Under 9 Rugby Rocking Kolkata

Bringing our under 9s together on Crow Field was a new and enjoyable experience for players and coaches alike.

By Peter Fernandes

Under 9s was the order of the day on 25th February 2018 – a great day of rugby as the smaller children from our Khelo Rugby programme exhibited their very good rugby skills, had lots of fun and made new friends from across our communities. The tournament featured a total of 20 teams made up of 230 children participating from 24 different Khelo locations. With our commitment to gender equality we opted to play a 6-a-side mixed team tag rugby tournament. Each squad had to have a mixed composition of 5 girls and 5 boys. The 20 teams were coached and looked after by 46 young Khelo community coaches. The coaches did a splendid job and ensured that the children had a great time.

We saw the tournament as a great opportunity for the younger children in our program to play in a professionally organized tournament.  A total of 57 matches were played with a whopping 311 tries being scored. Every child was given a healthy breakfast when they started the day and lunch at the end of the tournament.

The following teams took the top honours:

Cup Winners – Fatehpur

Plater Winners – Jainkunj

Bowl Winners – Khatal

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Interesting findings/observations: 311 tries were scored in total at the tournament, with the Cup, Bowl and Plate finals itself producing 24 tries! It’s an astounding achievement meaning there was more than one try for every minute of play! The children were very disciplined and listened to all the instructions handed out during the course of the tournament. The level of rugby was simply amazing!

Let’s meet some of those taking part.J SantoshJ Santosh, Young leader from Fatehpur “For the U-9 tournament, the team trained hard every day for about a month. The tournament was super fun. Dealing with the young children was a big challenge but an experience I would cherish forever. Watching the children play such good rugby at the tournament makes me feel proud. They are so young but displayed so much maturity on the field that it surprised me a lot. Winning the cup was a result of all the hard work and dedication of the young children. I will continue coaching rugby to the children of Fatehpur and these lovely children are a big part of my life now.”Priya Pandit and Ayman FirdousPriya Pandit (14 yrs) and Ayman Firdous (12 yrs) were responsible for the tournament fixtures, scorekeeping and time management. Both are young girls from our Howrah Pilkhana community and did a splendid job that ensured that the matches run as per schedule and on time.

Ayman “This was the first time that I was given the responsibility of managing the tournament fixtures. It was a lot of hard work and the weather was very hot. I had to inform all the teams of their match timings. I kept 2 young leaders assigned to tell the teams for the upcoming matches. Considering we had 4 fields setup, there were 8 teams that had to be kept ready to take on to the field as soon as the ongoing matches would end. I loved the experience. I think we did a good job as we finished the matches on time”, said Ayman with a big smile on her face.

Priya “I learnt something new today. At first I was a bit nervous but I knew my rugby coach Akash was there to support me. For the first time, I had seen 4 fields being setup and 4 matches being played simultaneously at one time. It was a bit nerve wrecking but super fun. Noticing the confidence bestowed on me by my coaches, I felt more comfortable with my role. I had to keep track of scores from field no.1 and give the scores to the scorer’s table. I also helped in the presentation ceremony. It was another first time experience talking in front of 200+ children. I enjoyed it.”Aditya Singh and Khushi ShawI caught up with a very thrilled Aditya Singh and Khushi Shaw of team Fatehpur after the Cup final match where they beat Brooklyn 3-2 in a closely fought finals match. “We are so happy that we won the tournament! This is our first trophy and we will show all our friends in Fatehpur this trophy. We did not expect this. We practised a lot for this tournament. When we reached the finals, everyone was a bit tense and nervous. For both of us, the final was the best match. Overall we had a great day and enjoyed a lot. I made so many new friends today” said Khushi. Khushi was also bestowed with the player of the tournament award for being the leader of the team.Alisha Khatoon and Sanny AliAlisha Khatoon and Sanny Ali were in the Brooklyn team that stood Cup runner-up in the tournament. Alisha, “when I reached the field today morning, I was so surprised to see so many children from different parts of Calcutta. I did not know so many children played rugby. The playing field is so nice and the grass is so good to play on. I had great fun. The field was my favourite part. I made 3 new friends today, one from Pilkhana, one from Dhapa and one from Jainkunj. I hope I get to meet them again”. Sanny, “I can’t wait for the next tournament. I had great fun. I love rugby and I will practise harder to win the final next time. We have lot of children in our para (community) that play rugby and I want to continue playing this game.”Sapna YadavSapna Yadav from Jainkunj “I am so happy today. My parents were not allowing me to play before but thanks to coach Subroto, I am here today at this tournament. He spoke to the parents of all the girls in our para (community). I am so shocked to see so many girls from Kolkata playing rugby. I now feel special. I will never forget this day and it will always bring good memories to my mind.”Sandip KumarSandip Kumar, “we worked very hard and practised a lot at our field back home. I am happy that we are taking back the plate trophy back to our para. Next time hopefully we will be cup winners. This was my first tournament experience and I had great fun. I am looking forward to the next one.”

