Akash’s Rugby Journey

Community Coach Akash Balmiki tells the story of his journey growing up with a rugby ball by his side.

By Akash Balmiki

My name is Akash Balmiki. I am 21 years old and live in Kolkata, West Bengal. I have been raised in a simple and humble family consisting of 5 members. I have two elder brothers, mother and father. My father works as a sweeper and my mother is a home maker. I am currently a community coach for Khelo Rugby and a player for the Jungle Crows Rugby Club. From a young age my parents have taught me the importance of living happily with very basic amenities and minimal facilities. Right from the time I began to walk and run, I had a good liking towards sports, especially outdoor sports. I attended Government school in Kolkata but I could not afford continuing my education because of financial difficulties at home. The sport of rugby has made a big impact in my personal life.

I got introduced to the sport of rugby in the 2008 Jungle Crows winter camp. One of my neighbours told me about a fun-filled event that takes place at the Kolkata Maidan during the winter holidays. I did not know anything about rugby and had never seen a rugby ball in my life. The Jungle Crows winter camp was a life changing experience for me. Before the camp, I was very shy and hardly had any friends. After the camp, I had 20-30 friends and I thoroughly enjoyed their company. The winter camp assisted me to open up a bit, have fun and learn a new sport. Each day of the camp, we got yummy breakfast. The coaches were very caring and ensured that everyone had a lot of fun, ate a proper breakfast and drank lots of juice. Since the 2008 Winter Camp, I have continued to be addicted to the sport of rugby. I would attend every Jungle Crows Academy session which was initially held near the Calcutta Rangers Club. It was even more fun during the monsoons because we would all be covered in thick muck and my mother’s scolding would not hamper my enthusiasm.  After all these years, my mother has also understood the role that rugby played in my upbringing.

From 2008-09 I never missed the Crows Academy which helped me to develop the core skills and techniques required to play the game of rugby. My first coach was Akhtar Sir who always emphasized on fitness, discipline, hard work, respect and being punctual for every session. The values I learnt back in 2008 have imbibed in me till this very day. All the coaches of the Jungle Crows were amazing and always pushed me to achieve my best on and off the field. In 2010, Khelo Rugby started to organize training sessions at a field barely a few metres from my house. I attended Khelo sessions from 2010-11. At the Crows academy I continued to work very hard to improve my game and physical fitness. I also realized that the food I eat played an important role in my health. I stayed away from junk food, oily food and consumed very little sugar. Till today I avoid tea or coffee. Looking at my game improvement, Paul sir gave me an opportunity to play for the Maidan Hazards, the development team of the Jungle Crows. I played for the Hazards for 2 seasons, 2012 and 2013. We had a great group of players who did exceedingly well and we even managed to defeat some seasoned teams in the Calcutta cup and other rugby tournaments which we played in.

In September 2013, I got a call from the Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU) to attend the India camp for the U-19 Asian Championships. I was very nervous and it was the first time I was leaving my home in Kolkata to go to another place. My team mates assisted me to get my passport done in a short span of time. The India camp was very good and I made it to the Indian National U-19 rugby team. It was a huge achievement for me and I got lots of encouraging positive wishes from my team mates of the Hazards, Jungle Crows and Paul sir. The U-19 Championship in 2013 was held at Lahore, Pakistan and it will always remain a very memorable experience for me. Wearing the India jersey for the first time and listening to the national anthem being played gave me goose bumps. 2014 was the year when things were getting one notch higher and I was assuming more serious roles as a rugby player and coach.

Early in 2014, I got an offer from Paul sir to work as a community coach for the Khelo Rugby project. I loved working with children and it was a very good life opportunity for me. I took it up with full heart and till this day continue to work in the many communities of Khelo Kolkata spreading the joy of rugby. In 2014, I achieved another personal dream and milestone by making it into the Jungle Crows team. All my role models like Tudu da and Zaffar da played for the Crows and it was a dream for me to represent the Crows team. I continue to represent the Crows and have played in all tournaments for them from 2014 till date. In my first season for the Crows, we won the Howrah Rugby 7s, All India U-20 championship, Georgiadi 7s, Centenary Cup. We were also the plate winners at All-India rugby nationals and stood runner-up in the popular Calcutta Cup. In June, 2014 I made it to the senior India national team that played in the Division III 5 nation’s championship at Pakistan. We lost against a formidable Uzbekistan team in the semi-finals, 17-23.

