Eat, sleep, play, repeat: staying at the national women’s rugby training camp

[originally published October 5, 2011]

The cop didn’t believe Neha when she told him that she plays scrumhalf for the Indian women’s rugby side.

Standing at 5’2″ and weighing in at a whopping 99 lbs, at first glance one would never guess that she’s one of the most explosive players in the country.

He still didn’t believe us when she told him that we were out looking for a billboard splashed with her picture. Sorry, but we didn’t realize that bikes weren’t allowed over this bridge and please sir, give it back to us and no, we are NOT going to hand over 1000 rupees for you to pocket. We are going to be late for practice. And if you let us go, we’ll get you into the (…already free…) tournament this weekend…for free! After some squabbling and convincing and some “she’s with the press” (the threat of journalistic accounts in American newspapers of law enforcement exploitation in India apparently can get you a 90% cop-corruption discount), we left on the back of the bike with our wallets 100 rupees lighter — but, we made it back to team camp just in time for practice.

But we never did find that billboard. We later heard that it was literally on the opposite side of the road — going in the other direction — from the cop trap.

***

For the past few weeks women’s rugby players from all over India have been training in Pune at the national team camp on the outskirts of the city.

For three weeks 26 girls from across India got to do what the most fanatical ruggers can only dream of: they ate, they slept and they played. They represented seven different teams, spoke at least seven different languages among them and came from diversely different backgrounds. At the end of the three weeks — and countless cat naps, cold showers and cups of chai — 12 girls remained. They went on to become the starting India seven (with subs in tow) for the All-Asia Women’s Rugby 7s tournament.

I got the chance to bunk up and stay with them while they trained. My goal here was to gather preliminary stories, video footage and photos as a jumping off point for this project. We would just talk — during sessions when girls were sitting out, during meal time, on the backs of bikes and over jellabies and dahi at roadside stalls. Some girls had full family and community support. Others voiced their families’ concerns about rugby: if they were to break a bone, they would become unmarriageable. They would have to stop playing by around 25 because it would become time to do the “Indian thing” (as many girls called it) and start a family. Some of the women voiced fears that they will never be bulky enough to compete against the likes Kazakhstan. But, regardless of what society-at-large told them or how some of their families chastised them, the women still laced up their cleats at 6:30am every morning and hit the pitch.