A special big THANK YOU To all the 40+ Khelo coaches, 200+ children, fantastic team at the Robin Hood Army for the lunch, Sudhir and Ravi for cleaning the ground and arranging for the breakfast and drinking water.DSC06998You can also watch a short movie with plenty of the action on our You Tube channel here!

 

 

Rugby Conversion

Poem from Swindon (UK) Community Poet, Tony Hillier, in celebration of the Youth Sevens Rugby, organised by Future Hope, Kolkata, India, 3 March 2018 

Rugby Conversion

By Tony Hillier

In blue and white tiered seating
of footballer Sailen Manna’s Stadium
rugby was the order of the day
All India and International Youth Tournament
kicked off at 8 a.m. in 30 degrees already

Reds and greens on pukka green grass
as first tournament try scored by Jungle Crows
Some mis-matched teams in this learning game
It’s pick it up and run, run, run, then try, try, try
In logoed vest, hosts Future Hope, try their best

Crows’ brush fully loaded for whitewash
Two tries second half; such a murder of crows
– smiley!

Smart, white Caravel-sponsored tops,
identify “Coach”, “Referee”
All badged, quite rightly so,
30 years of Future Hope
Males of course. Females of course
‘Game over, an Ace Foundation handshake tunnel’

Teamwork amongst the ball girls
and ball boys, keep games flowing
Teamwork round touchlines means
New ball, always centre-spotted

“Coming next Mumbai plays Armenia.
Can I have the captains please?”

On sunshaded terrace, in plus thirty degrees,
the welcome fan drones
Above field of play, another drone,
Camera zoomed in from Hong Kong
Captures the worker drones of Indian Rugby
always trying their best.
‘Meanwhile, Yellow leopards,
primed to pounce from sidelines
Later give Jungle Crows a run for their money’

White shirt team does team press ups.
Pirate Ants form their team-talk-hill.
‘Adibasi gets one back on Ants;
a cheeky, well-earned try.’

These students, just 7-17,
tackle many problems on streets;
Tackle tactical challenges on rugby field.
On streets required to try to survive.
On rugby pitch,
we have seen today,
children choosing to thrive.

Spirit of Rugby Nepal

The story of Khelo Rugby’s Himalayan rugby odyssey.

by Akash Balmiki

This story starts a long way from the Himalaya’s near the Everglades jungles of Florida. In 2015 I was selected to represent Khelo Rugby and the Jungle Crows at a United Nations Sports for Development programme at the IMG Academy in Florida. At IMG I met Prateek who was from Nepal, he worked for an NGO named Childreach and we became friends because we were both passionate about sport.

As always I talked a lot about rugby with Prateek. He’d no knowledge of the game at all, but we could both see how much fun it would be to take the game with the odd shaped ball to the children of Nepal. Jump to 2016 and the story is taken forward by colleagues Paul and Hari when they meet up with Prateek in Kathmandu during the Hong Kong Vandals rugby tour. By this time Prateek and the work of Childreach has been taken over by the terrible effects of the 2015 earthquake – villages destroyed, lives broken and communities devastated.

A rugby visit to Nepal was just within reach but it needed one more piece of the puzzle to make it all possible and that was World Rugby’s Spirit of Rugby programme. A grant awarded to the Jungle Crows to take their Khelo Rugby project further afield, this was just the incentive needed to make my rugby odyssey to Nepal a reality.