In 2015 I got selected to take part in the 2015 UNOSDP Youth Leadership Programme at the IMG Academy at Florida, United States of America. The 13-day camp was dedicated to giving youth leaders from around the world, a practical training on the best practices in the field of sport for development and peace in order to better use the power of sport to make positive changes in their communities. The experience was very good and helped me to get more insight on how to become a better coach at Khelo Rugby.

In May 2015, I represented the India team for the Asian championship held at Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I loved this tour and Uzbekistan was a completely different experience. The country is very beautiful, the people were very warm and friendly and the food was lip smacking good. It made me realize that the real beauty about a country is the people. Uzbekistan gave me that very welcoming experience which I will always cherish. Coming back to India, we trained really hard to do well in the All-India nationals in October 2015 and were rewarded for our hard work with the plate winner’s trophy. In Feb 2016, my Jungle Crows team-mate Sarfaraz Ahmed (Tiger) and I represented the India Rugby 7s team at the Asian 7s tournament in Dubai, UAE. It was nice to have a team-mate and brother along with you on a national tour. We had a good tournament which started with a convincing win against Qatar but lost to a technically superior Chinese Taipei team.

Khelo Rugby has a cultural exchange program with the Auckland Grammar school, New Zealand. In July 2016, my colleague Harinder and I travelled to Auckland for a 21 days program at the Auckland Grammar school. New Zealand is by far the most beautiful country that I have visited and I am really thankful to the Jungle Crows for providing me with this opportunity to learn in a rugby crazy nation. I came back even more recharged and committed to sharing what I learnt with my fellow colleagues and the Khelo children.

Just over a month back, I attended my 5th India camp for the Asian 7s tournament at Doha, Qatar. The camp was held in Delhi for 3 weeks and we used to train thrice a day. We did fitness training, had Gym sessions, rugby skills training and a couple of friendly matches. Every player wishes to represent the national team. To play for the country, one has to follow important things like discipline on and off the field, respect your coach and follow his game plans. One has to also respect each team-mate and bond as a team. The tournament at Doha, Qatar was not a successful trip for the India team. We lost the first two matches and only narrowly beat Pakistan by a small margin. Doha, Qatar was a good place. I liked the food especially their shwarma’s and burgers. They have very good sports facilities, probably the best rugby pitch I have played on so far. Having good sports facilities is very vital in attracting youngsters to the sport. At the Doha 7s, I also got the opportunity to meet rugby legend Ben Gollings and have a very small but meaningful conversation with him. It was inspiring to talk even for a few minutes to such a top player and share a selfie with him!

In India, playing for the Jungle Crows, we are privileged to have a very well maintained rugby pitch in the centre of Kolkata at the Maidan.  I guess a major part of why we continue to produce good players every year is because of the good facility that we have at our disposal.

For my personal growth, I am extremely grateful to Khelo Rugby. Becoming a community coach is the best thing that has happened in my life. I get to spread smiles to thousands of children which is a very nice feeling. I am also thankful to Shaila Ma’am and Rubickon English classes who painstakingly and patiently taught me verbal and written English.  The ability to speak in English has improved my confidence even more. Compared to my previous international trips with the India team, in the trip to Qatar I was much more confident at immigration and striking conversations with random strangers in public.

I want to be a role model to the 100s of youth that I train in rugby on a daily basis at our Khelo Rugby communities and the Crows Academy. Being a coach is a very big responsibility as I have to keep learning new things and develop my own self in order to assist another person to do better. I strongly believe that every person is capable of achieving any goal in their life if they work hard and are sincere in their dedication towards achieving the goal. An aspiring rugby player has to put in a lot of work in improving his/her rugby skills. A player has to be very patient because good results take time to achieve. I have seen a lot of aspiring athletes take supplements and drugs to enhance their physique. It is best to stay away from these harmful chemicals. A person’s body is best built by eating natural food and a dedicated fitness regime. An athlete has to be careful of what they eat and stay away from intoxicants like alcohol and cigarettes. There are other important components that makes one a good player. One has to respect your team mates, rugby is a team sport. If you learn to play and work together as a team, then only can your team win laurels. I have literally grown up with rugby and I strongly feel that as many children as possible should have the chance to grow up with rugby.

