‘We only speak rugby’

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As the senior women’s rugby team qualifies for the September Asian Games, mid-day catches up with two team members and their South African coach

The senior women’s rugby team was formed in 2018 and currently ranks seventh in Asia. They are aiming to qualify for the 2028 Olympics

Last week, the sports world was abuzz with news of the Indian National Women‘s 7s Rugby team securing a spot at the upcoming 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. The team, which currently ranks seventh in Asia, is excited to represent India at the championships in September.

The team first came together in 2018, and since then, has achieved many milestones. Coach Ludwiche Van Deventer reminisces how the first time they experienced team power was during the under-18 championships in the Kalinga stadium, Bhubaneshwar, where thousands of school students turned up in support. Then came the two Asia Trophy semi-final championships, where the team scored the winning try.

“One of my fondest memories is how we would never start a training session without walking across the field to pick up stones [so that the girls do not get hurt while playing],” Deventer recalls. “When we met in 2018, we trained on a small patch of grass on the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar. Warm-up was a chicken run across the field, collecting the stones in t-shirts, and waiting for the cows grazing on the grass to leave.”

Coach Ludwiche Van Deventer with captain Sheetal Sharma and wing player Hupi Majhi

Sheetal Sharma, captain of the team, had no intention of joining rugby; she was training for volleyball at the zonal and district level. “I wanted to be either a sportsperson or a [dance] choreographer,” the bubbly 28-year-old tells us. She did stints in athletics in the 800 and 1500 m track, even going on to state-level and national-level competitions, before starting to play rugby alongside after being recruited spontaneously for a match by the Delhi Hurricanes rugby club in 2016. There has been no turning back since.

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Hupi Majhi, her teammate from Odisha, got into the sport to fulfill her dream to fly on a plane and see the world. She played the sport secretly while in school and college, because her family wouldn’t allow her to wear the required uniform of short pants and T-shirt. When she began appearing on the local news for winning, only then did they give their blessing. Now, rugby is everything. “Rugby mein aake, jeena seeka maine,” Majhi says.

Deventer, who hails from South Africa, had to contend with language difficulties when he started coaching the team. Initially, he communicated using facial expressions and hand gestures, but soon, everyone spoke “rugby language”. Sharma, who brands herself “a troublemaker and natkhat” – “I call her one of the two problem children in my group,” Deventer interjects – says that they were initially hesitant about a foreign coach, but Deventer distilled the basics in a simplified manner.

He doesn’t stop Sharma from fooling around, but ensures she shows up for her team. “She knows how to create a fun environment for herself and her teammates, but when it’s time to take responsibility, she leads by example on the field,” he says. “Hupi, on the other hand, coming from a performance and winning-oriented state, brings seriousness to the game.” The team has faced challenges leading up to championships: Back-to-back training camps, and ‘going in blind’ – rugby-speak for lack of information about their opponents – which makes strategising difficult.

Tournaments usually take place in the middle of the year, which is the monsoons in India – but not elsewhere. As rugby is played mainly on grass, weather conditions impede training sessions. And though the team trains in wet conditions, they have to play the actual match in sunny weather. Or they’ll train in a sunny, humid atmosphere in India, and have to score in snowy Uzbekistan. But the proud coach feels his team has “the potential to take India to the world stage. In 2018, I made a promise to them: I won’t stop coaching them until the world knows about them.” “We’ve earned the position we are in today,” Sharma says, determination on her face. “We want to represent India, see the flag lifted high. I’ve got goosebumps just saying this: I can’t imagine how proud I’ll feel in reality.”

Credit To Onwer