Planning was able to start and in October 2017 our Nepal rugby journey began. I was very lucky to travel with my Khelo Rugby teammates Turi, Kirpa and Barkha – together we were able to keep motivating and encouraging each other. We all joined up for the first stage of the trip in Saraswatipur where we ran through our plans and finalised roles and responsibilities. We were to focus on teaching the children tag rugby along with the 5 core values of rugby. I along with my Khelo teammate Turi conducted a few of our BASIC Training sessions (Being A Smart and Innovative Coach). We were joined in Saraswatipur by Prateek and his colleague Shamsher – it was great to be able to show them what we had so far achieved in Saraswatipur.

Our journey proper began from Siliguri. We were all very excited to be taking Khelo Rugby to Nepal, to be sharing it with a whole new group of children. The first leg of the journey was a marathon bus ride from Kakabhitta to Kathmandu which took around 16 hours. It was a challenging journey as travelling in the mountains is never easy. We reached Kathmandu safely and were warmly greeted by the Childreach team.

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In Kathmandu we were joined by a group of  4 talented and experienced volunteers from “Coaches Across Continents”. We discussed our plans with them and shared our experiences as well. We then embarked on a 10 hour journey to Dolakha which kept us on the edge of our seats as the mountain roads were difficult and yes, scary too!

The school we worked with first had been destroyed by the earthquake in 2015. Childreach Nepal had helped to reconstruct the school and build new toilets for the children of the school. I had been apprehensive in case of any language barrier with the children but soon discovered the influence of Bollywood movies and songs meant all the children had good Hindi.

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First day at school we saw many boys and girls playing football, this was a good sign and they were very excited to learn rugby, a whole new sport for them. The shape of the rugby ball made some children smile, some laugh and some ask questions. Well, it took me back to when I started playing as a young boy fascinated by the shape of the ball. After a brief nostalgic moment I explained to them why we were there and began our first session – “Khelo Khelo” as we say.

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One of our challenges was to teach the children the five core values of rugby namely, “Respect, Discipline, Passion, Solidarity and Integrity”. We took up one value each day. We focussed our session around that value. We played games and a lot of rugby and at the end conducted charcha sessions explaining the meaning of each value and what it meant to us in practical terms. The team worked really  hard to teach 68 children about these values through games and open discussions. The challenge was made much easier by children who were very talented and quick learners. They grabbed the topics easily and also learnt the game fast. At end of the week we organised a Spirit of Rugby Tournament. I must admit, it was a treat to watch young boys and girls play such good rugby. I was really happy and proud of our team for having been able to teach good quality rugby to children playing for the first time.

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After a great experience at Dolakha, we headed back to Kathmandu. After a week of intense training we finally got some time to relax but it was just a short stop as very quickly we were on our travels again. One more village awaited, more traveling, more children and more rugby.

Our next destination was Sindhupalchok, a village about 8 hours from Kathmandu. This village was also destroyed in the earthquake and had suffered more damage compared to Dolakha. We started with a group of 48 young boys and girls eager to learn rugby. Our session plans remained much the same but with a few newer challenges as the coaching team grew bigger as we had more volunteers wanting to be involved in sessions. The days were packed with intense training and by the time we hit our beds we were all very quickly snoring!

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The second tournament went as planned and with this we came to an end of another beautiful journey. We headed for Kathmandu and spent a day visiting the local shops buying gifts for friends and family back home.

At the end of this project I can firmly say that I have learned so much more than I could have imagined. These camps made me a better coach and a more responsible one. I really feel I have grown with the project. I started off as a small kid playing rugby and now I’m a Khelo Coach leading 100s of youngsters on their own rugby journeys. Rugby is a part of who I am today and to be able to take this across borders and share it with the children of Nepal has given me immense happiness. I am incredibly grateful to all my teammates for putting together such a successful and impactful Spirit of Rugby adventure.

Cheers to Khelo Rugby – you can watch a short movie of our Himalayan rugby odyssey here – enjoy!

