It's worth a try
With the Rugby World Cup ongoing, here's looking at the city's engagement with the sport and where Mumbaikars can pursue it
It all goes back to Bombay Gymkhana. In fact, correct that. Mumbai's association with the sport of rugby dates back to even earlier. The prestigious SoBo club was established in 1872, with rugby introduced there two years later. But it was in 1866 that a bunch of Englishmen played the country's first match at the Bombay Sappers army unit. It makes India the second oldest country after England to have hosted a rugby game. That means that the city's engagement with the sport is over 150 years old. But the question is: with the ongoing Rugby World Cup being held for the first time in Asia, in Japan, where does the sport's fate lie at present in this city, one of the first places in history to witness people playing it?
The answer points mainly towards Bombay Gymkhana. The club's been a relentless champion for the sport ever since its inception. Such that it even bends its otherwise strict policies to allow non-members to train there (though there is a condition that you have to be able to travel to Fort on a regular basis). There is also an annual recruitment drive held there to find new talent around this time of the year. And the club's grounds often host matches for national-level competitions, too.
But that's at the upper end of the scale. Rugby has also played a different, and more important, role in shaping the city. It has given thousands of underprivileged children a new lease of life. Kids prone to substance abuse have turned their fortunes around thanks to the game. Sandeep Mosamkar, national development manager for Rugby India, the sport's parent body, tells us, "The founder of the NGO Magic Bus [Mathew Spacie] was a rugby player. He got a bunch of underprivileged boys together and started a team that played at the Bombay Gymkhana during the local season. And what happened is that when those 13 or 14-year-old boys reached their 30s, they started their own NGOs that help local communities through rugby, after Magic Bus discontinued its programme. There's one called Mumbai Magicians based in a slum area in Colaba. And there's another one called Ace Foundation in Mankhurd, which helps transform the lives of kids."
Shehbaz Kapoor is a shining example of this transformation that Mosamkar is talking about. The Mankhurd resident was veering dangerously close to a life in crime in 2010, when he was in his early teens. But then a friend of his introduced him to rugby, and Kapoor says, "The practice sessions used to be held in South Bombay, and I initially went for the first few ones only because I wanted the milk and packet of Parle-G biscuits that they'd give to the players. But I gradually became more interested, passionate even, and started playing professionally."
Vikas Chaurasiya, who started Ace Foundation, then took the youngster under his wings. And his talent flowered to such an extent that he represented the Indian team at the Asian U-18 Schools Rugby Seven tournament held in Hong Kong in 2016. "I studied in an Urdu medium school only till class 10. But I can now talk in English, and that's only because of rugby," Kapoor, who also got admission in college through the sports quota, tells us, speaking fluently.
So, those are the sort of heart-warming stories that the city's engagement with the sport has thrown up. Chaurasiya tells us that anyone looking to pursue it is more than welcome to join organisations like Mumbai Magicians and Ace. He says, "We have also worked with a number of schools [across education boards] to promote rugby. And from what I've seen, people who are aware about it are pretty keen on taking the sport up. But it's just that our daily lives can get so hectic that they struggle to find the time for it." Mosamkar points out another problem — infrastructure. "You won't believe it, but around 35 schools that take part in the Mumbai Schools Touch Rugby Tournament. But only a handful of these institutions offer contact rugby lessons, even though the sport has been included in the School Games Federation of India for the past five years, and Maharashtra has regularly been winning gold and silver medals in different competitions," he says, pointing out how — for a city that was home to one of the world's first rugby matches — a change needs to be made at the grassroots for the game to thrive again.
Call Rugby India on 22086910 if you want to play the sport
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