 

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Girls Power On

Parents should encourage their daughters to play rugby!

by Peter Fernandes

I was in one of our Khelo Rugby communities in Kolkata recently and heard a parent remark, “I would not let my girl play sports and rugby is out of the question because it is one the most dangerous sports in the world”. Working as I do for the Jungle Crows and having lived in the rugby crazy nation of New Zealand where young 5-6 year old girls turn up for weekly rugby training these words spoken by a parent left me hurting. And wanting to set them right!

The words echoed in my head and gave me a much clearer insight into the real life discrimination young girls face on a daily basis. Gender inequality is very prevalent here in India so I know that the work we do at Khelo Rugby to get more girls playing is very important and makes a difference. We know that with a properly trained coach to conduct training sessions, teaching the right tackling techniques, using the proper equipment, playing on a good field, using a safe and convenient location, rugby can be enjoyed equally by both boys and girls. The physical nature of the sport does raise concerns in the minds of parents and guardians which is why we work diligently  to play safely.

Talking to the coaches of Khelo Rugby about how the sport has been taken up by girls, the replies by most are all inclined towards the belief I have – girls love sports and rugby is no exception. They love the fact that rugby is challenging, tough and sometimes of a full contact nature. In short, they love rugby!

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Some of the slogans from our #DayoftheGirl tournament

Working with these girls who have no issues playing, the onus now moves on to the parents. It can be a tough task no doubt, but we know that if we can make a young girl attend our programme she’ll like it, and will in turn create better awareness of the importance of sport in her family. She will also convince her other friends in her local community to play and participate and that is always rewarding.

India as a country has a history of physical full contact sports which are quite popular like Pehlwani or Kushti (wrestling), Kabaddi and lesser known sports like Inbuan (combat wrestling in Mizoram), Yubi Lakpi (Manipur form of rugby). What is ubiquitous in most of the full contact sports is the minimal presence of girls or women actively participating. If we want to empower and bring about a change in society we all need to do our part by actively involving girls in sports.

To further this active participation we organised our own #DayoftheGirl rugby tournament on 23 October for our Khelo Rugby girls. We also made October our month of gender equality. 237 girls in 20 teams took part in the tournament and it was incredible to see. The girls played tag which means good skills, running and evasion.

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#DayoftheGirl 23 October on Crow Field

It was also inspiring to see recently the first women’s 15-a-side rugby matches played in India during the annual All India rugby tournament. We were delighted that our Jungle Crows team was almost fully made up of Khelo Rugby graduates. At Khelo we wish to create a lifelong love for sport and rugby in every child that we work with.

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Jungle Crows and CCFC teams at All India

I love that there is a place for everyone in rugby – if you are solid and powerful, there is the front row position for you. If you are tall and strong, you’re a good fit for the lock position. If you are fast and tough, there is flanker’s position for you. If you are quick, resilient and have crazy endurance, we have the whole back line positions for you. Whether you are 4ft or 6ft tall, whether you weigh 50kgs or 100kgs, you can be a part of a rugby team.

For me I think the following seven reasons should convince parents and guardians why they should encourage their daughters to play rugby, I hope you’d agree and please do share your own ideas:

1. Our girls learn to be strong and that the body has immense power.

Rugby is physically tough, challenging and being a full contact sport takes a toll on the person’s body. I had read an anecdote that football is a sport where players pretend to be hurt for 90mins and Rugby is a sport where players pretend not to be hurt for 80mins. Playing Rugby will make a girl feel strong. If she loves the sport and wants to be part of a rugby club like the Jungle Crows, she will have to put in the effort to become stronger physically and mentally. By playing rugby, she will get faster; her body will become more agile and strong. Along the course of learning the right tackling techniques, getting tackled the right way, getting into a ruck or maul, getting into a scrum, she will soon begin to realize the fact that her body has immense power and that she has every capability of playing a full contact sport and to be good at it. The ability to push your body and mind to the limit is a powerful accomplishment.