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Rugby Tackles Gender Inequality

Khelo Rugby’s new Project Manager writes about her experiences in organising our Day of the Girl Tournament and how gender inclusion is an important part of combatting gender inequality. 

by Nidhi Ghelani

When I see the girls from across our Khelo communities’ play and lead training sessions I realise that the only thing holding young girls back is the lack of opportunity and a platform to showcase their talents. A young girl encouraging her team to play better during an inter-community match got me thinking whether the most pressing issue to be addressed today is “gender equality” or “gender inclusion”. Our minds are so trained to think of gender roles in a stereotypical manner that we forget the very essence of equality.

Here, at Khelo Rugby we believe that sports is an excellent medium to accelerate gender inclusion and foster gender equality among both girls and boys. Rugby as a sport has a place for everyone on the team. Hence, rugby teaches us that irrespective of size, weight and height what is important is the zeal to play and the passion to excel.

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Character traits like passion, competence, sportsmanship, discipline are essential in every athlete and have no gender bias. They are not gendered or stereotyped. This is the beauty of sport, it does not discriminate based on gender, race, religion, or caste.  The only limitations are the ones we introduce when we say “rugby is a men’s sport” or “girls should not play contact sports like rugby”.

We often feel that educating girls will empower them.  Or just by making them aware of their rights and responsibilities, we can promote a more gender neutral society. However this is only half the picture. What needs to be addressed simultaneously is to sensitize the boys and men around us, which will help us nurture the sapling of equality we plant in the mind and heart of each individual.

The International Day of the Girl is to mark the plight and gather support for young girls across the globe who are subjected to gender based discrimination and violence. We at Khelo have joined hands in this initiative to make a more gender fair society by helping and supporting young girls to break down barriers and emerge as heroes. We undertook the mammoth challenge of organising an U-14 Tag Tournament, where 240 young, motivated, and extremely talented girls from over 20 Indian communities were out on the field enjoying rugby. Our team of 4 coaches and over 45 Young leaders spent their days training girls from various communities and delivering the theme of gender equality through fun games and open discussions. These lessons are one of the tenants from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which we have adopted in Khelo.

Socially enforced gender roles are so deeply embedded in our culture that  discrimination has become normalized and accepted. Young girls from underprivileged communities have often seen their mothers, sisters and other women of the family being subjected to gender based discrimination which they have accepted in their very own lives. It was enthralling to see so many girls out on the field, free from any stereotypical bias making their presence felt and voice heard.

When we talk about gender equality we must also talk about gender inclusion which means that both girls and boys get the opportunity to participate equally. The tournament was planned, organised and executed by the girl young leaders. It was an opportunity given to them to showcase their skills and also a learning opportunity to prepare themselves to deal with bigger challenges life will eventually throw at them.

What life has to offer and what we make of these offers is what shapes our personality. There are times when life throws a curve-ball at us, we either duck or face it with determination and smash a home run. Well, the society today under the facade of liberty and liberalization still breeds gender based discrimination which trickles into the life of these young girls impacting their personality. Sports on the other hand can free them from this cage giving them a more bias free platform to showcase their skills and nurture their passion. It is motivating to see girls who have been a part of Khelo Rugby participate in various state and national level tournaments, making their family, community, organization and nation proud. That what we mean by ‘Growing Up With Rugby.’

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When sport does not discriminate why should we? Sports impacts the lives of players deeper than we can imagine. Hence, for girls who hardly get to see or explore the avenues which lead to self-growth and development this exposure adds a brick to their ever growing palace of dreams and ambitions.

To play a full contact sport like rugby is a barrier many girls have to overcome.  From wearing shorts, to playing in front of an audience, the cultural taboos on women are many. A very important lesson we learn from rugby is to get back up after being knocked down. Many dreams and ambitions are laughed upon and ridiculed when these girls share them with their family and friends… nevertheless they learn to strike back with more determination and zeal. Girls across the globe are fighting various gender biases, and sports provides them a chance to not just free themselves from this but also train their mind and body to become stronger and sharper as they grow.

