Rugby World Cup Sevens

Forget about cricket, India needs you - to play rugby

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 October, 2008, 12:00am

The clock is ticking. Two years from today, the 2010 Commonwealth Games will open with much fanfare in New Delhi. And at the revered Delhi University, a new ball game will be on show - rugby sevens.

For so long the preserve of cricket, the nation's capital will ring, not to leather on willow, but the new sound of bodies in physical combat as the International Rugby Board celebrates another frontier conquered in its continual bid to push the borders of the sport globally.

Or so is the hope, not only among the world governing body, but also within the ranks of the newly established Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU) whose officials pray that rugby will have taken a firm root by the time the first Commonwealth Games are staged in India.

'There is a tremendous amount of work to be done in the next two years leading up to the Commonwealth Games, but we need to be determined and stick to our plans and hope the Indian government and the IRB support us in our endeavours,' says IRFU secretary Chaitanya Sinh.

The IRB's goal is for the quadrennial games of the former British Empire - Hong Kong used to take part until the handover in 1997 - to be a watershed for rugby in India.

'What the Commonwealth Games will do for Indian rugby is leave behind a strong legacy in terms of facilities,' says the IRB's development manager for Asia, Jarrad Gallagher. 'We also hope it will raise the awareness of rugby among the local public who are totally hooked on cricket.

'Cricket rules the roost. It is the most popular sport and gets all the sponsorship rupee. But there is a growing feeling among other national sports associations the Commonwealth Games will change that. Any sport with a good structure will stand to benefit and rugby is one of those,' Gallagher says.

Rugby in India has a long history. On Christmas Day, 1872, a rugby game got under way in Calcutta between a group of Englishmen on one side, and another group representing Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Perhaps with spirits lifted by all the eggnog, the two homesick teams battled it out. It was such a success that a week later, there was a rematch.

From these impromptu beginnings the Calcutta Football Club was created in January 1873. A year later, they gained entry with the Rugby Football Union. But with the hot climate not entirely conducive to rugby - and with the British Raj likely having other things on their mind - the game soon fell into decline.

But members were keen to perpetuate the name of the club and they withdrew the club's funds - silver rupees - from the bank, melted the pile and made a cup - the Calcutta Cup - and presented it to the RFU. Today this silverware is presented to the winners when England take on Scotland.

'India has a long history of rugby, but not a strong history. Hopefully that will all change in the future,' says Gallagher, who in the next couple of years, will be making more frequent passages to India.

He will be welcomed with open arms by the IRFU. It is desperate to shift into top gear as it strives to get a competitive team - India are making up numbers at the ongoing Asian qualifiers for next year's Rugby World Cup Sevens - ready for the Commonwealth Games.

'We played our first international game [15-a-side] in 1998 at the Asian Rugby Football Tournament in Singapore,' Sinh says. 'We are still in the developmental stage, but over the past few years we have achieved numerous milestones.' Established in 2001, the IRFU has achieved three core goals. Rugby has been introduced in schools, sevens has been incorporated into the National Games, and the army now plays the game.

'We have over 200 schools playing rugby across India and most states in the country now play sevens rugby. But what is most pleasing is the fact rugby is a recognised sport in the army. Half of the national team is made up of players from the army,' Sinh says.

In 2005, India recorded their first test win when they beat Malaysia 48-10 in a World Cup qualifier in Mumbai.

Gallagher also believes the future of Indian rugby lies within the rank and file of the army. There is a familiar ring to this - across the border, Chinese rugby is also heavily influenced by the People's Liberation Army.

Gallagher says: 'They will play a big part simply because they give India the opportunity to have full-time players. They also have the facilities and grounds to support the game. And with rugby being in the army, it is the best way of reaching the masses.'

India has 54 registered clubs split into three divisions. Numbers don't really matter in this country of over a billion people. 'Skill levels are still very basic, but they are a proud nation and I expect India to make huge strides in the next decade as far as Asian rugby is concerned,' Gallagher said.

Sinh agrees: 'At the rate rugby is developing in India, we should be able to compete at the highest level in this region within the next 10 years. Realistically, we have set our sights on 2020 when we can be able to take on the likes of Japan and South Korea.'

If India want, they have a way to fast-track their growth - bringing in players with Anglo-Indian blood. The IRFU knows the seed sown a century ago, by colonial British masters, can benefit Indian rugby.

'We could possibly use overseas players for the test version of the game, but we know that for the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, all participants must have an Indian passport. As such, we have taken a conscious decision to build up a player pool from within the talent available in India,' Sinh says.

When bespectacled Abhinav Bindra won India their first ever Olympic gold medal in an individual sport - the sharpshooter won the 10-metre air rifle competition in Beijing - the country sat up and realised that there is a world of sport out there besides cricket.

Even the powerful Board of Control for Cricket in India was so taken by Bindra's deeds it presented him a cheque for US$59,000. With hockey in the doldrums, rugby officials will hope their sport can strike a fresh chord with the masses.

'It will require a mix of government and private development to bring other sports out of the shadow of cricket. Few sports have been able to compete with cricket, but we believe this trend is changing slightly - sports like football and boxing have managed to stage a comeback. And hopefully rugby will one day be right up there,' Sinh said.

A lot will depend on IRB involvement. Sinh says the most pressing need is for 'funds, technical expertise and administration support'.

With rugby sevens pushing for inclusion at the Olympics, the IRB will have a sound argument to present to the International Olympic Committee when it meets next year to decide on the new sports for 2016. The IRB could say: 'We have India [and China] on board and rugby is well and truly alive in the two most populated countries.'

Sinh says Olympic recognition would open bureaucratic doors: 'We will assist the IRB in pushing for rugby to be included at the Olympics. If that were to happen, we would get numerous government grants and funding, as well as access to infrastructure.'

At Delhi University, a new field of dreams is unfolding, much to the delight of rugby officials, both in India and abroad. The Commonwealth Games will benefit rugby.

'There will be a brand new stadium with five attached training grounds. These will be solely for the use of rugby. It will be the best possible legacy for the game in India,' says IRB RWC Sevens manager Beth Coalter. 'Who knows, after the Commonwealth Games end, India might be able to host an annual international sevens tournament at this stadium. We need to have more satellite tournaments in Asia and India can play a role.'

However, for the moment, all eyes are on the Commonwealth Games.

Indian rugby is keen to put on a good show. And part of that will be for the national side to do themselves proud on their home turf.

'We certainly can have a good sevens team by 2010. But a lot of work will need to be done in the next couple of years and we need all the help we can,' says Sinh.

Clubbing together

Split into three divisions and spread across the country, the number of rugby clubs in India is: 54

Long history

India first tasted the game in the inaugural Calcutta Cup, played in: 1872

Ten-year itch

India played their first 15-a-side international in: 1998