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You go, girls!

Patriot speaks to a few members of the historic Indian rugby women’s team that registered the country’s first victory in the sport vs Malaysia at Manila

India is now glued to its TV screens to catch all the action of the Indian Cricket team at the ICC World Cup. While all eyes are glued to the exploits of Virat Kohli and Co as they aim for a historic win in England, some 11,000 kms away in Manila, Philippines, another Indian team created history.

The Indian women’s rugby team registered their first ever victory at the international stage when they beat Asian giants Malaysia in the Asian Rugby Championships, ultimately earning the bronze medal in the championships. This, after the 27-member squad was just assembled not more than a year ago.

Incidentally, ten of those 27 players are from Delhi. Patriot talked to some of the heroes to find out how they started pursuing rugby, and what they felt after their stupendous achievement at Philippines.

21-year-old Shikha Yadav was always an athlete ever since her school days. A regular member of badminton, athletics and kabaddi teams, she was always considered a tad bit aggressive for all these sports. “When I used to play kabaddi, specifically, I indulged in a lot of contact, and was very aggressive as the coaches used to point out,” she says.

Her school mate, who used to play rugby, noticed Yadav’s aggressive approach towards sports. “She was the one who took me to the Delhi Hurricanes academy in Vasant Kunj, and there for the first time in my life I saw that such a game called rugby existed,” she recalls. This was in 2011.

Gohar Ara, 22, was also introduced to rugby by her friend, but for her the situation was a bit different. Ara was an active member of her school’s athletic team and was a regular 200m and 400m running champion. But in 2009, her father passed away and then she detached herself from any sport, “perhaps in grief,” she says.

In 2010, a friend of hers who was also in the school athletics team, contacted her as she was looking for girls to assemble a rugby team, and “she thought that I had potential to play the sport.” Reluctantly, Ara went to Vasant Kunj to train for rugby.

Rugby har kisike bas ki baat nahi,” says Ara and Yadav’s teammate Himani Dutt. “It is a physical sport and you have to be extremely aggressive to play it,” she says. Dutt was however pretty reluctant to join the sport at first, but it was her father who insisted that she join the sport. So, she joined it, and slowly and steadily — since the past seven years — developed interest in the game.

“Rugby gives you strength not only on the field, but aslo out of the field. The game provided me the confidence that I could do something. It even made me stronger mentally as earlier I was afraid to go out alone in the dark, and now I am not,” she says. Now, she says, that even if something happens to her, she can deal with it because of her training in the sport.

“I was not even in the first 15 in our first match against Philippines in the tournament. I was substituted in the second half, so I didn’t expect I would start the game vs Malaysia,” says Jyoti, another member of the history making team, who believes it was her performance against the hosts that earned her a spot in this match.

Jyoti says she was nervous before the start of the game and it was the national anthem before the game that calmed her down, and made her more focused as the match began.

“Somehow, I felt that we had 60-40 chance even before we entered the field”, says Yadav. But she said, that all players had butterflies in their stomach, and when they played well in the first half of the match and were on the cusp of victory, all of them were very nervous. “Our captain Sumitra calmed us down, and said that we should not lose our focus, all of our energy needs to be concentrated on that pole,” adds Yadav.

There was pin drop silence on the ground, as Sumitra took the ball in her hand and ran for life towards the pole. All players on the ground were focused as she ran towards the pole, and finally hurled the ball past it to score.

“We won, and after that moment we all just let go and laid down on the ground in excitement,” says Yadav.

“It was a surreal moment for all 26 of us. We hugged each other and started crying after we realised that we were part of history”, says Himani Dutt.

It was the reactions after the victory that was more special for the girls. Ara says that she was ecstatic to see the news dominating sports news channels all over India for their historic achievement. But the crowning moment was when prominent figures like Amitabh Bachchan and Priyanka Gandhi tweeted about their achievements.

“We were received at the airport with dhol, and even our family welcomed us with chests swelled with pride” adds Ara.

“The same family, who were a little skeptical, about me playing rugby — saying things like who will marry me if I break my leg or what I would achieve with such an obscure sport —  had tears of joy after we came back from Philippines,” says Yadav.

But Yadav also feels that even though this win of historic proportions, rugby still has to come a long way in this country. “Yes, people do appreciate us, but majority of the people were completely unaware of our victory, and were celebrating India’s victory in their cricket match vs a much weaker Pakistan,” she adds.

“We need people to remember our achievement, so that more and more girls and boys take up the sport of rugby and make India one of the strongest Asian nations in the sport,” concludes Ara.