At the Games

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 November, 2010, 12:00am

If ever a tale of two cities is written about rugby in Asia, then it must be based on the different approaches taken by the powerbrokers in Beijing and New Delhi in their attempts to develop a game still quite new to them.

The arrival of rugby sevens as an Olympic sport has given it much-needed status and clout on the world stage outside the traditional rugby-playing countries. It has also given the International Rugby Board a huge boost in its attempts to push the game's boundaries in the two most populated countries, China and India.

Each has taken a different tack. While China depends hugely on the state to manage and run its game, India's is very much a laissez-faire, anything-goes approach, much to the chagrin of Pramod Khanna, the president of the Indian Rugby Football Union, as he watched his team hold Japan to 5-5 at half-time in the men's quarter-final on Tuesday.

'In India, people are not really sports conscious, unlike in China where, because of the government, people do what they are told, as is the case in rugby now that it is an Olympic sport. This is not the case in India,' Khanna says.

The Indian government did give rugby financial support over the past couple of years simply because Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games. But now that is over, rugby is in danger of slipping back into forgotten territory, says Khanna.

It's quite the opposite on the mainland, where all the provinces have been told to encourage rugby and form teams so they can be represented at the National Games in 2013 in Liaoning. This is the premier sports event at national level and only Olympic sports are played.

With rugby sevens in the Olympic fold, provincial governments will scramble to field teams, which will result in the net being cast far and wide for players for the national team.

China became a member of the IRB in 1997 and has traditionally depended on players from Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenyang. Not so in the future. If half of the 22 provinces take rugby seriously, and they will according to Jarrad Gallagher, the IRB's development manager for Asia, the game will boom.

There are 19,000 registered players in India, but they lack facilities and resources. Khanna points to the stance taken by the Indian government after the Commonwealth Games as an example. 'We had a stadium at the Commonwealth Games plus eight training pitches alongside that, but now the games are over, that stadium is being converted for the use of cricket,' Khanna said. 'We also don't get the use of any of those other pitches.'

The biggest problem Khanna and rugby face - or for that matter every other sport in India - is that cricket is the be-all and end-all of everything. 'We all live in the shadow of cricket and while we love cricket and hold no grudge against them, the government doesn't support any other sport.'

There is a joke that the Board of Control for Cricket in India is a far more powerful body than the government itself. Khanna agrees. He points to the importance of a test series between India and Pakistan. The Indian government has used cricket as a diplomatic tool in the past. With its huge fan following, sponsors also tend to flock to cricket to the detriment of every other sport.

The Indian government doesn't care, unlike on the mainland where the state plays a huge role in sports. China's march to become the world's most powerful sporting nation - it topped the gold medal standings at the Beijing Olympics - has been founded on a system nurtured by the state.

'If it is compulsory in China, in India is it entirely up to us individuals,' says Khanna.

So which system is better? The state-sponsored sporting monolith or the one where free enterprise tries to make things happen? The latter might work if not for India's obsession with cricket.

Khanna, however, feels there is a glimmer of hope for rugby. With the Indian army taking up the sport, it is turning into a reservoir of talent for the national team. Two of the sevens squad in Guangzhou are from the army, while there are around seven in the 15s team, says Khanna.

'In the army they are told what to do, just like in China. Maybe it is not a bad thing after all,' he says.