It’s six in the morning and the DDA ground in Vasant Kunj is filled with rugby players in action. From young aspiring players to veteran national players, all assemble at the ground for their weekly practice.
Kuldeep Bist, head coach of Delhi Hurricanes, is in his spot managing the team while they’re playing. He stops the game whenever the players make a mistake, makes them understand what went wrong and then continues the game. Apart from being the coach, he works as an administrator at IGNOU.
Rugby, one of the most viewed sports in the world, took root in Delhi in the late 1990s. Speed, agility and strength are the main components of the game. First, the players are trained to play touch rugby (where you touch opponents rather than tackle them) and later on the tackles.
“Most of the game depends upon the referee, and the coach has to teach his players from the referee’s point of view”, adds Bist. He elaborates that there are a lot of rules and they are changed frequently, so the players have to be updated on them regularly.
Bist was a professional cricket player before starting his rugby journey. While talking about how the sport was introduced in Delhi, he recalls, “How we started was: A lot of foreigners used to be part of a running club. At a certain point, we realised that they’ve also played rugby. It flowed from there.”
He continues, “As we started to play, a lot of my gym friends also joined. As the training continued the number of players also decreased and in two months there were only three of us from the gym.”
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In 1998, they planned to connect with government schools and start coaching at grassroot level. Later, as more students joined, the club was divided into two for better growth and exposure to the sport.
By 2015, Hurricanes was again split into two and there were only eight players. Currently, there are 1,200 players from all age groups and genders training under Hurricanes across Delhi. Training starts at the age of 12, they also scout good players from various other NGOs and train them under the club.
Not a male preserve
By 2009, women started showing interest in the sport, as they saw men training at Indira Gandhi Institute of Physical Education. When the academy started, a lot of female enthusiasts joined, including Bist’s daughters.
From a handful of nine girls, at present there are around 40 girls training in the academy. Arun Dagar, who’s 20 years junior to Bist, is now managing the girls team. “Though there is an increase in the number of girls, there are a lot of things to be taken care of.”
He explains, “We have girls coming from the north part of Delhi, whose safety is our prime concern. We have players who start from home at 4 am to reach the ground by 6 am.”
It’s been a decade since Namit Bhoj started playing rugby. “The main influence to join rugby was my love and interest for contact sports, before rugby I used to play kabaddi so joining rugby was just a level up for me as a player”, says Bhoj.
One of the major issues she faced was transportation: Catching the first metro from Ghaziabad to Vasant Kunj was never an easy task. Many times, she used to have fights with her father as he wanted her to quit sports. “But I have also seen my father laminate every single news item and article of the paper having my picture on it, and decorating home with my trophies and medals”.
Currently, she is on maternity leave and is planning for her comeback along with coaching younger players.
For 23-year-old Ria Bisht, her father was the main influence to join rugby. She has represented India in 2017 for the Under-20 Women’s Rugby Championship. She faced difficulty in continuing with the sport due to her studies.
“But we have created an environment which gives assurance to the parents that their children are safe here. As you can see, no parent accompanies the players”, asserts Bist.
Dagar says that girls are more punctual and have more eagerness to learn as compared to boys. At times there is familial disapproval about wearing shorts but once they win a match and bring home the trophy, the mentality changes, he says.
Dagar further continues, “Even teachers were scared earlier when I used to take girls for matches, but now I understand their fear as I am in their position and some other junior coach takes them for matches.”
“They have the thirst to prove that they’re good at something or other”, he adds.
For Vikas Khatri, captain of Hurricanes and Indian Rugby Team, rugby is a sport of respect and discipline. He started playing in 2009, the physicality of the game was what attracted him to the sport. “I would like to share my knowledge with youngsters”, he responds when asked about his future plans.
“I started rugby as a fun game in university”, says Ajay Deswal from Bahadurgarh, Haryana. He plays every game as his last and tries to make the team proud. Travel expenses and lack of family support were the challenges he faced, forcing him to play kabaddi. “Later rugby started getting more recognition. Once I became part of the Indian team in 2019, my family also started supporting me”, says Deswal.
Though rugby sounds glamorous and posh, thanks to its origins in England, the actual situation is quite different. The number of teams available in India is limited, which reduces the number of tournaments. Hurricanes have provided a maximum number of players for the state teams of Delhi and Haryana.
However, there is no funding or support from the government still lacking. “Renting the ground for an hour costs Rs 3,000. Last year we paid around Rs 9 lakh for the ground itself”, says Bist. Hurricanes trains the players free of cost.
The senior team practices on the weekends and the junior team practices almost everyday
Players are told to keep education as their primary focus so that even if a player can’t make it big in the sport, there is another means of livelihood to fall back upon.
There are players who have moved away but still coach upcoming generations. ”We can’t force everyone to be a coach, it has to happen naturally”, says Dogra.
Deepak paused his rugby training three years back after marriage, as he had to take care of his family. Now he along with a few other friends have started a small group that trains children to play rugby.