Asian Games: Indian rugby's new, improved system faces first big test in Hangzhou

There’s something happening in rugby that isn’t talked about much but deserves to be told. Rugby India

"Agar hum unke saath ek baar khelenge toh who darr bhi door ho hi jayega" [If we play them once, then that fear will also go away]

India's rugby sevens captain Sheetal Sharma is talking about playing hosts China, defending champions Japan and Hong Kong in their very tough group at the upcoming Asian Games. The draw has the players understandably apprehensive, but the fighting spirit is evident in how Sharma assesses the challenge: Once we play them, the fear of the unknown will be gone.

Her attitude is in sync with the belief of the team coach, Ludwiche Van Deventer, that the Indian rugby system is "world class". And this in turn is borne out by results: three silver medals at the Asian level in 2022, and currently ranked 7 in Asia.

What made this achievement truly special was that all three medals came in different age groups - the Asia Rugby U18 Sevens Championships, Asia Rugby U20 Championship, Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy. A sign of a healthy system from the bottom up.

There's something happening in rugby that isn't talked about much but deserves to be told.

Van Deventer, the South African head coach instrumental in transforming Indian women's rugby into a professional set-up since taking up the position in 2018, adds perspective to the numbers.

"We are No 7 in Asia and anything above that will be great but for now our focus is to deliver a 100% competitive package. We want the people who see us play to see that our skills, structure, conditioning, knowledge of the game, technical, practical,and physical approach is world class."

He recalls an incident from 2018 that is telling of Rugby India's approach: "When we started this journey in 2018, playing the Youth Championships in Bhubaneshwar some of those ladies in the Asian Games were our supporters as schoolkids back then. I think this sums up the journey that Rugby India and this group of girls has undergone together."

Taru Lata and Mama Naik, from the stands are now part of the Indian core group. That speaks to the professionalising - to some extent - of the game. Hupi Majhi, also from Odisha, can play rugby without hiding or having to choose between the sport and a regular paying job.

Rugby India's programme also includes year-round long holistic training, high-performance centres, a burgeoning junior pipeline, long camps and international exposure trips before big events.

This Indian team recently went to Malaysia and finished fourth at the Borneo 7s as part of their 50-day camp for the Asian Games. Before the Asia Trophy, they competed in Thailand, which helped achieve the silver finish.

"We learn a lot on these trips. Overseas teams are usually very good so in these competitions we get to try out different players, positions, and plays. It gives us some confidence and we need it before going for big matches," Sheetal says.

These trips, calling for significant financial investment, are a recent development and show that the federation is putting their money where their mouth is. "When I started in 2019, camps and exposure was in India only and the state teams would compete against us," says Van Deventer. "Now after lockdown when we restarted... initially the camp was cancelled just two days before because of a financial issue. Then in 2021-22, we re-started and then these trips began."

This coincides with Rugby India coming under new administration spearheaded by former player and actor Rahul Bose in 2021, a marked step forward in developing the game in India.

At the Asia Trophy, the performance that helped seal the Asiad berth, India beat teams like Laos, Indonesia, Guam and had a close match against a top-tier team like Singapore. While they didn't play the bigwigs, as they will in Hangzhou, it was a performance that impressed and showed how a professional system can set up success.

Rugby sevens - the format that will be used in the Asian Games - is a shorter, seven-a-side game that requires more fitness and pace. The relative lack of physicality that can often be an issue with Indian teams doesn't matter here; indeed, for this Indian team, there are few physical limitations thanks to their intense fitness program.

"Initially, everyone did fitness individually," Sharma says. "Then as rugby grew, we started having high performance centres in states. Now, we have coaches from South Africa [Kiano Fourie] and India [Surabhi Date] who have studied in England and New Zealand. We get a training and diet plan from South Africa as per our size and goals. At the camp, sessions are divided into conditioning, strength, mental training and psychology session."

It's a level of multi-dimensional support that very few women's team sports in India can boast of.

The coach elaborates on the process saying it's not just limited to the camps. "We run a 12-month program with the girls, ensuring they have access to gyms, dieticians, sports supplements even at home. We have a full staff that includes strength and conditioning coach, physio, massage therapist, sports psychologists, analyst. There is a lot of pieces moving around ensuring that we progress at a fast pace, training them at an elite high-performance level, physically and emotionally."

This has been enhanced by the shift to the Sports Authority of India facilities, which can be a game changer for Indian sports given it's a government-aided, all-encompassing space.

The best part is the food. "Earlier there was dal chawal and sabji, now our entire food system is changed based on what a player needs to eat. People eat 3 meals a day, we get 5-6," Sharma says, with a laugh.

These are all markers of tangible progress in the Indian sporting ecosystem, something rugby has rarely had. Now, the Asian Games could give this team a national platform.

But the think-tank is also aware that the Asiad are but another step in a journey still in its starting phase.

Coach Van Deventer echoes her: "Asian Games participation is confirmation of all the hard work that has been going into this group since 2018... it's another opportunity to showcase what we are building and the level of our 7s programme."