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Here in Khelo, girls are no less than boys. The roles and responsibilities are given not based on gender but capability and talent. It’s not easy to break free from the shackles of stereotypical thinking but as an organization working with disadvantaged and underprivileged children we try our best to instil among our children the concept of a gender fair society. We see girls and boys adopt the values of rugby in their daily lives leading better  and more fulfilling lives. I’m a strong believer that girls can bring about social change at every level. As daughters, sisters, and mothers… women are god gifted with the task of passing on values and building strong value systems. Khelo through various theme based activities and fun games tries to address these issues in a manner which the children enjoy and learn from as well.

‘Women are genetically stronger” says science. “Women are entrusted the responsibility of being primary caregivers and nurturing a new life” says the society. If women are considered so powerful both through mind and body, why hold them back with stereotyped gender roles and biases? This paradox is prevalent everywhere. Khelo makes active efforts to free young talented girls, giving them opportunities and the right exposure to broaden their horizons.

To build something new the old must sometimes be brought down. To create a more gender fair society we must work together towards including more and more girls and women in every part of community life. What we need today is not projects for them but projects by them. The solution to gender inequality is gender inclusion. Here at Khelo we train girls and boys to grow up together, making each other stronger.

All India Women 2017

Jungle Crows and Maharastra Women’s Team after their Bronze Medal Match, All India Oct 2017 

We in the Jungle!

Originally published on his own blog “Off-Season”, Harry A Johnson is a Watson Fellow scouring the world for the most innovative uses of sports as a vehicle for social change. Here he writes about his experiences visiting Saraswatipur for our Kichad Rugby Festival.

By Harry A Johnson Jnr

Some may argue this point, but to my knowledge, the POLYTECH High School Boys Basketball team from 2009-2013 has to be the most dominant team of all time in the Henlopen conference. During my four years at POLYTECH, we did not lose a single game in our division –completing a streak of 65 straight games– and only lost two games in the conference over my three years as a starter (go ahead and correct me if I’m wrong). Our team’s mantra quickly became “We in the JUNGLE!!,” describing our high speed, in your face style of basketball that suffocated other teams. Less than one day after arriving in India, I was once again in the jungle. However, this time I was on a rugby field surrounded by trees standing 100 feet tall and the under constant threat of elephant attacks. More surprisingly, I felt right at home.

The first program that I am exploring here in Kolkata, India is Khelo Rugby. This sports-based social development initiative uses rugby as a vehicle to counter a number of social issues (ie. poverty, homelessness, lack of access to education) and works to ensure that Indian youth grow up with the best of opportunities (a more in-depth review of the program will come soon). The program works in over 45 communities throughout India. During my first 24 hours here I got to accompany the program on a trip to Saraswatipur, a group of villages in Siliguri — a small town in the jungle foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.

About Khelo and Saraswatipur: 

Saraswatipur is a tea estate made up of a cluster of 4 villages. The lives of children growing-up in these villages are embedded in the larger context of life as a tea garden worker. This is because more than 90% of the people have Adivasi tribal backgrounds meaning they were brought in as indentured labourers to work in the tea gardens at the start of the century. The villagers live in basic conditions, make meager wages (85 rupees/day= $1.33/ day), have limited access to the outside world and a lack of employment opportunities beyond the tea garden. In addition, the village is plagued by rampant alcoholism, illiteracy, lack of schooling, poor sanitation practices, lack of safe drinking water, oppression by Tea Garden owners and the constant threat of wild animal attacks (e.g., elephants, leopards).

Damage from an elephant attack

Khelo Rugby began in Saraswatipur in March 2013. Since then, Khelo has trained more than 500 children in the sport of rugby. Along with rugby training, Khelo has conducted youth development camps, provided various sports-based opportunities (e.g. participating in Rugby tours and Rugby tournaments organized in India), secondary school scholarships, and work opportunities. The program has 26 children from Saraswatipur in the Khelo Scholarship program and 4 former players (2 girls; 2 boys) are currently working with Decathlon, an international sports brand.

