Rugby in India: The ball has been picked up, now it's time to run with it

The Webb Ellis Cup pictured at the Taj Mahal in Agra during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Trophy Nigel Roddis - World Rugby via Getty Images

Over the past few months, the Webb Ellis Trophy - aka the Rugby World Cup - has climbed an active volcano in the Philippines, perched on the Great Wall of China and posed against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal. On a two-year tour ahead of the 2019 rugby World Cup in Japan, the trophy's choice of formerly fringe destinations is a pointer to how the sport sees its future. Rugby is now looking beyond its strongholds to emerging locations across the world - and prominent on that map is India.

The numbers thrown up by a Nielsen survey conducted by World Rugby (WR), which it is basing its plans on, are eye-opening: the sport has 25.7 million fans in India alone. World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper senses the disbelief and explains. "That number includes those who are interested or very interested in rugby so those are the two top boxes, that's how we evaluate," he tells ESPN. "It's also quite a big playing population, around 80,000 regular players and last year Get Into Rugby (GIR) had 1,60,000 participants so that's a quarter of a million people touching the ball each year now in India, 40 per cent of them women."

India, he emphasises, is one of the world body's key strategic markets, earmarked for super-growth with China, USA, Germany, Brazil.

Gosper believes the primary hitch in people taking to rugby in this part of the world is the sport's lack of visibility. It's something WR is planning to address through discussions with broadcasters so that international tournaments, to start with, are beamed live. "A World Cup comes only once every four years so people in India need to see top-flight rugby in other ways and that's something we're going to try and work out, whether through platforms or specific bundling deals with other parts of the rugby game, to ensure there's high visibility. There's also the added thrust on setting up more interesting national competitions," he says.


'We see potential for enormous growth for Rugby in India' - Gosper

CEO of World Rugby, Brett Gosper talks about the efforts being made to increase popularity of Rubgy in India

Rahul Bose, the Bollywood actor who has played for India, echoes that sentiment. "I'm not going to dress it up. All of this is clearly a recognition of India's potential both as a player base and as a fan base. It is often a conundrum, which comes first -- TV or the money, sponsors or the performance. But unless you get on to television, your sport is never going to reach the next level in terms of size and clout. So all of us are working on finding the format that will work, bringing it on TV, the form and structure of that, how successful that will be. It should all be there in the next 18-22 months."

One thing the sport is seen to have done, in several countries, is infuse a sense of socio-economic betterment among disadvantaged sections, says Gosper: "We've seen reduction in crime rates in quite a few regions across the world once the kids have been introduced to rugby, so there's great life lessons for the local population as well. In India, we've seen huge growth in the women's game. We're dealing with vast populations so we need local knowledge to ensure that we're pushing the right buttons. We're in consultation with people from the film fraternity and all walks of life in India who are rugby players or fans themselves to ensure we make the maximum impact and draw people who aren't normally interested in rugby. You need that when you go into new markets."

The facts bear out his assertion. The Indian women's team has come a long way since their international debut in 2009. In February 2017, they won five out of six matches at the Asian Rugby Sevens in Laos to return home with a silver medal. Six out of 12 members of that team were from one of India's most poorest and backward states, Odisha. Once the preserve of elite big-city clubs, rugby in India is now stronger in Tier 2 & 3 regions where the youth see it as a way to escape poverty and its attendant dogmas and archaic traditions.

Meerarani Hembram, fly-half in the national side, was not so long ago selling metal scrap in her village; rugby got her a ticket out and, eventually, to the national side. She picked the sport, she'd told ESPN last year, because it empowered her. "It's a way of telling ourselves that nothing is beyond us."

World rugby has in fact been keeping a finger on India's progress in the sport over the past couple of years. Rugby India laid out its plans and vision four years ago, the conditions sought were clearly spelt out. National coach Nasser Hussain, who led that representation, says the terms were pretty straightforward. "We requested the World Body for a commitment of funds over a period of time rather than an on an annual basis and also didn't want to be restricted by short-term results or KPIs. I think that has paid off."

Of course, funds are also part of the problem. But it isn't quite the most insurmountable one, suggests Bose. More international tournaments for the teams will require more money and greater the number of teams, be it the U-17, U-19, the more the outlay needed. "It's a good time to ask sponsors to deepen their commitment. The energy we expend going into the future on how we foster the game has to be looked at very calmly and energetically. Definitely we need financial support from the world body, but more than that once we have an initiative they can help with international sponsor relationships which will depend on what ideas we come up with."


'What can be worked on is the sense of cohesion' - Bose

Former India international and actor Rahul Bose on what changes are needed for rugby to grow in India

It helps that there's a familiar face at the helm of the sport's Asian body. Asian Rugby president Aga Hussain - Nasser's father - says that the gains for Asia from rugby can be extrapolated to India too. The Under-18 Asian Championships later this year will be hosted in Bhubaneshwar and there's also a proposal to place a bid for next year's Division 3, 15-a-side before the Asian Council. "Across West-dominated sport, Asia can no longer be ignored," he says, "World bodies are looking at growth centers - take the U-17 football World Cup India hosted for instance."

Plans are aggressively afoot, Hussain adds, to aggregate the three major rugby events, World Cup, Six Nations and Champions Trophy, so that broadcasters can be brought on board and a steady stream of quality tournaments supplied. For Indian sport fans who binge watch on everything from cricket and tennis to WWE, this well may be a good starting point.

India could take a lesson from the sport's origin. Legend goes that during a football match, schoolboy William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, giving birth to rugby. In India's rugby story, the ball has been picked up, now it just needs to be run with for a winner.