Kolkata, July 22 (IANS) Shaking off the age-old perception that it is a game of the elite and not suited to Indian climes, rugby seems to be slowly getting a foothold in the country and may well be on course to soon emerge as a popular sport for the masses.
Rugby aficionados say the game introduced by the British masters of colonial India in the late 19th century is gradually spreading to tier-II cities and even rural areas.
“The last few years have been very good in terms of development, there’s been quite a lot. Earlier it was restricted to the major metros but now it has spread to tier-II cities and into rural India also. So we have about 22/23 states actively playing rugby,” Nasser Hussain, general manager of Rugby India, the game’s apex body in the country, told IANS.
Already there are around 40,000 rugby players, and the number is set to increase, specially after the game’s introduction in the schools through the School Games Federation of India (SGFI).
“A lot of the players are school kids. It was introduced last year in the School Games Federation Of India (SGFI), with which close to 90 to 95 percent of the country’s schools are registered,” Hussain said.
A look back shows Indian rugby is steeped in history.
The earliest mention of rugby in India can be traced to a couple of matches played in erstwhile Calcutta and Madras during the visit of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Galatea 1871.
The first recorded match was played on Christmas day 1872, at Calcutta Football Club (CFC) between England and a combined team of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, according to the Rugby India website. The match proved so popular that it was repeated a week later.
However, the game was on its decline in India by 1877, and CFC members decided to close down the club. But to immortalise its name, they withdrew all the money from the bank in the form of silver coins, melted it and presented a trophy of high workmanship called the Calcutta Cup to the game’s international parent body – Rugby Football Union (RFU) – for awarding the winners of rugby’s equivalent of the FA Cup.
RFU however opted to present the Calcutta Cup to the winners of the annual contest between England and Scotland. And the tradition continues till date.
When the game revived in India, the RFU reciprocated by presenting to the CFC (now called CCFC – Calcutta Cricket and Football Club) in 1924 an exact replica of the Calcutta Cup.
This tourney was then titled ‘The All India & South Asia Rugby Cup’ and has since been played.
Post-independence, the Indian Rugby Football Union was formed in 1968. Thirty-one years later, it got membership to the sport’s international governing body – the International Rugby Board (IRB).
India still, however, doesn’t have a ground dedicated to rugby. But Hussain, also a former India captain, said they are content sharing the grounds with other sports.
“We do not have a dedicated rugby field. But we are not looking for it either. There’s no need for a dedicated ground, there’s not so much training that we have to use it 365 days a year.”
India recently hosted a pre-qualifier for the Olympics at Chennai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. “It’s a football field used for the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League. Any football field would be ok for a rugby tournament,” Hussain said.
Though leagues like the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the Pro Kabaddi League have been stunning successes in India, Hussain said their first priority is to create awareness and reach out to the masses before jumping into such a venture.
“We are in discussions. Something is in the pipeline, though nothing concrete as yet, but we do not want to jump into it. If you look at it, besides cricket, kabaddi was a success and football debatable. The other sports did not take off,” he said.
“We would rather look at a slow, gradual growth rather than something that happens overnight.”
Elaborating on the ‘how to get to the masses’ strategy, Hussain said India is implementing the ‘get into rugby programme’ that has been initiated globally. “We are going out to most of the schools and districts and states where the sport is new.”
The Rugby India board has decided to pump in money for development rather than splurging on marketing or promotions, he said and hoped the viewership generated from the Rugby World Cup later this year can be leveraged and “tied to the development of the sport”.
Another challenge is to draw sponsors, despite rugby’s huge following as one of the biggest sports in the world. “It is surprising a lot of corporates support rugby globally, but when it comes to India they don’t acknowledge it.”
With rugby set to be part of Olympics next year, the authorities are looking for a long-term partnership rather than “just a short add on sort of thing”.
(Debdoot Das can be contacted at email@example.com)