Rugby's sunshine pierces forests in Orissa’s tribal belt

Mumbai: From an origin in English public schools to its impact in Orissa’s tribal interiors, rugby’s sunshine has pierced the densest of forest covers. The tribal-welfare oriented Kalinga Institute of Social Science (KISS) is drawing out the remotest community from Mayurbhanj district through the sport.

These girls might fiddle clumsily with the ketchup sachets at the Bombay Gymkhana, where they are playing the All India Women’s Rugby Sevens, but on the field, they are swatting aside competitors despite having started out on the game just a month ago. At their Bhubhaneshwar-based campus, the about dozen girls have added rugby to their life’s objectives of seeking education and self-sufficiency. So, the back-pass and touch-down have assumed as much importance as their daily classes in stitching, tailoring and computers.

“We’re not scared of being tackled and don’t flinch from bringing others down either. Now that we’re learning the skills and getting better at the game, we are committed to working hard so that we can play internationally,” says captain and the team’s scrum-half Hiramani Kisku.

This is evident from their style of play. The girls have ditched the most obvious means to obstruct opponents on the rugby paddock — the conventional full-frontal on the upper torso or the shoulder-barging — for a cheeky alternative of tackling from around the runner’s legs. It helped that the girls, most of whom are from the adivasi-dominated Mayurbhanj district, started with sports like khokho, kabaddi and football which have actions that can easily simulate a rugby tackle.

Sharing space

“They’re very powerful and determined to do well. The stamina is endless considering they come from rough, hilly and forest terrains where hardships are common,” says their young coach Roshan, who makes do with football goalposts for rugby posts and is content sharing playing space with football, cricket and hockey till he gets a grassier patch of his own. Occasionally, the state’s four clubs are allowed to use Cuttack’s lush cricket Barabati Stadium, which makes up for their basic equipment on leaner days.

And playing rugby ensures that the girls get that one extra portion of eggs, bananas and meat to supplement their chhatua (all-grain mixture added to water) staple.

An Englishman on an education mission planted the sport into Orissa a decade-and-half ago. The founder of KISS, Dr Achytanandan Samanta, a rugby enthusiast, then made it the first-priority sport for the institute’s beneficiaries. That group includes over 7000 tribals, including the Banda tribe, who joined the mainstream only some 20 years ago. For some girls like orphaned Sakuntala Chattar, 18 and soft-spoken, rugby is the first chance to travel outside her district, and her team mates are like a family.

For their speedy inside-centre Parbati Murnu, Mumbai offers the first chance to get into India’s Bangkok-bound maiden international women’s squad. “Rugby’s not just a contact sport. It helps us sharpen our brains,” she says, knocking her index finger against her head.