2. Our girls learn the importance of teamwork and trusting other people.

A girl who plays rugby will understand that she will have to put her body on the line and trust in her team mates. She will tackle someone, she will run, get tackled, ruck, will get up, run again, hit someone again, ruck again, run some more. Sometimes there will be a scrum and a tangled mess of body parts, she will get up and do it all again. It will go on for 80 long minutes. But at the end of every match, she will feel re-energized and mentally fulfilled because she was there for her team mates and her team mates were there for her. Her trust in people around her will increase and being a good hard working team mate, she will be equally trustworthy. She will learn that regardless of how talented and good a player she is, without the dedicated efforts of her team mates, she cannot win the match. She will have to learn to trust and be trustworthy herself, that’s the only way her team will compete.

3. Our girls learn that they are capable of doing anything that the boys can.

Rugby being a full contact physical sport is a very good opportunity to promote gender equality. Girls are tough too, both physically and mentally. What one must understand that a girl playing rugby is only going to be tackling and getting tackled by other girls. It is a fair and integral part of the game. By playing rugby, she will become more confident and have more self-belief in her abilities. I had a hostel manager back when I was working in New Zealand who was a volunteer community rugby coach. Every time a girl would approach her for medication for minor injuries, cuts or bruises, she had this very catchy phrase, “toughen up princess, stop whining like a little boy”. Our girls through rugby will learn that they are capable of doing anything. She will understand that she is quite unstoppable when she puts her mind and body into achieving a goal.

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Jungle Crows v YRC in India’s first women’s 15-a-side game

4. Our girls learn how to get back up after being knocked down.

There are numerous times in life, when it will seem like you are completely knocked down and have no energy to move forward. A rugby player who gets knocked down in life will have the mental strength to push hard and keep moving forward. In the 80 mins of a rugby match, players gets knocked down, fall to the ground but always get back up and continue moving forward. What one learns on the field is probably the biggest life lesson of all. A girl who puts in her hard work and is persistent in her training sessions will in most likelihood achieve the desired success. She will also gather the mental strength needed to face this world and live a fulfilling life. She will learn to accept defeats graciously and celebrate victories in full.

5. Our girls have a lot of respect for others.

The sport of rugby is more inclusive than most sports that exist in the world. A person of every body shape and size can find a position on the rugby field. For a girl, this can be very uplifting as her body shape or size will not affect her opportunity to play. She will learn to respect her team mates and her opponents who will in most likelihood be far more different physically then her. She will learn to accept different type of people and still play together as a team. She will learn that once she gets tackled, her teammates are there to support her. She will learn to obey the rules of game, respect the referee’s decision, and respect her coaches.

6. Our girls learn to be great ambassadors for the values of rugby throughout life.

Girls are the best ambassadors to carry the values of rugby into the life of their families. I like this set of values: teamwork, discipline, enjoyment, respect and sportsmanship – essential life values. These values when taught in a cohesive environment to the girls on a rugby field can be passed down for generations. Girls are excellent communicators and the real change makers of society. Rugby needs good ambassadors and girls are the perfect ambassadors for the sport worldwide.

7. Our girls learn the importance of hard work and develop a sense of pride.

“Wait, what? You play rugby??” will be a question that she will learn to enjoy the most in her life. It will instill a sense of pride in her because she will be among just the 1% of the girls in India that play rugby. Rugby requires sincere dedication, sacrifice and a lot of hard work to get good at it. The girls that venture into rugby will learn how important it is to work hard in life to achieve a goal and that there are no shortcuts to success. Given the right motivation, she will continue to strive to achieve more her whole life.

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Who Wants to Change the World?

by Paul Walsh

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(Article first published in The Telegraph, Calcutta and reproduced here with permission)

“Want to change the world? Invest in an adolescent girl.” – the United Nations Foundation.

Over the winter our Jungle Crows Foundation ran winter rugby camps for children in Calcutta, Saraswatipur and Bangalore. In Calcutta this was the 11th year of the camp. Combined more than 1800 children took part, on the biggest day in Calcutta we had more than 900 children out playing on the Maidan. Looked after by more than 80 volunteer Coaches and fed each day of the 11 mornings a hearty breakfast by one of 14 local hotels and restaurants who stepped forward to support the initiative. Get along to junglecrows.org and you can watch a short film about it.

