How rugby made inroads into ‘football-loving’ India and is here to stay

It may seem like the game is catching Indians' fancy only now, but rugby in India dates back to 1871, when it was introduced in erstwhile Calcutta and Madras. Photo: iStock

The world is gearing up for the 2019 Rugby World Cup to be held in Japan from Friday (September 20), the first-ever in Asia. While it made headlines in India after Sony acquired media rights in the Indian subcontinent for the event, rugby has an Indian connection that goes far back in history.

According to market research firm Nielsen, India has about 2.5 crore rugby fans. And support for the game is increasing, bringing India to the third rank globally in terms of participation and programme.

In June this year, the Indian women’s rugby team created history after winning their first-ever international match in Asia Rugby Women’s Championship. Breaking the myth of high-end clubs and access to elite gymkhanas to play the game, with a growing fan base, rugby has now created a buzz even in the remote areas of the country.

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It may seem like the game is catching Indians’ fancy only now, but rugby in India dates back to 1871, when it was introduced in erstwhile Calcutta and Madras.

The coveted Calcutta Cup

The official Rugby India website says the earliest recorded match was played in Calcutta and Madras in 1871. The game caught on and had to be repeated within the week.

By 1873, the game was established and in January that year, the rugby club had 137 members. The club colours were chosen as red and white, worn in broad stripes.

However, within four years the game almost died out in 1877, leaving behind all the money in the club. GAJ Rothney, who had been acting as the captain, the secretary and treasurer of the club at that time, proposed that the funds should be devoted to the purchase of a cup of Indian workmanship to be offered to the Rugby Football Union, the parent body of the game worldwide.

The withdrawn money – 270 silver rupees – was then melted to craft the Calcutta Cup, etched and decorated with three king cobras and an elephant atop the lid, which is still in use.

Also read: German football giant Borussia Dortmund to back young players in Chennai

Kolkata, the rugby hub of India

Kolkata has a buzzing rugby scene. The city that’s predominantly known to be fanatic about football has also made space for Rugby. But how did rugby manage to survive in a city where people were en masse passionate about football?

Amishi Gupta, a rugby player in the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CCFC Rugby), says the skills required to play football and rugby are very similar. Both sports involve extensive physical endurance. The people involved with Rugby clubs in Kolkata, the coaches and managers who are usually ex-players, focus on players who are 13 to 14 years old, who are still deciding on which sport to take up professionally – football or rugby.

“Since these are young players looking for opportunities and a future in the game, the coaches help them decide on which game to choose, they guide them and since Rugby has a smaller club and is still growing, the number of opportunities in rugby for a talented player is more, compared to already established football clubs in Kolkata,” says Gupta.

Once the player takes up rugby, proper grooming and training of the players are taken care of.

Clubs in Kolkata also take a keen interest in promoting the game. In the Kolkata-based Khelo Rugby initiative, children from poorer sections of society are taken in to train for rugby. With the increased popularity of the sport and success of the mission, the campaign has now spread to Bengaluru and Jharkhand and involves over 1,000 children.

The undying spirit of rugby players in Kolkata has made it a hub of the sport.

Also watch: Indian women’s rugby team win their first international 15s tournament

The Chennai connect

Even though Rugby was introduced in Chennai at the same time as Kolkata, the sport is less known, played and promoted in the city.

“Chennai prefers cricket more than rugby, because that’s where all the money is,” says Ramalingam, president, Chennai Nerruppu Rugby Club. He says there are several reasons for the downfall of rugby in the city. Government apathy, people’s lack of motivation for health and fitness, and most importantly a dearth of passionate and knowledgeable players to run clubs and train others are a few to name.

He says a sport gains a following if there’s a star present in the game. A known face is likely to attract more audience and interest in a sport. “Rahul Bose (actor and Former Rugby player) is the only known and relatively big player in the country. Besides him, even the name of the captain of men’s Indian rugby team is not well known,” he says.

But the rugby scene isn’t dead in Chennai yet. With a few clubs cropping up in the city, buzz around the game has started.

“Given the right opportunity and training, there can be great players from Chennai too, there’s no dearth of great players in South India,” Ramalingam adds.

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