Neha Pardeshi was just 15 when she was picked in the national side for the 2009 Asia rugby sevens in Thailand. Nine of the 12 members in the Indian women's team then belonged to her city, Pune. Over the years, she has watched the numbers from her home base dwindle. More than a decade later now, she is just one of two women players from Pune who have stuck around in the mix of national players.
The common reason was economic, the need to choose between passion and profession. Pardeshi, among the youngest in the early batches of women's players, was a student then and earning from the sport outside school hours didn't matter much. For many others, though, it was a deal-breaker.
Indian rugby, though, might just have turned a corner.
Earlier this week, the Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU) entered into a three-year agreement with the Odisha state government that will, among other things, allow the national men's and women's team players to be paid for the first time ever.
The agreement, for a three-year period, will enable players to be paid for participation in camps and tournaments. While the deal doesn't cover the off-season, the core group of national players have been promised insurance and nutritional support.
"It's a huge relief," Pardeshi said, "knowing that we'll be paid during camps and tournaments."
In return for its support, the Odisha government expects the IRFU to grow the game in the state. This, the federation plans to do through a model similar to the one adopted in Telangana, one of the newer states the sport is being seeded into - through the tribal and social welfare school structures and the School Games platform.
"This is a small but sure step in professionalizing the sport," actor and former national player Rahul Bose, who was present at the signing in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday, told ESPN. "In the long game, we should never have to lose players because they have no other means of income. What we will now have is a committed player base, rather than folks saying 'Sorry, I can't be in this sport anymore because the real world has kicked in and I gotta go earn a living'. That's the direction we are moving towards and it's what we want to do."
IRFU entered into talks with the state government over sponsorship support last year, before covid-19 struck and forced a hiatus. "To be fair this news has come at a time when we were least expecting," says IRFU CEO and former India captain, Nasser Hussain, "Lots of players in the sport come from humble backgrounds, many take unpaid leaves to be able to play tournaments. This will hopefully work as an assurance for players that 'OK we are going to be financially compensated and all's not that grim anymore'."
In the communication that Hussain intends to soon send out to players, the proposal for trials early next year figures prominently. "We'll throw it open to clubs, states and existing national players. They will be up against each other and assessed on their fitness and skill levels. Past performances won't matter. We'll then pick a pool of players who are at the top of their game as the first batch of beneficiaries of this program."
Particularly in recent years, Odisha has put sport on high priority. Sponsor for the Indian hockey teams and now associate sponsor for the rugby national sides, the state has played host to a number of international events such as the men's Hockey World Cup, FIH hockey series finals, Olympic qualifiers, Commonwealth table tennis championships, the rugby national camps and all-India rugby series. Both rugby and hockey national teams draw a large pool of players from the state, especially from the tribal community. In fact, the total allocation for sports in the annual state budget was enhanced from Rs 149 crore (Approx. US$ 20 million) in 2017-18 to Rs 341 crore (Approx. US$ 46 million) in 2018-19 - a massive 130 percent jump.
For scrum half Pardeshi, married to fellow rugby player Gautam Dagar and living in Delhi for over a year now, all of this means having a fresh goal to chase. Ahead of 2018 Asian Games, she quit her job at a private firm to be able to join the pre-tournament camp in Kolkata and then travel to Jakarta. It was, she says, 'vastly easier', than having to haggle with her bosses for a long leave.
This is welcome news but perhaps a bit too late for Meerarani Hembram, India fly-half who constantly grapples with choosing between the sport and a 9-5 job.
Orphaned and one among four siblings belonging to the Santhal community of tribals, Hembram has been checking notifications for listings of government vacancies for PE teacher openings, related exams and is waiting to hear about her job application for the position of a warden at a sports school in Bhubaneswar. A graduate in physical education, the 24-year old has been living with a friend's family since she can barely make rent and occasionally pitches in with help in their paddy field too. "I want to play as long as I can... If the job I get into allows me time off to train and compete, I'd be glad. If not, I would have to drop out of the sport. Of course this paid incentive is a huge step for the younger players."
For the likes of Hembram, who are largely on their own, the IRFU has among its farther-looking proposals to the Odisha government requested measures, including jobs, to help in self-sustenance of players from the state. Additionally, the federation is also in talks with SAI to incorporate rugby as a coaching certificate/diploma program at NIS, Patiala, which will allow senior players to then seamlessly transition to coaching.
"The idea," Hussain says, "is to, in the long-term, be competitive in Asia and move up the rankings. We can only do this with the right group of dedicated players." In April last year, the IRFU took the first step in building such a team, handing over the reins of the men's and women's national sides to Springboks legend, Naas Botha. In two months' time, the women's team upset a higher-ranked Singapore side at the Asian Championship in Philippines for their first-ever 15-a-side international win.
"We are playing catch-up at the moment and may not have all answers at once," Hussain says, "But what we have in store for players ahead - being paid for roughly six months a year is a significant step. It's a message for the communities and households that players come from that rugby can be a career. At least it's a start."