Khelo took a unique approach to developing the program in Saraswatipur. When Khelo first arrived, the program purposefully introduced the sport of rugby as a “girls sport” so that parents would not exclude their daughters from participating. Four years later, it is evident that Khelo’s deception was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. The girls from this small practically unknown village have dominated girl’s rugby throughout the entire country of India. These are some of the Saraswatipur Leopards (Girls team) accolades:

  • U-18 All-India Nationals 2nd Place (Runner-Up)

  • September 2016 All India Senior Nationals 3rd Place (Plate Winners)

  • August 2016 All India Georgiadi International 7’s 1st Place (Winners)

  • August 2016 All India Senior National 7’s 3 rd Place (Plate Winners)

  • May 2016 U-18 All India National 7’s 2 nd Place (Runner-Up)

  • 6th Place (Leopards Boys team)

  • January 2016 West Bengal State 7’s 1 st Place (Winners)

  • September 2015 Junior All India Nationals 1 st Place (Winners)

  • July 2015 All India National Rugby 7’s 2 nd Place (Runner-Up)

  • June 2015 Calcutta Rugby Tournament 1st Place (Winners)

  • February 2015 National Games, Kerala Entire Bengal team comprised of Saraswatipur Leopards

  • November 2014 U-18 All India Nationals 2 nd Place (Runner-Up)

This past summer 5 girls from Saraswatipur were selected to the U18 Indian national team which participated in the 2017 Paris World Games and another four girls were selected to the U20 Indian national team which played in the Asia U20 rugby tournament. More importantly 3 players have gone on to college and to the programs knowledge they are the first three in what may be centuries. Khelo’s work continues to expand as the program is currently fundraising to build a youth center in the village.

Above is a short documentary on one of the girls from Saraswatipur who played on the India national team

My Experience: Saraswatipur Rugby Festival

The focus of my trip to Saraswatipur was to help in the coordination and execution of a rugby tournament for kids aged 14 and under. The tournament was then followed by a cultural celebration in honor of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This quickly turned into a cultural exchange between the people of Saraswatipur and myself. As I walked around the town, I was met with unapologetic stares that did not seem to cease over my stay. Although I was taken aback by the attention, I slowly realized the stares were a sign of interest and curiosity. It was hard to communicate with many of the villagers because they have their own language which is a mixture of Bengali, Nepali, Hindi, Bihari. Anyone born outside this village will struggle to follow this mix. Fortunately, some of the villagers knew a small amount of English. (English is known throughout India because it is the language of government, law and medicine.) As I engaged with those around the town, it was evident that the beauty of the landscape was a reflection of the people of the land. I felt at home as I was welcomed into home after home, chased around by small children and shook well over 200 hands during my three day visit.

The tournament went on without a hitch. Over 335 children from Saraswatipur and neighboring tea estates participated in the tournament and both first and second place teams were honored with live chickens. Paul Walsh (Director of Khelo Rugby), Brian Wolf (Bard Graduate and former member of the Khelo Rugby team) and I were surprisingly honored as chief guest in the cultural festival following the tournament. The villagers packed a Shamiana (bamboo built structure to house the event) that the youth built the day before and we enjoyed a display of the cultural roots of Saraswatipur. Four days into my trip I was asked to speak in front of a crowd of over 300 villagers. Looking back, it is amazing that I wasn’t at a loss of words. I stood up and told the people they embodied the  foundation of the trip I had just barely begun. Their village was a prime example of the power of sports, and their ability to combat social ills with century-old roots, increase access to opportunity, and change both individual lives and the world at-large. To conclude the ceremony, the Chief minister of the region stood before us and thanked Paul Walsh and Khelo rugby for “Bringing opportunity to their village.” I looked over at Paul and chuckled thinking all of this came from a simple introduction to a “girls sport;” Rugby.

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.

 

Rugby Building Futures

Talking Rugby Futures with Akash and Puspendu

by Disha Musaddi

The Jungle Crows Foundation, through its unique open-for-all sport-for-development approach, has supported many children from disadvantaged communities over the years to express themselves through the medium of sports and reach their full potential. This interview series is an attempt to bring out the stories of several such young people associated with the Foundation. We aim to develop a platform for further discussion and dialogue on the theme of sports for development. In the first of the series, Disha Musaddi speaks to two young rugby players – Akash Balmiki (19 years old) and Puspendu Tudu (20 years old) about the experiences and opportunities that have come their way since joining the Jungle Crows and starting to play rugby.

