Asian Games: Rugby’s Chak De women ready to pack a punch
It’s a familiar story — fighting poverty and social stereotypes led to a huge break for Sheetal Sharma and her team
Together, they are being called the Chak De 'girls' of rugby.
However, that may be selling them somewhat short.
Even in a jumbo Indian contingent set to participate in a whopping 41 disciplines at the Asian Games, the young women’s rugby team has been grabbing eyeballs for their extraordinary story of rising against all odds.
When the likes of Hupi Majhi of Keonjhar (Odisha), Shweta Shahi of Nalanda (Bihar) and Kalyani Patil of Kolhapur (Maharahtra) step out for their first game against Hong Kong in China on Sunday, it will be a feat in itself.
Ranked seventh in Asia, they have gone one better than their men counterparts, who failed to make the cut for Hangzhou.
‘’We as an entire team carry the hopes of the country, which will become our greatest strength at the Asian Games. No matter the opposition, we have been taught never to take a step back,’’ said captain Sheetal Sharma, after a 12-member squad was named by the Rugby Federation of India (RFI) earlier this month.
An extensive 40-day camp was conducted at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) complex in Kolkata, which included a campaign at Borneo 7’s, where they finished fourth.
The journey has not been easy for this bunch, from the baby steps taken by federation around five years back, even with backing from the Odisha government, who are the sponsors of both the men and women’s national teams in this discipline.
It has involved fighting the usual social stereotypes, of course, as rugby, a 'very physical' sport, is not deemed fit for women by many. But that does not begin to speak to the economic hardships these women had to encounter when they took to the sport either.
Here’s what Majhi, who grew in the game thanks to a sports scholarship from the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) in Bhubaneshwar, had to say: “I always dreamt of flying in an aircraft to a foreign destination. Rugby realised that dream for me.”
Majhi left her home in Dhatika village (in Odisha’s Keonjhar district) with the offer of a scholarship in the capital city of Bhubaneswar. “I was introduced to rugby when in high school. I was good at football and that helped me in getting familiar with rugby. I really liked the way it was played,” she told The Hindu in an interview last week.
Majhi’s story finds resonance in Shahi's, whose success has been a gamechanger of sorts in the Bhadari village of Nalanda district. “My family had to hear taunts from the villagers about me wearing shorts and playing a men’s game," she said. "Now my success has changed everyone’s behaviour and lots of girls from the village are going out to pursue their dreams. They are attending colleges and also playing sports of their choice.”
If their stories sound familiar, it’s because we have heard it before — when two years back, Rani Rampaul and her team captured the imagination of the country with a fourth place finish in the Tokyo Olympics.
The social dynamics of India may be slow to change, but it is success stories like these that spur on the underdogs who dream.
Incidentally, India finished seventh of eight rugby teams in their first appearance in the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. India played six, lost five and won just the final classification match for the seventh-eighth position last time against South Korea to avert a rout.
In China after 13 years, this new team of women have their predecessors' record weighing on them, but they are confident this time is going to be different.
Speaking at the press briefing to announce the team, actor Rahul Bose — who is also a former India international rugby player and president of the Indian Rugby Football Union — said in a statement: ‘’We owe it to all to our coaching staff that have prepared our players mentally, physically and physically for this unique opportunity.
"Our only wish is that the country gets behind our women. Let us all be the wind beneath their wings.’’