Six weeks ago, India rugby coach Ludwiche Van Deventer found 52 young, shy girls staring at him on the first day of national camp, anxious over what lay in store. These girls had travelled far from their homes in the hope of a spot in the Under-18 national side. The pool was whittled down to 14 and the teenagers went on to score as many tries as their burlier, higher-ranked opponents in the final last weekend, losing only by conversion. For these bunch of girls, most of whom had played very little contact rugby before, coming off with a U-18 Asia Rugby Sevens silver medal is far from shabby.
The squad of sixteen-seventeen something year olds had never been on an airplane before or known what it’s like to be up against players of other countries. The difference between them and the rest of the teams at the tournament – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, UAE and hosts Uzbekistan — hit them like a thunderbolt. “The first time we got onto the field for our match against Kazakhstan, the girls’ nerves were shot, just looking at their opponents’ physical size. If I was told then that we would get the silver in a final that saw three tries each and losing only conversions, I’d happily take it,” says Ludwiche.
Against UAE in the final, after falling behind 0-7 in the opening minutes, India, hemmed in by their opponent’s strong offloading skills, fought back 17-21. “I was in tears just watching them make the semi-finals. I was shouting and screaming alone at home,” says Rahul Bose, Rugby India board member and former player. “Among the things we looked up before the team left, was Indian restaurants in Tashkent so the girls weren’t in for any sort of culinary shock or didn’t have to survive on bread and bananas like Indian players would earlier.” The team arrived in the Uzbek capital four days before the tournament, went sight-seeing on a private bus, ate out at Indian restaurants and spent the rest of their time cooped up together for Sevens technical and theory classes.
It wasn’t exactly the strongest line-up of Asian nations at the tournament, which was also the first competitive continental tournament in close to two years. Weeks before the team was supposed to leave for Tashkent, they were informed about a two-week quarantine on arrival. The organisers, however, managed to get the participating teams an exemption.
“There was some ambiguity on travel protocols and direct flights were few and expensive. We could have chosen not to spend that kind of money on a junior team now and waited till things got better but we didn’t want to overlook the fact that these are the girls who will be in the running for the senior side too in sometime,” says Rugby India CEO, Nasser Hussain.
Here we present the 𝙎𝙞𝙡𝙫𝙚𝙧 𝙈𝙚𝙙𝙖𝙡𝙞𝙨𝙩𝙨 of #ArU18Girls Tournament🥈🇮🇳
The hardwork and effort put in by these girls reaped its rewards❤️.
— Rugby India (@RugbyIndia) September 19, 2021
Usually the process of scouting for national U-18 sides is through the junior national tournaments where state teams participate, typically putting together the best players from their respective clubs. The basic groundwork of picking the best players from each state would have been done, and the national tournament would then help sift through them. Since the national tournament hasn’t been held for close to two years now due to the covid pandemic, Rugby India had to do things differently this time around.
“We sat down with the South African coaches and drew up a list of the things we’re looking for in our junior players,” Hussain adds. “We then sent it across to everybody, all the states, all the clubs and gave them a couple of weeks to revert with names. We received responses from them with possible names and information on height, weight, fitness levels, age and playing position and we also looked at sub junior nationals from two years ago. From those, we picked 52 names.” Players of all sorts, types and from different parts of the country formed the group. A sprinter from Kerala, another runner from Bihar. One didn’t eventually make the final squad of 14, the other ended up scoring the highest number of tries at the tournament.
What surprised Nasser was how quickly the girls fit into the training plan. “A lot of these girls were 14-15 year-olds, when they last played a competitive match, some may have not even played a national-level tournament before but here they were being picked straightaway for an international competition,” he points out. “In the under-14 age group we usually do more of non-contact rugby and it was a bit of a worry for us quite honestly because there haven’t been competitions in two years and we couldn’t be sure about the level of players we’d have to work with.” During the closing days of the camp in Odisha, they were progressively familiarised with Sevens structures and brought into contact situations. “But these girls really took us all by surprise and played like absolute heroes out there.”
The focus now, Ludwiche says, is on not letting the momentum slip. “The great challenge now lies in building on this and having the girls gain experience. We cannot afford it to be a start-stop programme. If we get the right things going, last weekend should just be a taste of what lies ahead for Indian rugby.”