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India beating the odds

Surhud Khare is the president and coach of Pune Rugby, who supplied the bulk of the India women’s team when they took part Asian Women’s Rugby 7s tournament in Thailand earlier this year. He tells us about the growth of the women’s game in India. (He is pictures with his team left)

Had anyone, even just a few years ago, predicted that 2009 would see India's first women's rugby team playing at the Asian 7's, that person would have been deemed as bonkers.

It will not be boastful of me, I hope, to say that the rise of Indian women's rugby has been hand in hand with the rise of the Pune girls team. From the first seedlings sown at KFANDRA (Khare's Football and Rugby Academy) by my brother Swapneel and I, to now when 11 Pune girls are full internationals, its been a long, arduous but ultimately very fruitful journey.

At a time when playing football was deemed 'courageous' for a girl in Pune or most cities in India for that matter, the thought of Indian girls playing rugby elicited more guffaws than a rib tickling episode of 'The Kumars' at 42'.

Grannies, parents and even the local stray would frown at the 'tomboys' kicking a ball about with the lads but suddenly it became cool for girls to play football after 'Bend it like Beckham' hit the movie screens.

And so we rugby aficionados waited with bated breath for a similar tinsel town release that would suddenly make 'eggchasing' a cool sport for girls to be involved in. But alas the hopes for releases of 'Lump it like Leonard' and 'Dance on the opposition midriff like Dallaglio' never materialised, and so we carried on, introducing a few more girls every year to the joys of rugby. It was contact rugby whenever possible in the monsoons and touch rugby on the hard stony grounds for the rest of the year.

The real frustration for our girls was that there was no other competition. We had heard that there were girls in other states playing touch rugby but none as yet playing contact. Then came two opportunities for our girls to at least play proper contact games on proper pitches albeit against themselves,

The first was at the Army base in Ahmedngar (2006) and the second at the Bombay Gymkhana in Bombay (2007). The icing on the cake at the end of the second game being Indian captain Chaitanya Sinh and the rest of the Gymkhana team forming a tunnel for the girls and applauding them through. Slowly word started spreading that the Pune rugby girls were not half bad at contact rugby and we began hearing news on the grapevine that girls had started playing contact in J and K, Kolkata, Orissa, Kerala etc.

There was a clear buzz about the practice sessions now as hope set in that the first proper competition would not be long in coming.

There is no doubt that what really set the ball rolling was the third exhibition game played at Bombay Gym in early 2008. Once again the match pitted the Pune rugby girls against each other but this time the audience was huge as the exhibition match was played on the day of the All India U-20 finals.

There were players and coaches from all over India who saw first hand that what they had been hearing was spot on and that Pune rugby girls had indeed made great strides.

November 2008 saw a landmark occasion in India when the first womens 7 aside rugby tournament was held in Pune. Jointly organised by Pune. WIRFU (Western India Rugby Football Union) and Bomby Gym, a fantastic tournament was won by the Hong Kong Hotties who were run close by the Pune rugby girls.

News of the success of the tournament spread fast and without doubt more and more girls were being attracted to the sport.

Along with a massive development and coaching programme put into place by the Indian rugby union under the stewardship of Greg Davey (Rugby India Development Manager), another landmark was achieved in early 2009 when the Level 1 Coaching Course was held for girls and women from all over India at Balewadi in Pune.

Hopefully many of them will already be spreading the rugby gospel back at their homes. Then the news every rugby-playing lass had been waiting for finally arrived. India Rugby Unions announcement of the first All India 7's competition followed by the selection of the first Indian Womens 7 a side rugby team which would participate in the Asian 7s in Pattay, Thailand!

Sixteen teams from all over India took part in a fantastic two days of rugby in May 2009, finally won by the Pune Rugby girls but not before facing stiff competition from Jungle Crows of Kolkata (managed by the irrepressible Paul Walsh). From a shortlist of 24 girls, 13 were finally selected to represent India out of which 11 were Pune rugby girls and two were from Kerala.

Despite having possibly the youngest side in the competition in Pattaya, the Indian girls acquitted themselves well and only lost a couple of the early games due to the tension of playing their first international competition. However when it came to the crunch on the final day India avoided the wooden spoon by beating Cambodia in a thrilling encounter.

With more new teams coming to the game here its clear to see that women's rugby in India is here to stay and the only way is up!