Attrition, nerve and will: How India women made rugby history

Just a year after their 15-a-side international debut, the Indian women's team upset higher-ranked Singapore to pick up their first ever win in the format and finished with a bronze at the Asian Championship. Rugby India

When the final whistle shrieked at the end of 80 minutes, India coach Naas Botha saw the field before him turn into a sea of teary-eyed faces in midnight blue shirts. He turned to the support staff and queried, "Is this our first-ever win?"

The snivels on the field had now turned into full-blown sobs and Botha no longer looked for an answer.

A year since their Test debut and only in their third-ever 15-a side international, Indian rugby girls beat time, belief, precedent and a higher-ranked side for their first-ever win in the format at the Asian Rugby Women's Championship, Division 1, in Philippines on Saturday.

Scrum-half Sumitra Nayak yanked India from a seeming one-point defeat, much like she fought her way past poverty and a raging alcoholic father, with a penalty kick in the death for a 21-19 win over Singapore. Of the 15-member side, seven including Nayak belong to Odisha.

India finished with a bronze medal in the tournament, whose eventual winners - either of China or Kazakhstan who face each other in the final - will find a spot in the women's rugby World Cup 2021.

Exactly a year ago, India had lost 30-5 to the same opposition in their debut 15-a-side international.

"It's a massive win for the girls," Botha told ESPN. "We played rather poorly against Philippines last week but the girls ran, tackled and kicked their hearts out today and sometimes you need that little bit luck to make it to the other side. We had that today. With this win, they've put down the marker as the Indian team who don't just show up, but also know how to win." This is the first international tournament the Indian women are participating in since Botha, a former Springboks legend, took over as coach in April this year. The results aren't hard to spot.

For a team that's a bit of a rookie to the simian grunt of scrums and open field tackling, Botha started out with breaking down the basic concepts in his early sessions. The aggression Botha and his team bring to the team, fly-half Meerarani Hembram, vouches, has helped. From pushing everyone to take responsibility on the field to sticking to the desired structure on the field, there's accountability demanded at every level.

"Coach doesn't look at it as us playing our second match or third match and give us easier field structures," says Meerarani. "He tells us 'you're on the national team and this is what you have to do and how you have to play'." A superior strength and conditioning program under Jannie Brooks, a member of Botha's team, has also been a crucial differentiator. "The modules designed for us were intense and we could feel our fitness levels just shoot up over the past two months," says captain Vahbiz Bharucha. Or what Botha smartly calls "a two-way street" of getting players to buy into the rigorous training and fitness in exchange of results.

Botha isn't among the almighty crop of coaches who ramble on, on how much more hard work has gone into the making of a historic result. "There's nothing special in working hard," he says, throwing in a chuckle. "It's what all teams and players in competitive sport are expected to do.... I just look at it this way, our job is to make them love rugby and it's easier for them to love it if they win more."

The fight on Sunday eventually trickled down to which of the two sides held out longer. A battle of attrition, nerve and will.

"In the closing 15 minutes, all of us were shutting down physically," says Bharucha, haltingly, catching her breath, looking for words. "We'd suddenly flipped a match we were losing by a point to one that we were now winning by two. Emotions were at the surface and we waited what seemed eternally for the final whistle, to just let everything go. We bawled like kids. All we knew was we had won."

Tomorrow, they'd wake up to knowing more than just that.