“Kolkata we have arrived!” After a long journey from London to Kolkata via New Delhi the Royal Air Force Spitfires 7s Team had landed safely in India. After an eye opening drive from the airport to the hotel which was filled with beeping horns, laughter, the odd scream and some stunned silence we were greeted by smiles, drinks and a traditional welcoming Bindi, this country had already won us over! Like every rugby team our mind was on food, so we all got to our rooms had a quick turn around and headed out on the town with the Khelo Rugby lads leading the way. Paul, Zaffar and Hari kept us right during our walk through the city and led us to a very nice restaurant. It had been a long tiring day travelling but it was topped off with friendly faces, a good laugh and great food; bring on the rest of the tour.
Day 1 – Don Bosco Ashalayam – Kolkata
Today we met with a few more of the Jungle Crows lads who run Khelo Rugby. Listening to some of their stories captivated everyone; the stuff these boys such as Zaffar and Roshan have gone through is unbelievable and to now be doing what they are doing is truly inspiring, they are a real credit to themselves and are great ambassadors for Khelo Rugby. After our meet and greet we all jumped in the wagons, one of which the Spitfires paid for last year with the sales from playing jerseys through out the season, and we headed off through the hustle and bustle of the busy streets of Kolkata to our first Indian School.
As we arrived sports day was in full swing and we quickly found teams and joined in. As soon as we went off we were mobbed by kids pulling us to their teams “uncle,uncle” they shouted as we all went off with our respective teams. Straight in to the thick of it, football, rugby, cricket (which the kids were far better at than me), tug-o-war, human pyramid, it was crazy! These kids were so energetic, full of enthusiasm and just loved sports, as they ran around bare foot in the scorching heat we tried keeping up with them, running from game to game, lifting them up, high-fiving, laughing with them, posing for pictures, we all really enjoyed it. After a friendly game of touch rugby against some of the senior boys we went for a swim in local pool and then for some food at the school. For everyone involved it was amazing, the kids seemed to love having us there and we loved being there. Watching these kids play rugby and other sports and seeing how much fun they were having was the best part for us, it brought everyone together which is amazing and what Khelo Rugby is all about.
Day 2 – Travel to Mirik and the North
After an amazing first day the team were well rested and ready for another big day in India. Today saw us travelling up north via plane from Kolkata to Baghdogra and then onwards to Mirik via the steep winding mountain side roads much to the delight (or not) of Hodgy who isn’t the best front seat passenger it turns out but what a drive it was, breath taking scenery, high altitude, friendly faces of the Nepalese traders at the border and some crazy driving.
Eventually we reached our destination at the Bon Bosco School in Mirik where the kids stayed after school to play rugby with us. Straight away they were running through passing drills, playing some touch rugby and then we finished it off with a big game of British Bulldogs, it was such a good laugh.
After the kids all went home we headed down into the village to do some training of our own. We parked up beside the lake in Mirik and headed over to what was to become our training paddock. It was our first session out in India and it was at 6000ft up in the mountains, it was literally breathtaking!
With the sound of dogs, crickets and chickens waking us up at the crack of dawn we were back in training gear for another lung busting session on the schools playing court and then a quick shower and change ready for our next day of adventure. As the school kids arrived we joined them in assembly where we were treated to some amazing traditional Nepalese dancing and some very kind words from the Father of the school. We waved good bye to the kids and headed off back down the mountain to Siliguri and then onwards in to the forest and into the small village of Saraswatipur. After a bite to eat and brief on what was happening the day after we all got our head down in the church hall in which we were staying.
Day 4 – Saraswatipur Khelo Rugby Tournament
Awoken by the whispering and giggling of children at the door we got up and changed and got some breakfast down us, which was kindly made by the Khelo lads and the drivers. Today was game day for these kids and you could feel the excitement in the air from both the kids and us, as we arrived at the playing field in the village we were greeted by lots of smiling faces and we were treated to a welcome song by some of the kids of the village.
It was amazing, they were all in their uniforms even though school wasn’t on, and they sang away and then came past and shook all of our hands welcoming us to their village. This tournament that had been organised by Khelo Rugby was a lot bigger than any of us expected, the pitch was a lot better than expected and the level of rugby that came from it was unbelievable. These kids have skill in abundance, some fast feet, great passing skills and an ability to lead and follow. Every team was coached by a Spitfire but they didn’t need much coaching. We gave them the bibs, the team name, the ball and they were off!
Each team was made up of kids from different areas which we didn’t find out until after the tournament, they all played as one team, no arguments, they all new what to do and they all really enjoyed it. At the end of the tournament after some tough games the Godavari ‘Generals’ won the tournament lead by our very own Physio Rich Sutherland. It was great to see so many youngsters getting together and competing but mainly having fun playing rugby, we could all see what positive impact rugby had made on this village, its surrounding areas and the people involved with it. The Khelo Rugby coaches have worked so hard for this and it is definitely paying off. After the intense heat came the rain much to the delight of the Spitfires who clearly had too much sun as even with our vests off it still looked like we were wearing them thanks to the white bodies and red arms and faces. We went for a wander through the forest and down to the river where we came across the village elephants coming back from across the flood plains and it was unbelievable, we were within touching distance of them, it’s not every day you get to run a tournament in a village in the middle of a forest and see elephants! This was definitely a highlight for many during the tour. After the rain stopped we were back in training kit and off to the pitch that we had been at earlier for more intense training, in between herding cows, goats and pigs off the pitch.