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Puspendu and Akash

So Puspendu, first of all, what’s the story behind your unique nick name ‘Commando’?

Puspendu: As a kid I used to play and jump a lot. One day I jumped from the second floor and climbed three floors from the pipe. On seeing this, my friends told me I should be called Commando or ‘fauji’. They eventually stuck to Commando and gradually everyone started calling me by that name.

For how many years have you boys been playing rugby?

Akash: I have been playing for the last 6 years, started sometime in 2008.

Puspendu: I started playing in 2004 when I was just 10 years old.

We’ve heard that, initially, you both have practiced and played a lot together; tell us about those days and how you both started playing?

Puspendu: At first, I wasn’t friends with Akash. We both belonged to different groups. Then gradually we became friends, then I asked him to join me in rugby, but he wasn’t interested. But when I got the chance to go to England one day to play, he was amazed to know about it and then decided to join me for practices. We would go for practices together…go everywhere together. If it rained, then the two of us would play in the maidan…sometimes only the two of us would be there.

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Akash and Commando with the Jungle Crows U20s

Which position do you both play?

Akash: I play number 10, I personally feel it’s the best position ever. In this position the player has a lot to do and to think about. He has to take along all the players together.

Puspendu: Centre. It is an important position in the back, they are the ones who make the game.

How do you prepare for a match? 

Puspendu: One day before a match, we increase our water intake because we get cramp easily during a match and even tire easily. I then try my best to calm my mind and be at peace.

Akash: Before a match, I drink lots of water, focus on the game and listen to our coach, what he has to say.

Who is your inspiration, as far as rugby is concerned?

Akash: It’s Sailen Tudu. According to me, he’s the best player; he has taught me well about rugby…everything in life. He’s like a big brother to me.

Puspendu: It’s Sailen Tudu for me too. When I came to Calcutta the first time, I met him. We belong to the same village. There were only two people from my village those days, Tudu bhaiya and me… no one else. He taught me, sent me to school. Those days I used to only play, I didn’t have any knowledge about rugby. One day he took me to the Maidan and introduced me to Paul (Walsh) sir. Since then I’ve been going for training.

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Comando makes a superb break to score: All India Rugby 2012

An advice given to you, which has helped you?

Puspendu: Respect is the most important thing for me. Respect the players and your coach. No matter how great you are, if you don’t respect your coach, you’re nothing.

Akash: Tudu bhaiya taught me to respect my position in the team, team mates, and coach. His advice is the most useful as he leads by example.

What about respecting the opponents?

Akash: Yes, we do respect them in the game. When they get injured during the game, we help them. Because at the end of the day, it’s just a game.

You both have gotten the chance to visit UK, how was your experience? Was it the best experience of your Rugby playing career so far? 

Puspendu: I never imagined I’d go to England… never thought I would get the chance to travel by plane. The first time I went on a plane and lived there, it was a very nice place. It’s a very clean, no dirt at all, the people were good… everything was amazing. From then on, I have never looked back and my Rugby playing has only improved. Recently I also got the chance to play for the India team and that for me is my big achievement.

Akash: I had just played my second game in La Martiniere school tournament, where I played well. Arijit Sirkar had asked me for my birth certificate and told me that I would go to UK, but I took it as a joke. My passport was made and Paul Sir came to my house to tell me about the verification. When I went to the station, the officer couldn’t believe that I am going to UK. He looked at me condescendingly and said, “this boy from the basthi will go to UK?”  My mother wasn’t happy with this decision; she was scared about who will take care of us and how will we manage. But, I really wanted to go and convinced her. It was the first time I was on the plane and that made me nervous, and Commando told me that the toilets in the plane are very small… that freaked me out more.  On reaching, we met Peter and Steve, after which we got divided into two’s to live with different families. Sanjay and I got to stay with a Punjabi family. And, we met Curt and Tudu at Caldy Club, where we played our under 13 tournament.

