Hometown heros: RFS Pune takes home the national title!

[originally published September 1, 2011]

The forecast: WET. The excitement level? High.

It's always a beautiful day for rugby.

The raging monsoon dampened no spirits at the All-India Women’s 7s National Tournament this past weekend. Though the pitch would have been better suited as a swimming pool by the time the final whistle blew Sunday night, the RFS Pune A-side successfully rucked — and mucked — their way through the mud in a bid the capture the national title.

Twenty teams from across India descended upon the city, some traveling for up to three days by train. The women — spanning the social, political and religious spectrum — all came armed with the same agenda: to be crowned the best of the best. Jammu & Kashmir from the north regularly practice on the packed snow of the Himalayan foothills; the women from the Kolkata Jungle Crows sometimes travel from rural villages to play. From the south, they’ve practiced on the sandy beaches of Goa. They don’t all speak a common language, but they all play the same game.

The top contenders were identified early on in the weekend. Come Sunday evening, the final match came down to a fiercely pitted competition between the Jungle Crows and the Pune A-side. Though the torrents of rain had shown signs of letting up, by mid-match it was back pelting in full force. At kickoff, the superbly athletic Jungle Crows had the advantage of meticulously honed fitness: these women, groomed by the Indian government from a young age to become the nation’s athletes, were lightening-quick runners. Their athleticism was seen in their bold, long-limbed strides and fiery accelerations on the field. But, what Pune lacked in size comparison, they made up for in finesse and technical skills. It was very evident by skip passes and switch plays that the Pune women were comfortable, confident, and ready to take on their toughest match yet.

Pune came out blazing: their offensive attacks pounded the Jungle Crows back immediately. The mission was that of simple, fundamental rugby: just keep the ball out of the Crows’ hands. A lapse in possession would be a fatal mistake. Even on the watery pitch the girls moved quickly, barreling down the center and flicking passes out to the sidelines. Not only did the team have that crucial 7s speed on their side, but their bone-crunching defensive skills — and audible, flesh-thudding tackles — was reminiscent of the 15s playing style. One try turned into another, then another. Though the Crows had the powerful legs, Pune had the quick hands. Four times the ball was run into the torn-up try zone; and then, the final whistle blew. The score was 26-0. Pune claimed national victory.

But the ride isn’t over yet: next weekend, girls selected from this tournament will attend the month-long national team camp here in the city. From sun-up to sun-down for six days a week they’ll train in the hopes of being selected for the group to represent India at the HSBC Asia Pacific Women’s 7’s tournament circuit.  If all goes according to plan, I’ll be attending the camp and following the stories of these girls.

If I really want to get the whole picture of this story, standing on the sidelines and simply shooting isn’t tell me who these girls are, where they come from, why  they play, how do the play, and what are the social forces that are now working with — or still against — them? And, at the end of the day I just really want to know: what does this simple game it all mean to these women and to this nation? So, tomorrow I’ll finally dust off the old cleats, boot up and hit the pitch for the first time in a long while to see if I can unravel this tale just a little bit more.