Picture by Rugby India

Rugby India targets Olympic debut at Los Angeles 2028

The Indian rugby board has developed a detailed 84-month plan to give their men’s and women’s team best chance at qualification
By Deepti Patwardhan

Indian rugby made its first ‘statement of intent’ as the Under-18 women’s team won a silver at the Asian Rugby Sevens championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan almost two weeks ago. More than just winning the continental honour with an absolutely fresh batch of players, it helped the Indian Rugby and Football Union (known as Rugby India) fit in a few missing pieces.

Firstly, it was the first time that any of their players had earned professional fees. Secondly, it saw them lay out a blueprint for all national camps. It was also the starting point of their roadmap to Los Angeles 2028, where they are targeting the Olympic debut.

“No one here has any other ambition but to put India at the 2028 Olympics,” said actor and former India player Rahul Bose, who serves on the board of Rugby India.

“We created a plan for that and presented it to Mr Kiren Rijiju, who was the sports minister at the time. We gave them an 84-month plan, complete on when the national tournaments will be, for men, women and well as juniors, when international tournaments will be and when we will hold national camps to prepare them for these tournaments.”

The success of the U-18 women’s team was a shot in the arm for IRFU. This was the first national camp that the governing body was hosting since the pandemic, and they made sure that every little detail was taken care of for the players. Not only was their travel organized and paid for, they were given care kits, accommodated in air-conditioned rooms and given access to a Rugby India gym in the KIIT (Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology) campus in Odisha. Though many of the girls hadn’t played for more than a year and had only been introduced to contact rugby before the lockdown due to Covid-19, they were whipped into shape by a coaching staff led by South African legend Henrdik Botha.

“As a member of the board, our job is to prepare the processes impeccably for the player,” added Bose.

“When all of these processes are in place, the players can focus only on their performance. The team was totally prepared mentally, emotionally, physically. They were fearless, they were coached beautifully. This is the first step. These girls are around 17 years of age. In seven years they will be at the peak of their careers. This is the cohort that will take us to the Olympics.”

The members of the U-18 women’s national camp were also given a daily stipend and a winners’ bonus. Rugby India acknowledges that making the sport financially viable will be essential if they have to keep growing in the country.

“We have made our intentions very clear. We are only going to look at ways to improve,” Rugby India CEO and former India captain Nasser Hussain said. “But this (professional fees) is only for the elite group right now. We also acknowledge that there’s a much wider group outside of this. They need to be given that sort of opportunity as well to continue in the sport. If you don’t manage to do that, you are not going to get your elite bunch.”

The move has also made their more established players keener to continue. Indian women’s captain Vahbiz Bharucha, who is a physiotherapist by professional, was impressed at the facilities available at the level of detailing the federation had gone into for the U-18 national camp.

“There were so many things, which look dispensable on the face of it, but can be important to the players, that were taken care of,” said Bharucha, who was the team mentor. “Something as simple as making sure they all had clean towels and laundry services during their stay. Seeing the effort they are putting in makes me even more motivated to come to our national camp now. They are putting in so much to make sure we make it to the Olympics in 2028.”

It may be an outrageous dream for a country which is not even in the top-5 in Asia currently, but Rugby India is making sure they give their players the best chance to fulfil it.