On seeing the message on her phone, Sweety Kumari knew she was supposed to make a call. “But I was too stunned to react,” she says. So, after sending her the text, it was the Rugby India (RI) official who did. “Get ready for calls from the media,” the official told her.
The official then forwarded the awards list, which had Kumari chosen as ‘International Young Player of the Year’, by the website Scrumqueens (which calls itself the “online home of women’s rugby”). The awards are given on the basis of public voting.
“I haven’t visited the website yet but ‘scrum’ is part of our game and ‘queen’ would mean us, so it’s all right,” says Kumari, 19.
“She is an absolute phenomenon in sevens rugby,” says South African Naas Botha, India’s rugby 15s coach. “I am not even half surprised. She will definitely hold her own in a professional women’s team.”
Under the category for International Young Player of the Year, the Scrumqueens website notes that “…over a dozen names (were) put forward from more than 10 different countries. All of our nominees made a major impact on the game having started their careers at clubs or schools but only one began after forming her own team.”
That was in 2015. Kumari, who was a 100m sprinter, says once Bihar rugby unit’s secretary Pankaj Kumar Jyoti identified her for the sport, she began inquiring who would be interested from the athletics fraternity to make the switch with her.
“Seeing me, some of them decided to give rugby a try. Before me, winger Sweta Sahi had represented India but Bihar didn’t have a rugby team worth talking about. (Then) we won a bronze in the 2015 School Games Federation of India (SGFI) competition in Bhubaneswar,” she says.
A number of players from that SGFI team still play. From Bihar, Sahi, Kumari and Kavita Kumari are current internationals. Bihar are the reigning national sevens champions and Kumari was adjudged player of the final after they beat Odisha 17-12.
From Bhubaneswar in 2015, Kumari was called for an India camp, at Kolkata’s CCFC and then to Mumbai after the probables’ list was shortened. “I broke my nose in training and was out for one month,” she says. Her family—Kumari has six siblings and lives with her parents in Barh, 75 kilometres from Patna, where she also goes to college—said: “Get back to rugby as soon as you recover.”
By then, India’s American coach Mike Fryday had seen enough of her at training to call Kumari a “scoring machine.” That has stuck, says Kumari.
“Ball lehna aur bhagna (take the ball and run),” was what Kumari was told to do when she was introduced to rugby, a sport played with “aanda jaisa gend (egg-shaped ball).”
Run doesn’t quite cut it; Kumari explodes. “Nothing is more enjoyable than taking the ball and running,” she says.
“Using her biggest assest—speed—helped her settle down as a winger after she gave up athletics,” says India men’s captain Vikas Khatri.
Last June, Singapore and Philippines found that out in a 15s competition; Kumari scored two tries each against both. For the first time, India beat Singapore, 21-19. Kumari was rated fastest in the continent by Asia Rugby.
“Her explosive pace and power has resulted in her top scoring at most of India’s sevens tournaments, as well as scoring two outstanding tries in their first ever test match win against Singapore,” according to Scrumqueens.
“Sweety is a rocket on repeat,” says South African Ludwiche van Deventer, India sevens coach.
Speed is god’s gift, says Kumari, adding that she also tops all fitness tests at India camps. “Technique and tactics I try to learn by asking coaches, more experienced players and watching videos on YouTube.”
American sevens’ stars Perry Baker and Carlin Isles, the country’s top two in career tries, are Kumari’s heroes and sevens her preferred format.
So when she got called for a 15s camp, she initially refused. “I didn’t know the rules. RI official Nasser Hussain (a former India captain) called me. ‘You know rugby,’ he asked. Yes, I said. ‘Do you know how to plays sevens? Yes, I said again. So join the camp and we will explain the rules, he said.” That was in June 2018.
“In sevens, you get a lot more space. There is a tendency among the girls here to be a little more sevens-like when they play 15s. But with the right guidance, she will do well in 15s,” says Botha from Bloemfontein.
“Sweety has tremendous defensive skills, I do believe it is more valuable than her speed,” says van Deventer who is from Pretoria. And Kumari can play center; she did here last year for Bihar because “our coach says I can feed the wing better.”
Kumari’s reputation is having teams working out defensive strategies that minimise space for her. “It will require team effort to create space, better opportunities for her,” says Botha.
“Deny her space but that will also mean more space for teammates. Also, chasing Sweety will tire rivals faster,” says Khatri.
To grow, Kumari needs to play against good opposition regularly, says Botha. “We need to create opportunities for Indian players to be recognised worldwide. In sevens you do have quite a lot of opportunities but we need to create some for 15s too. Playing two-three games per annum is never going to be enough.”
“She (Kumari) must challenge herself to adapt between two codes as for the time being, we do not have the luxury in India to run separate national teams for 15s and 7s,” says van Deventer.
Kumari’s recognition, he says, will encourage the teams, promote rugby “and show what our ladies are capable of.”