Day 5 – Travel from Saraswatipur to Kolkata
After what had been an amazing few days up north it was time to leave and head back to the big smoke of Kolkata, this is were we said goodbye to some of the Khelo lads that helped us during the tournament as they were staying up their to carry on coaching, it’s this sort of commitment that explains why the kids were so good. After a short bit of travelling we were back in Kolkata and the torrential downpours brought by monsoon season were most definitely here. After a couple of hour’s downtime we got dressed up and headed off to the British Embassy where we were hosted by the Deputy High Commissioner Scott Fursseddon-Wood. It was a great opportunity to meet people from all parts of India and businesses and also some of the rugby lads are involved in Khelo Rugby and the Jungle Crows Foundation who make all these tours possible. After a very enjoyable evening with great food and people we headed back to the hotel and got our head down for our next big tournament.
Day 6 – Kolkata Khelo Rugby Tournament
Another Khelo Tournament organised by the Jungle Crows boys, these guys are ridiculously busy and have 1000s of kids playing in the Khelo Rugby programme. We left the hotel walked across the road and down to the playing fields where the Jungle Crows were already setting up pitches and organising 150 very excited kids into neat lines. As we collected our playing bibs we were given a team and immediately got to work on celebrations, dances and then rugby drills.
All these kids were so excited; they couldn’t wait to get their hands on a rugby ball and get the tags on and play. The whistle went and the games began, the day was full of laughter, teamwork, impressive rugby skills and some great games of touch rugby. You could see the hard work of the Jungle Crows coaches coming together here; all the kids just loved rugby and were really good at it, a really impressive show of skills.
Eventually there was a winner; again Rich Sutherland’s team came out victorious! Our Physio was proving that you don’t have to play rugby to be a great coach. After the prize giving and a spot of lunch we said goodbye to all the kids who seemed like they could have played all day, and we headed back to the hotel. After some serious rain we headed out to train in the mud, we found potentially the muddiest pitch in Kolkata and hit it hard with some of the best training we had done in India, great preparation for the big tournament tomorrow.
Day 7/8 – All India 7s Rugby Tournament – Group Stages/Finals Day
Then the day came, the “business” end of the tour, we have come here to compete in this tournament which in the previous 3 years the RAF Spitfires have won, no pressure then! Another early morning rise for the team after a long week of running around after kids, coaching, high-fiving, travelling and training it was time to get together and play some rugby. There was a different mood in the camp during the morning brief it was a lot more serious than usual as we had games to win, we had a lot of pressure on us this year with such an illustrious past and high expectations from other teams, we knew we had to do well. We arrived at the stadium got ourselves ready, kitted up and hit the training hard, Tracey our photographer was snapping away as she had been all week even though the rain that was coming down hard now. The reception we got was phenomenal from the other teams, everyone shaking our hands, wishing us luck and asking for photos, it was great. When it came to the games we got the job done, we played well, the attack was fast and structured and the defence was organised and vocal. A good first day saw us beating the Chennai Irish, Future Hope and the Maiden Hazards to secure our place in the quarter finals the next day.
After some good food and lots of rest Finals day was upon us, a slightly later start for us so we watched some of the other teams play, supporting our hosts and good friends the Jungle Crows and the Khelo Rugby Foundation Team in some very closely fought battles. Then it was our turn, the quarter final came and went with a solid victory for us, then the semi final against the Future Hope Team we played yesterday, we knew we had to be on our game for this one as they were out for payback but throughout the game we controlled it to put us through to the final against the very physical and skilled side of Bula Fiji. As the rest of the finals were played out we watched with intent, while psyching ourselves up for the final. The team came together after the pre game warm up for the last time; skipper Matt Pereira gave a passionate team talk, rallied the troops and headed out to the field. After a heated game of big hits, great steps, one unfortunate injury for Bula Fiji and some great tries we came out victors without conceding any points. A great win an awesome tournament and an absolutely phenomenal tour.
From day one in India we loved every minute of it, being able to work so closely with the Jungle Crows Foundation and support Khelo Rugby and helping them achieve their goals was amazing. The work the foundation does for developing rugby all over these communities is second to none and being able to witness it and help out first hand was unbelievable. Personally my highlight of the tour was the tournament in Saraswatipur; I couldn’t believe the skill level of these kids, the work that the Khelo Coaches put in has definitely paid off, these kids were awesome and they all loved it! It has been such a rewarding tour for all of us and I know we all want to come back next year for more of the same and hopefully to see how much further the foundation has taken rugby in India. Thanks for having us, see you next year……….