardani khel’ a tradition started by Shivaji Maharaj. I also participated in ‘ mardani khel’ and that has given me the courage and the confidence to get into rugby,” Kalyani adds. More influences shaped Kalyani’s decision to play rugby. “Traditionally wrestling is a popular sport in our village and I found that rugby has a lot of similarity with that especially when it comes to tackling the opponent,” Kalynai recounts the interesting story about her initiation into the sport. Kalyani’s cousin Vaishnavi Patil shares the same experience and is also part of the Indian team.
Hupi, who has a versatile role in the team doubling up as inside centre and the winger as the situation demands, says her troubles began the moment she decided to opt for an “unknown” sport like rugby.
“When I decided to play rugby, there was resistance from the family and I was refused any support when I wanted to buy my kits. But I did not stop there and found support in my institution KISS (the educational institution for indigenous children and youth based in Bhubaneswar),” Hupi says. “People did not speak to me when I started playing rugby but now I get a big welcome in my village after I got into the Indian team and my name started appearing in the media. I get felicitated at many functions and organizers put out banners in many places to announce my arrival,” the 28-year-old Hupi adds with a sense of triumph.
Her younger compatriots Mama Naik and Tarulata Naik have also found their way to the Indian team, which conveys the success story of Kendujhar in Indian rugby. Dumuni Marandi is the other Odisha representative coming from Mayurbhanj district. “I am happy that my success did inspire many other girls to come out of their modest existence to embrace the prospect of a better life through rugby,” says Hupi.
“We have a very good bond in the team and I feel that we can pull off some good wins. We have previously played stronger teams like Japan and China and I have a feeling that the team is prepared to go the length this time. The team’s technical ability and spirit are quite high. Our recent performance has been good and we are eager to prove it as a team. We will try to give our best,” says Shikha Yadav, who plays as the ‘hooker’ in the side.
“We are going there more prepared compared to our first appearance in 2010. It will give us the scope to play against the top teams of the continent and allow us to gain the necessary experience to make progress in the game,” Shikha, a former heptathlete from Delhi, adds.
“We carry the hopes and aspirations of the country and that will become our greatest strength at the Asian Games. No matter the opposition, we have learnt never to take a step back. We are ready to take on any challenge and will try to give our best on the field,” says the captain Sheetal Sharma. “My career has been shaped by Delhi Hurricanes RFC. They spotted my talent and helped me grow as a rugby player. Initially, folks at home were apprehensive about injuries but they came to realize that it is like any other sport and a player can remain injury-free if she follows the right techniques,” Sheetal, a master’s degree holder in physical education, says about her experience.
India finished seventh among eight teams in its first appearance in the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. The team is returning to China after 13 years but the girls feel it is going to be different this time. India played six, lost five and won just the final classification match for the seventh-eighth position against South Korea to avert a rout.
The India women’s rugby sevens squad
Ludwiche Van Deventer, Head Coach, Indian national women’s rugby team
Q: How does you assess India’s chances in Asian Games?
We are currently ranked No. seven in the continent and we can better that position if we do well in Asian Games. It is a unique opportunity which offers us the scope to better our competitiveness. The work that has gone in the last five years in preparing the team has been quite good. The Asian Games was not even in our vocabulary when the project was started five years ago. We are really competitive now and are in a position to challenge the teams that outrank us in the continent. We will have the chance to compete against Japan which is a tier one Rugby nation and is one among the top-12 nations in the world. Once we have competed against a team like Japan, we can understand where we actually stand in terms of the big opponents in the world.
Q: Why is it important to participate in Asian Games?
Our priority is to take these girls to the world stage. We cannot do that by competing against the same teams all the time in Asia. We have to measure ourselves against the world standards and facing Japan in the Asian games is just the start of it. So that is a good opportunity to get exposure against a good team like Japan. And then come back to the drawing board to see what to do next. Post COVID-19 we did a press conference when we rolled out our eight year plan till the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. I can tell with pride that we have ticked every single objective that was set out in the plan. We are on the right path and gaining momentum every year. The team is getting better in physicality and in technical and tactical skills. What we need now is the rugby experience of the high level which the girls now need to better their game.
The average age of the team is 23 going into the Asian Games and I think we are definitely on the right path. This is the best available team and this is the best condition that the girls can have in their rugby careers. We are hopeful of doing well against opponents like Hong Kong and Singapore, who also outrank us currently. And if our wildest dreams are met then we might be able to surprise our nation and the world.
Q: How India stands against its opponents?
In terms of possibility, bringing home a medal is like putting Botswana against India in cricket. That would give one the measure about the likelihood of our competitiveness is at right at the moment. Let’s not put the carriage in front of the horse at this point as I do not want to put pressure on these ladies. Do we have the ability in the game of Sevens? Yes we do. And if the bounce of the ball, the call of the referee goes right and if we keep composure then we can have a shot at glory. When we talk about big sides like Kazakhstan, Thailand, Hong Kong we dominate them at junior level. I am not sure how these teams are structured right now and how many of their junior players have moved into the senior team. A win is not impossible there. And against the mighty sides like China and Japan we really need to uplift our game. Hence I see Asian Games as a brilliant opportunity to grow and thereby make our way to play higher ranked teams in the world.
Q: Who are the players who are expected to do well?
We have great expectations from our No. 1 hooker Shikha (Yadav), she is an incredible athlete and in terms of her physical ability I am sure any team in the world would like to have a player like her. She is expected to lead by example from the front. Then we have our play-maker Sandhya Rai who I think is one of the best natural rugby players, talent-wise, that I have ever worked with in my career in 22 years. She really has a very good kicking foot and her ability to read the game puts us in the front foot. Then on the wings we have our ‘power horse’ called Sweta Sahi. I can ask any athlete in the world to challenge her on speed and strength. She is a phenomenal athlete and her physical appearance on the field is world class. We are looking to have her in open spaces where she can cause a lot of trouble to any opponent in the world.
India team’s fixtures:
Drawn in the F Pool with defending champions Japan, Hong Kong China, and Singapore, the Indian team will have to qualify as one of the top two teams here to make it into the semifinals. India’s campaign starts on September 24 against Hong Kong China in the morning session and Japan in the afternoon session. It plays Singapore in the morning session on September 25.
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