Over the course of the camp we too realised that girls are pretty damn important in facilitating change. I mean it wasn’t the sudden dawning of something pretty obvious, but a sense that involving more girls in our work really did make a difference to the experience for everyone. We tried hard to get more girls to this year’s camp, organising safe transport, reassuring parents. And it worked partly, 35% of the children playing each morning were girls, this was certainly an increase on previous years and you could sense it changed the atmosphere of the camp.

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This year in the Jungle Crows we are driving forward with an initiative we are calling the Year of Play. The same film referenced above tells you more about that, but the first objective of this programme is to involve more and more adolescent girls in our work. The UN says girls are the key to, “eliminating poverty, achieving social justice, stabilizing the population, and preventing foreseeable humanitarian crises.” That’s quite a lot of responsibility, but having been brought up by a young Mum on her own I can also report how it’s not an unrealistic expectation. We all know girls in our society face many more hurdles in growing up than boys, whether it is marriage at too young an age, isolation due to community customs, denial of education or the threat of trafficking. Most of us will be able to recount experiences where we have at least heard of young girls denied their full chance in life. And this denial of rights is bad for all of us, for all of society. Girls are real change makers in our world, they are the catalyst around which a better world can be created. Today there are more than 600 million girls aged 10-19 growing up in developing countries, just imagine the change they could create if given the right chances.

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We reckon PLAY and sport can be pretty powerful in encouraging and supporting this change. This is what our Khelo Rugby Community programme is all about. Working with children directly in the communities they live in. Community support is essential to any change and if we want to get more girls playing we need to have the support of their families, elders and schools. One way we can change attitudes is by involving girls in high profile visible events of which they are the centre of attention. This was why when we had the chance to partner with the British High Commission for a Sport is GREAT event we chose to do girls rugby. It really was an incredible day with 160 under 14 girls all playing tag-rugby to a very high standard. The final was particularly close and featured a mixed Calcutta team versus a team from Saraswatipur – the tea garden village we work in near Siliguri. The girls from Saraswatipur won, which was a super achievement for them and really showed how they have bloomed with Khelo Rugby.

VIV_0285After the girls rugby myself and the Deputy High Commissioner Scott Fursendonn-Wood raced over to the British Council where we were part of a panel discussion on how sport can play a central role in social development. The debate was high quality and really showcased some of the great social development work going on in Calcutta with sport at its centre; from engaging with school drop outs through Kolkata Goalz to the huge impact of Special Olympics Bharat with so many positive stories in between.

The benefits of play and sport are well known to most parents and in so many ways it is even more important that we work to extend these benefits to include all girls. I think we all know how play and physical activity is a key to a healthier life now and as children grow up. Research has also shown that active children learn better, develop keener memories and have better concentration. Play boosts self-confidence, lessens stress, helps us make new friends, develops team work, is good for goal setting, and I can go on!

And so this is why in the Jungle Crows we’ve adopted the hashtag #PowerOfPlay for 2016, please do use it if you think PLAY can be a positive in children’s lives. And for all the girls in your life please encourage them to get out and play, and then you too can be a part of supporting 600 million girls who are going to transform our world.

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Big Jim on Rugby and Life

Talking Rugby Futures: as part of our series to bring out the stories of the young people impacted by the Jungle Crows Foundation today we talk to Jim about his journey and experiences.

Tell us a little about your background…

I am from Fiji and came to live in India to complete my higher education.

In Fiji, people are crazy about rugby, similar to the way Indians feel for cricket, so we start playing rugby from a very young age. Interestingly, if we don’t have a rugby ball to play with – we use bottles, coconuts, or random objects to enjoy the game…we just love the sport and can’t stop playing.JIM5

I got involved with competitive rugby at the age of 9. At first, I started playing in my village, and then went on to play at higher levels – high-school and state.  In the first year of my secondary school I got selected to represent the school in various rugby tournaments. I would normally play with the older boys, and was also the captain of the under-16 and under-17 team.  And, I played club rugby till I left for India.

I came to India through a scholarship program, where students from less-developed nations are selected to travel to different countries for higher education. I went to Pune to study. Over there I joined a local rugby team, and started training with them. Later a friend told me about rugby being played in Kolkata; that’s when I started travelling to Kolkata.

