Indian women ready to scrum down, try new grounds

India women beat five teams before going down to South Korea in the final Rugby India

On Saturday, the Indian women's rugby team won silver at the Asian Rugby Women's Sevens Trophy in Vientiane, beating hosts Laos, Philippines, Nepal, Malaysia and Pakistan on the way. The players had a bigger problem, however, to wrap their heads around than the six countries they were competing against - finding vegetarian food.

"Often the players would come up to me with sullen faces, after having discovered that of the two vegetarian dishes being served in the hotel, one was rice," the coach Nasser Hussain told ESPN from Laos.

India, seeded second, finished with silver after a loss against South Korea in the final on Saturday, and the team was in for just the treat they were hoping for - scrumptious, familiar food. "The Indian embassy in Laos hosted a dinner for the team after our win and the girls needed no bigger reward," Hussain said.

On the first day of the tournament, India pulled off four back-to-back wins, against Laos, Philippines, Nepal and Malaysia, before heading into the final with a 5-0 victory over Pakistan on the second day.

The top seeds South Korea, though, were of a different class, humbling India 29-0 to earn a spot in the Asian Rugby Women's Sevens Series to be played later this year.

"We went into the tournament not knowing what to expect. Our first-day wins were a massive shot for our confidence but Korea were just too good for us in the final," Hussain, a former India captain, added.

It didn't help that four players from West Bengal who were picked for the training camp in Mumbai just ahead of the tournament couldn't eventually feature in the side.

"They didn't have passports and it was on too short a notice for anything to be done. Probably our final scoreline could have been a lot more competitive had they been on the team."

Over the past few years, rugby in India has undergone a paradigm shift. Just last December, the Indian women's Under-18 team finished with a bronze at the Asian Rugby tournament held in Dubai.

Formerly considered an elite sport, mostly cocooned in big centers like Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, the sport now has a footprint in tier II cities like never before.

For example, of the twelve players in the current women's team, six hail from Orissa. A large measure of the credit for this trickle-down phenomenon could be attributed to initiatives such as 'Get into Rugby' (GIR) - teaching rugby at schools as part of the World Rugby strategy to grow the game globally.

In Orissa, the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, a residential institute for tribals which provides free education, accommodation and food for its students, runs the GIR programme in association with Rugby India. In fact, four of the six Orissa players in the women's team are products of the institute.

In 2008, on the day of the men's Under-20 finals at the Bombay Gymkhana, the organizers staged an exhibition women's seven-a-side match. Apprehensive, even nervous, of the response given the physical nature of the sport, they were soon in for a surprise.

"When we asked the young female players why they chose rugby, their answer was that they loved that it was a contact sport. It made them feel empowered," Hussain says.

Rugby sevens, a truncated form of the game which lasts fifteen minutes, with two seven-minute halves and a minute's break, has been a part of the Asian and Commonwealth Games and made its debut at the Olympics in Rio 2016.

Following the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision to include rugby sevens in the Olympic programme, the Sports Ministry of India finally accorded it recognition. The game is now part of the School Games Federation of India (SGFI) at the U-17 and U-18 levels. This year, Rugby India is hoping to make inroads into the Under-14 level as well.

"Moving it from a verified strata to the grassroots level has been a game-changer for the sport," Mahesh Mathai, the Secretary General of Rugby India, says.

"Olympic inclusion has made a huge difference in getting corporate support to spread the idea of rugby and turning into an equalizer."

In October 2016, Societe Generale, a French multinational banking and financial services company, formally announced its support to Rugby India for popularising the sport at all levels by investing in the GIR programme.

In tangible numbers, Mathai says, the number of female players in India has swelled from 5,355 in 2012 to 42,032 in 2016. One of the major roadblocks, though, that the sport is faced with in the country is the lack of suitable playing fields.

"Unlike in countries like South Africa and New Zealand, where rugby and cricket are often played at the same venue, here cricket grounds are mostly out of bounds which limits our options," Mathai says.

Though women's rugby in India is still at a nascent stage, the signs are encouraging.

"There's a huge pathway that's opening up." Mathai adds, "It is what will make news in the days to come."