Under dark monsoon skies in Kolkata the India Women’s rugby team demonstrate incredible sporting spirit.
By Paul Walsh
India’s rugby community has a pounding heart in Kolkata where senior Men’s and Women’s teams play for the Calcutta Cup, hundreds of children fly around the Maidan and the monsoon especially means rugby season. Sticky muddy fields may not be ideal for the game but it does mean cricket is off the agenda for a short time at least.
As a sport rugby is said to have a unique spirit. Most players know there are a set of values by which rugby is played and governed. It is not always easy to separate one sport from another in terms of what can be a hard to define spirit. Most sports participants try their best, follow the rules, at the highest levels finding a winning angle can cross the boundaries of fair play but most players don’t look for this.
And then an event comes along that makes you realise that whether it is rugby or any sport there is a terrific sporting spirit in the heart of every athlete.
The context of my own interest in the Spirit of Rugby is through the social development programme of the Jungle Crows, the rugby club I helped found 15 years ago in Kolkata. For 3 years now our Khelo Rugby has been a part of World Rugby’s Spirit of Rugby programme. The Spirit of Rugby recognises a select number of projects around the world and supports them from World Rugby HQ in Dublin. Khelo Rugby is so far the only project representing Asia and we’re proud to have been shown such faith.
One of Kolkata’s showcase rugby tournaments is the “Georgiadi Rugby 7s” hosted each year by the prestigious Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CCFC). Rugby has been played in Kolkata since 1872 and the Football in CCFC actually refers to the oval shaped ball rather than the round ball.
The Georgiadi Cup is named after a Greek of the same name who was the custodian of the CCFC grounds for many years, a stalwart of the club from another generation honoured with the Cup being named after him. This year saw 20 Men’s teams and 8 Women’s teams entered into the competition, which kicked off at 9am on a bright Saturday morning in July.
Rugby 7s is an abbreviated form of the full 15 player game, played over two halves of 7 minutes with only 7 players on a full size pitch. Lots of space, this is a game for speedsters, while retaining the full contact nature of the game it suits strong fast players with plenty of stamina. A team may play 3 or 4 games in a day so a quick recovery is needed to maintain the pace and keep up a winning streak.
This year the tournament was excited to welcome the senior India Men’s and Women’s teams. They had been in a camp in Bhubaneswar preparing for the upcoming Asia 7s to be played in Jakarta. The Georgiadi would provide the ideal match conditions to test the two squads. The South Africa Coaches in charge of the India teams were excited for the games ahead.
Both the Men’s and Women’s India teams got away to winning starts, pretty much as you’d expect, cantering through the opposition on day one. Day two saw all the teams re-ranked based on their performances on day one. This meant the two Men’s teams entered, India A and B, would face each other in a semi final. As a courtesy to the teams and to prevent their two teams going at each other the coaches decided to withdraw the India Men’s teams leaving the field clear for a local club to take the title. The final would be contested between two local Kolkata clubs, our own Jungle Crows and hosts CCFC. In the lead up to the final the monsoon skies turned dark and what had been a light Kolkata monsoon for one afternoon at least turned into a flood. The rugby carried on, the ground cut up, players turned muddy and the advantage of small flighty players became less as the wrestling contest in the mud increased in importance. In the Men’s final the Jungle Crows ran out 17-0 winners, a close fought contest with both teams muddy, bruised and congratulating each other at the end.
The Women’s final was scheduled as the last match of the day, this would see the India team take on a team made up of young players from a group of villages near Siliguri in the North of West Bengal, part of our Khelo Rugby programme. It was great to see them in the final. The team was named after their village and the most common big cat, the Saraswatipur Leopards. What was about to happen stunned the crowd and eventually saw a show of sporting spirit most found hard to describe.
The final kicked off under lights, the field was muddy but the rain had stopped. The India team was made up from the best players in the country, from Maharastra, Delhi and Odisha, even a Leopard was in the squad. Saraswatipur were immediately on the attack and the opening minutes saw a break in the India defence, the Leopards Swapna sprinted 70 meters to score the first try under the posts which she also converted, 7-0 to the Leopards. The crowd went a little crazy, those not paying too much attention to the game were suddenly fully focussed. Was the most incredible upset on the cards?
Half time team talk for the Leopards
Half time and the Leopards led 7-0. The pair of South African Coaches looked calm but they must have been thinking what the consequences would be of the national team losing to what on the face of it were a bunch of kids from a village. Albeit the rugby crazy village of Saraswatipur, these were girls who had played a lot of rugby, won tournaments, led by the their canny coach Roshan.
The second half saw the India team intensify the pressure, they kept the ball well and started to attack using their superior size on the smaller Saraswatipur team. The India Tigers were showing their class. With just minutes left the Tigers scored in the corner, with no conversion the score was 7-5, the Leopards still ahead of the Tigers.
India star Neha attacks
With time almost up, India had the ball in the Saraswatipur corner, could the girls from the tea estate hold on? A long blast from the referees whistle, some of the supporters thought it was over but this was a penalty for India. Time was up, but the penalty would be taken. India piled in, the corner was dark under the lights, the players muddy but no doubting the next signal and whistle from the referee – try to India. A crushing 10-7 loss for the Leopards who trooped back to their Coach crestfallen, they’d held out for almost the entire game, but a famous win wasn’t to be. Applause rang out for both teams, and nobody doubted the commitment either team of Women had shown.
The biggest sporting gesture was yet to come. The India team were called up to take their winning medals and receive the trophy. India Captain Vahbiz had different ideas, took over the microphone and proceedings. Grabbing a handful of medals she started to distribute them to the India players while at the same time calling up the Leopards. This was a medal ceremony the like of which none of the crowd gathered under the dark monsoon sky had ever seen. Each of the India players took their medal, and hung it around the neck of a Leopard. With a big hug and a smile each player in turn recognised their opponent.
All smiles – Tigers & Leopards
Time for the trophy and Vahbiz wasn’t interested in lifting it for the plaudits, this was for the Leopards. The girls lined up together all smiles, the three coaches joined them – two from South Africa and one from India. This was something very special. A terrifically competitive game had ended in a final play win, that had been exciting, but the actions of the India team lifted the drama to a different level. This was a great sporting moment, not between highly paid superstars but amongst hardworking committed rugby players, who’s passion for their game see them sacrifice and sweat just to get the chance to play. Two remarkable teams of Women had shown that rugby really is a beautiful game and demonstrated what the spirit of the game is all about.
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Khelo Rugby Family: Crows & Leopards