One aspect of the game you enjoy the most…

I really love this game! It’s a physical one and I’ve been playing it since I was a kid.

What I really appreciate about rugby is its awesome and unique ethos – we have enemies on the field who can be smashed or attacked, but off-field we are the best of mates.JIM4.JPG

What have you learnt in India?

Living in India has been quite an experience, and very different from the way I lived in Fiji. I’ve become more independent and I get to enjoy life over here.

In Fiji, rugby is played throughout the year. So, I would have to train daily. We had a really interesting schedule with various tournaments simultaneously on. Moreover, I was always busy with training, studies, work…

But when I was in Pune, my main focus was on studies; so all I would do was sleep-eat-study-exercise, and never had much activity initially. It’s when I got introduced to Jungle Crows that I learnt about giving back to the society – this is important; and there’s much more rugby training now!jim14

Comparing India to Fiji, India has very few ruggers and is not doing well in this sport (as compared to Fiji). What is your view on this matter? 

Fijians are passionate about rugby. Everyone out there will play and know about it. In fact, you don’t have to teach rugby to a child; it comes naturally to us.  It’s not the same in India.

Out here, cricket and football are far more popular, and we don’t see the same love and obsession for rugby…it’s there in Crows though and getting all the players into the community side works really well. Means we are not just rugby players but mini social workers also, gives a good feeling.

In Fiji we have prize money and a good player can make a living from the sport, there is nothing like this in India. Maybe, if there are more sponsors and funds to support the India players, then the situation will change.

How can this condition be improved?

Firstly and most importantly, the passion for rugby should be present. Once people are passionate, they will naturally go out and play the game.

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In the Media!

We should also start at the grass-root level. In Fiji, we have so many tournaments, right from under-9s to under-19s, village and state tournaments, and then there is regular coaching.

What Jungle Crows and Khelo Rugby are doing, more such projects should be implemented to encourage children. So, first the easier versions of rugby, like tag, should be taught and then gradually the physical game should be introduced.

Plus, India Rugby should also concentrate on better opportunities for players like playing abroad or bringing in Coaches. This way they can promote the sport and also ensure better opportunities to the young players.

Further, rugby should be promoted more and in a better fashion in India to attract more attention. I went to one tournament and the posters and signs showed American Gridiron Football players but this was for rugby, the sports have only an egg shaped ball in common. Was sad to see.

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Jim as Coach with Crows National U20s Champions

 Coming back to rugby, who has been your role model?

My father has always been my inspiration. He too played rugby and had represented the state.

What is your most cherished rugby moment?

There are several such moments. But, I will share the most recent one – winning the Centenary Cup in October (2015). The boys had been training and working very hard for it, also we had near misses in the last few tournaments. So, this victory means a lot to us.jim16

What about the embarrassing one?

It’s an incident from back home; there was a big rugby tournament between the high-schools. I went to a renowned rugby all-boys school, but for two straight years we lost in the Quarter finals, which was very disappointing.

After you return to Fiji will you stay connected with Jungle Crows and Khelo Rugby?

I definitely want to stay connected!

I have seen the work and have also been to the Khelo communities for coaching. I want to come back and help the club and children associated with it. The best way to do so is by raising funds, brining in new and more children and help in building the program, and finally, by coaching. The work with the kids is great, just building up for their brighter future is amazing and with our rugby what could be better.

What advice would you give to a new child who comes to you for coaching?

I would tell them a little about rugby, and how to pass, the rules, and the basic idea. But, there’s one thing I will tell them is what my coach would tell me, “Take the ball, run, and forget about your life.’’ This is why every kid should play to be able to have those times when all the pressure can be lifted. Growing up can be tough.

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Lining Up with Jungle Crows Seniors: All India Mumbai 2015

Who do you think is the player-to-watch-out-for in Jungle Crows?

The present younger lot has many good players. Sukumar , Amit and Akash are great with the game. If you look at them, they are small or haven’t got the big build some think is required for rugby, but they have worked extremely hard to become sure and confident players.

Finally, if you could give a nasty tackle to anybody, who would it be?

It will be Ajay Singh, he is a great friend and won’t mind if I tackle him. Another person will be Shuvomoy. He is the laziest person in Crows, so this tackle is just to wake him up and make him focus on the task ahead.jim13