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Akash leads a session at Winter Camp 2014

If there’s a new kid who wants to play rugby, what would be your advice to him or her? 

Akash: First, I will describe the ball! The kid will be surprised to see an egg-shaped ball, and then I will talk about rugby and tell them that if they want to play, they should eat good, healthy food.

Puspendu: I will do the same. I will speak to him, and tell him that he’s a good player. I will tell that if one gets into bad habits, it will instead affect one’s health… the game too… I will try to explain the harmful effects of indiscipline.

Besides playing, the two of you have also done some coaching Tell us a bit about that.

Puspendu: I don’t do much coaching. To be frank, I find coaching a bit challenging; I don’t think it’s something I can do too well. When I go for practice, I explain the format and rules of the game to all those who are new.

Akash: I started my coaching experience with netball. Initially, I was very nervous and didn’t know how to go about it. I would just observe Lovepreet and try to work it all out. Paul Sir would encourage me, which did give me some confidence and I’ve had training. Currently I’m coaching at three communities in our Khelo Rugby project (Bhavani Bhavan, Bijoy Basu, and KPT Colony), a couple of schools, and I am also involved with Netball coaching in a few Girls’ schools.

Can you tell us a bit about Netball?

Akash: Netball is the best sport for girls, according to me. It’s a no contact sport, so the girls can play without hurting themselves. It can be played in basketball courts too.

What more you want to do for the children associated with Khelo Rugby?

Akash: I would want them to study while becoming a good player at the same time.

Puspendu: I want to teach them, want them to play well… be a good player… work on fitness, eat healthy food…

Akash: Yes, don’t eat junk always… Most important!

You both have played a few seasons of Rugby now. So can you talk us through your day during the rugby season?

Akash: During those times, we don’t think much about studies! We only think about how we are going to play, about winning the game.

Puspendu: I don’t think about school and studies too.. To be honest, I don’t think much about it otherwise! It’s the rugby season, so my main concern is how we are going to play; we make the game plan, focus on fitness, and go to the gym.

What’s the best thing about each other when it comes to rugby?

Puspendu: Akash is a complete player, has the skills, his passes are good…

Akash: Commando has good skills, passes, running and the best part is, he is always one step ahead of the others.. always thinking about what should be done next.

And, the weakest

Akash: Commando doesn’t talk much, he has to talk more! He can be one of the best player in the country if he talks more..

Puspendu: Akash’s tackle is the weakest; he misses the tackle at the most crucial point and the opponents manage to score a try.

Will you teach him how to tackle?

Yes, of course.

Will you learn, Akash?

Akash: Definitely, there are a lot of things Commando has taught me regarding rugby, before I joined Jungle Crows. I will continue learning from him.

Puspendu: I will be very happy if Akash becomes a better player than me one day!

Can you tell us about Paul Sir, what do you think about him and his influence in your life?

Akash: I’ve never seen anyone like Paul sir in Kolkata, because he took local boys like us and spoke to us and made us what we are.

Puspendu: He has helped me a lot. He would be always very happy to see me play well. Whenever I needed something like shoes, shirt, shorts, he would give it happily.

Commando, tell us about your special interest in the children from the Adivasi community.

Puspendu: Adivasis are very fit… they play football, hockey and so many other sports There are people of all cultures who play… there are Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims… I want there to be a separate team where the Adivasis get a chance to play and have an identity of their own … I want them to organize and play very well, make a mark for themselves. I want people to recognize them, because many don’t know about our culture, and they think we are just illiterates from the jungles. What I really want to do is to train them hard, and learn a lot. If rugby can change me, my brother Tudu, then it can surely transform many other youngsters and prevent them from exploitation.

Other than rugby, which sport(s) do you play?

Puspendu: Football, cricket…

Akash: We play these sports just for fun.

Tell us about your future plans…

Puspendu: Studies is a big challenge for me! But I want to work hard, finish my studies and maybe join the army team one day. I also want to work hard to promote Adivasi Rugby.

Akash: Last year, I played for the India team and that was a very proud moment of my life. I want to be the best coach and retire as one of the top players in the world!

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Comando and Akash with the India U20 team playing in Pakistan