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Rugged travails in the alleys of Indian rugby

Dhiman Sarkar

‘Chotu’ is a common nickname, but to call Vikas Khatri that? The India and Delhi Hurricanes rugby captain stands nearly six feet in his socks and has arms intimidatingly wide sticking out from a T-shirt. Even during the 86th All India and South Asia Rugby Championship, at the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CC&FC) from September 21-28, Khatri wouldn’t be lost in a crowd.

“I grew up with friends who were older and bigger. They called me ‘Chotu’ and the name stuck,” says Khatri as we sit at the cafeteria where the rugby World Cup is live but silent from Japan and constant clatter of cutlery provides background noise.

Rugby happened to Khatri, 32, around seven years after he saw the 2003 World Cup.

“I would play football with friends in Nangal, my village which is close to Sonepat, who also played rugby for Delhi Lions (now called Delhi Sher RFC). The 2003 World Cup had made me realise that I liked contact sport, something that comes easier to people from Haryana because we play a lot of wrestling and kabaddi,” says Khatri.

In 2011, Khatri represented Haryana in the National Games and won silver. He got called to an India camp for the Asian meet in Bangkok. “From 2011, I have been playing for India,” he says.

He would play on the wing then. Now, he plays forward. “I am not that fast anymore.”

Since 2011, Khatri says he has played around 20 internationals. “Most top players would play that many in six months, excluding pre-seasons.”

“Size, speed, fitness, we have it all. We need greater match awareness. Players’ feedback to Rugby India is usually the same: get us more games,” says Khatri who trains on weekends at a ground in Delhi rented by his club.

The drill, therefore, usually is: a preparatory camp before an international tournament.

“But coaches change and some players don’t turn up because they have jobs to hold or examinations to take,” says Khatri.

India’s only 15s tournament in 2019 was the Asia Rugby championship. In the three-team Division 3 (east-south zone) in Jakarta last June, India, ranked 86th in the world, opened with a 17-74 loss to China and beat Indonesia 42-12 to end a six-game losing streak.

Khatri says he hopes South African Hendrik Botha, who was India’s coach in Jakarta, stays for at least two to three years. “When you do the same thing under the same coach for a longer period, you usually get better at it.”

Outside the national championships, the All India and South Asia Rugby Championship is the country’s only top tier 15s tournament and is hosted alternately at Bombay Gymkhana and CC&FC. Not enough for a country which, according to the pre-tournament media release, has over 120 clubs and rugby being played in 24 states.

“Delhi Hurricanes, Bombay Gymkhana and Army have teams of similar standard. But we can’t play each other as often as we would like to because arranging friendlies is expensive in an amateur sport,” says Khatri.

On a churned up pitch last Saturday, Hurricanes ignored chants of “ek, do teen, Bombay Gym,” to win 26-6 and complete a hattrick of titles.

Given that rugby has seen growth only in the past decade, Khatri says India should now focus on sevens instead of the 15-a-side version. Sevens is the format played in the Olympics and Asian Games. India played in the 2006 and 2010 Asian Games.

The men finished seventh in 2010 and eighth in 2006 being unable to open their score. Khatri says the government barred sending teams from 2014.

“In 15s, players need to train according to their position, even follow a different diet. Sevens is about fitness and speed.”

Led by Khatri, India played a seven in Jakarta last August. They beat Afghanistan (17-12), Brunei (33-7), losing only to Singapore (12-27) “because we had to play with six men.” India won the plate final beating Indonesia 24-14 to end fifth among 11 teams. The women took silver.

“With the right facilities, we can even get a medal at Asian Games in four-five years,” says Khatri.

How much distance rugby has to cover can be gauged by Khatri’s claim that Haryana, known for encouraging sporting excellence, does not consider being reigning national sevens champions and medallists for five years achievements worthy of financial reward. “Think I have lost almost 20 lakh there,” says Khatri with a snort.

Khatri gives himself three years as a player. He doesn’t have a job but says Panjab University has offered a short-term coaching assignment. “I hope there is a coaching role for me in the future because rugby is the only skill I have.”

(HT Media)

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