India's women's rugby team is trapped in a vicious circle. To participate in international events it must be, say Indian sports administrative rules, among the top teams in the world. To get there, though, it needs more international exposure -- the sort of exposure that is denied them because of the rule. And in a cruel irony, this is happening even as rugby's global body has identified India as a market for the sport's growth.
The latest news is that the team won't be participating at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia later this month. It could have been there, but for the rule mentioned above. Asked for his take on this earlier this week, Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore suggested, in a rather unusual manner, that the team didn't really merit a place. "You have to build from the grassroots up. If you want to give an IAS exam, you can't just sit and write the IAS exam," said the Olympic silver medallist.
Rathore, it must be said, has no power to send the team; that lies with the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). But he is in a hugely influential position in Indian sport and it was an opportunity to offer his moral support to the team.
His statement was made in the presence of World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper, on the sidelines of an event meant to highlight the increasing relevance of Indian rugby in the international scene. India, Gosper remarked, is one of the largest potential markets for the sport worldwide. The numbers he mentions are indeed massive. "We did a survey and found out that there are 25.7 million rugby fans in India. That's the third largest in the world. Last year we had half a million children get their first touch of a rugby ball. So we want to bring the World Cup to inspire Indians even further and grow the game in India" said Gosper.
Centre stage at the function was the Webb-Ellis Cup, awarded to winners of the Rugby World Cup. While excited to see the trophy herself, Indian international Namita Bhoj felt forgotten, neglected. Bhoj had been looking forward to taking part in the rugby 7s competition of the Asian Games. Indeed, the team had been conducting a camp in Kolkata after initially being told they would be travelling for the tournament only to be denied permission a few weeks ago.
"It was very disappointing for us. Because we were told we were going for the Asian Games, a lot of us had put our careers on hold so that we could be a part of the national camp," says Bhoj. National team manager Nasser Hussain, a former India captain himself, says they were given verbal approval for the camp to go ahead before the team was withdrawn from the Asian Games squad.
That decision was doubly challenging considering in its current form success in rugby isn't an avenue for jobs, unlike other sports in the country. "The people playing rugby are from lower-middle-class families in India. So financial support is important for us. In Delhi, you get only half the weightage for rugby compared to even something like kabaddi. I had a job as a physical education instructor but I let that go because I wanted to be a part of the camp. Now that the camp has been called off, I'm looking for a job once again," she says.
While Bhoj deals with the consequences of muddled decision-making, the powers that made them pass the buck. "The decision of which team to send for the Asian Games is that of the IOA," says Rathore.
The IOA, for its part, says they were only following ministry norms (that teams should only be sent if they featured in the top eight in Asia). "We are only following what the ministry had told us in 2015," says Rajiv Mehta, secretary general of the IOA. "Of course for the future we should include not just teams currently in the top eight but also those that are improving rapidly, but for now the rules are this only."
That would be cold comfort for Bhoj and the other members of the Indian sevens teams. "We finished second in the Asia Rugby Women's Sevens Trophy in Vientiane, Laos. That would have qualified us to take part in the division one tournament [that features eight teams]. But we couldn't go because we didn't have the funds," says Hussain.
Hussain also disagreed with the notion that the Indian team did not merit a place against tougher teams at the Asian Games. "Unless you test yourself against bigger teams, you don't have a chance of improving your own standard," he says.
World Rugby CEO Gosper is sympathetic but says there isn't much he could do. "A couple of years ago the South African Women's rugby sevens team was not allowed by their Olympic committee to participate at the 2016 Olympics even though they had qualified, because they had failed to finish in the top four of the Women's World Sevens Series. It is disappointing but we would encourage countries to find a balance," he says.
For the moment though, the odds are stacked against Indian rugby.
Yet the players continue to hold on to hope for brighter prospects in the future. Bhoj, for instance, took a picture of the Webb Ellis Cup as something to motivate herself with. "One dream of ours was to go to the Asian Games. But now this is a bigger dream. You have to keep believing," she says.