The Indian rugby team will not be heading to the Asian Games, their biggest tournament in four years according to members of the team and officials of Rugby India.
Namita Bhoj, captain of the Delhi Hurricanes and member of the Indian rugby team, laments that she was unable to take a job up due to her commitment to the Asian Games preparatory camp which was held in Kolkata.
“I was supposed to start a job, as a physical education teacher. But I didn’t take it up because we were at the camp. I wanted to play at the Asian Games but we were culled at the last moment,” says Bhoj.
Bhoj isn’t the only one who feels so, Delhi-based Priya Bansal, another member of the women’s rugby team agrees with her team-mate. “You can’t work in the private sector and take two to three months off at the same time.”
For the women, rugby is also a difficult discipline to get a sports-quota job. Bhoj says that while it is easier to get a job while playing cricket or kabaddi, ‘tier-II sport’ rugby players don’t earn enough points to meet the criteria. In such a case, an Asian Games medal would be an invaluable asset.
Indian rugby has been here before. Both the men’s and women’s team finished as quarter-finalists in 2010, but were not allowed to travel to Incheon in 2014. This time around, the women’s team were ranked ninth, but did not fit into a criteria stating that teams had to be ranked eighth or higher to be sent for the Asian Games.
Gathering players from the senior nationals, Nasser Hussain, former captain and manager at Rugby India had put together a selection trials at Punjab University before selecting 25 for the Kolkata camp.
“It’s really disappointing,” says Hussain, who says he received a verbal approval before going ahead with the camp. “At a time when the local game is expanding, we are reaching out to more and more women, we are getting results, this is a huge blow for us.”
On the sidelines of the World Cup Trophy tour that made a stop in New Delhi, Brett Gasper, CEO of World Rugby stated that he understood how the team must feel, “A few years ago, South Africa were not allowed to go for a major tournament because our team didn’t finish top six in the Super Series. It must be disappointing but we have to stand by the decision.”
India finished second at the Asia Rugby Women’s Sevens Trophy in Vientiane, Laos. The second tier of Asia’s premier rugby series of women had seen the Indian women make their mark on the continental stage. With the pull-out of two teams from division one, India were invited to take part but had to pull out due to a lack of funds, especially in travel, says Hussain.
A member of the Indian Olympic Association, who did not wish to be named, stated that it was upto the sports ministry to change the criteria. “We are just following the criteria that was laid out by the sports ministry in their 2015 order. It can’t be an uniform criterion – some are growing sports, those will have to be exempted.”
Neha Pardeshi, captain of the women’s team, had earlier started a petition on change.org, asking for signatures to send the squad to the contingent. The petition read, “Indian sport’s administration is full of interpersonal ego-flexing and point-scoring in between a large cast of self-imagined alpha males. The Asian Games clearances have become a power play between Batra and any current adversaries he may want to take on – whether it is Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore or All India Football Federation boss Praful Patel. The rugby folk and the women’s team became merely collateral.”
The fascination with the sport that started with the sevens format has spread to other formats as well. The Rugby 15s team participated at their first ever international rugby fifteens tournament, the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship held in Singapore in June.
The team played against the teams from Singapore and Philippines in the tournament in a format that is played by few teams across Asia. Rugby India also held their first-ever Inter-Zonal tournament in April.
The conundrum surrounding the Asian Games selection has potentially robbed the Indian women of their moment in the sun in Jakarta and Palembang.