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Meet the rugby girls of India who are set to represent the country at Asian Games

India and rugby are rarely bunched together in one sentence. But from next week, you will probably read/hear a lot about it, thanks to 12 young women who have demonstrated continuous improvement in the last few years and are now set to represent India in rugby 7s at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.

From small villages in far-flung areas to the international arena, this has been an extraordinary journey for these young women. Let me give you a glimpse.

Hupi Majhi, one of the senior players in the team, comes from a small village Dhatika in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. Until 2017, hardly anyone knew that she played rugby. Why? Because she did not tell anyone. Her parents were against it.

In her village, women aren’t allowed to play any form of outdoor sport. Or wear shorts. Growing up, she was only allowed to go to school as a kind of outdoor activity. Sport was out of the question. But Majhi quietly pursued her passion.

“The problem arose when we finished runner-up in the Asia Rugby Women’s 7s tournament in Laos,” Majhi said. “When returned, the local papers published my pictures. That’s when the secret got out. I went home for a break and my parents were shocked to know that I was a rugby player.”

Money came to her rescue.

“The Odisha government announced a reward of a few lakh rupees for each one of us. In our family no one had ever heard of that kind of money. When the money was transferred to our accounts and I handed over the money to my parents, they were stunned. It was not something they had ever imagined. Things changed after that,” Majhi said.

Rugby changed Majhi’s life in more ways than one. She now talks with a lot of confidence and has a poise about herself. But when she was younger, she was shy and did not know how to talk to people. When she was sent to boarding school in Bhubaneshwar in 2007, initially she missed too many classes out of fear of exposing her weaknesses. In the school mess, she could not summon enough courage to ask for food and often went hungry.

It was only after she joined Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) that she heard of rugby. “I started playing rugby because it allowed me to do something without having to speak much,” Majhi said.

She is 28 now and still unmarried. In village societies, it’s already too late.

“No one now asks me the marriage question. And even if they do, I will say no. I want to play for India for a few more years and there is no question of getting married at the moment,” Majhi said matter-of-factly.

For Dumini Marndi is all but five feet tall and doesn’t even look like a rugby player but her determination to earn respect is too big to be measured.

“See, for us there is nothing to look forward to in life,” Marndi said. “Girls in our village all have similar lives. It is all about helping the men in the family. And when you are of a certain age, your parents will get you married. Then you have children and do the same that your elders did.

“In all this the one thing that is missing is respect. Girls don’t have respect. That’s what I wanted to earn for myself and that’s what rugby has given us. That’s why I want to be on the pitch for India,” she concluded.

Marndi, who also faced similar resistance from family as Majhi, is now the most celebrated woman in her village. Every time she visits her parents, felicitation programmes are organised for her with other children coming over to seek her blessings and pose for pictures.

Rugby helped Mama Naik ensure a proper meal on the table for her family.

“Everyone wants a better life. You want to eat one extra egg, have an extra glass of milk or one extra piece of fish. For years, we did not have the means to do so. Whenever I wanted to have an extra piece, I would have to think that someone in the family could go hungry. Now things have changed. Now I can provide my family with a better life. Most importantly, no one stops me from playing Rugby anymore,” Naik said.

The sport is governed by Rugby India in the country and is headed by famous actor and former rugby player Rahul Bose. He has brought in a proactive approach to administration. He has roped in leading corporate houses in an attempt to make the sport self-sufficient and offer the players a respectful living.

Bose has brought in professionals from leading rugbyplaying nations and the women’s team now has a 10-member support staff including a head coach, performance analyst, nutritionist, physio, mental conditioning coach and more. Interestingly, more than half of the support staff are women and that was a conscious call.

With government support, Bose now wants to ensure every state-level Rugby player to get paid. “We’ve taken tiny steps. These are hugely significant when you think of the larger picture. We’re confident that Indian rugby will soon make the country proud and become a viable career option for many in the country,” Bose said.

With Rugby India getting support from the Odisha government and with a proactive president at the helm, things can only get better for the likes of Majhi, Marndi and Naik in the future.

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