Fourteen members of the national rugby team, all from the Army, were withdrawn from the squad travelling to Lahore for the Asian 5 Nations 15-a-side tournament. According to Indian Rugby Football Union vice-president Aga Hussain, they had to return home from the Wagah border as they didn’t get clearance from the Indian military intelligence.
This depleted the tour party to 12 ruggers, all civilians, on match day against Uzbekistan in their first Test. Two team management officials, Nasser Hussain and Manas Kumar Jena, both recently retired players, had to take the field but India was still a man short for the 15-a-side opener. Top-seeded India lost 23-17, a close game, conceding two penalties in the last seven minutes.
Hussain said permission was denied at the last minute at the Wagah border in Amritsar. “Not just Pakistan, MI clearance is needed for all countries. However, given the prevalent situation in Pakistan, the authorities might have decided to deny clearance for the Army guys to travel,” Hussain said.
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Hussain said they had been cleared by the Ministry of External Affairs, but sources in the defence ministry said the Army component of the team could not travel as permission was not forthcoming from the MEA. Senior officials said while MEA had cleared the rugby team, special permissions required for service personnel were not processed. Officials said that they were informed that the special permissions would take at least three weeks, not leaving enough time for the trip. There’s no travel advisory issued for Pakistan. Hussain said: “Since the Army boys travelling there would’ve been sensitive, authorities would’ve taken a call.”
The Army contingent formed the entire forward-pack of the Indian team. Also, the depleted squad means no substitutions in the event of injuries.
The Indian squad did not have the choice of opting out of this International Rugby Board (IRB) tournament either, as this is the only Asia-level 15s that it is scheduled to play, and IRFU would’ve faced sanctions and been docked ranking-points. “We’ll be in rankings trouble if we don’t play any IRB full-members for the whole year,” Hussain said.
Last year, a U-19 colts rugby squad from India had travelled to Pakistan for the Asian juniors, and a seven-a-side squad had done so in 2012. “By and large, rugby-relations have remained cordial and each team travels to the other’s country regularly,” Hussain said.
Former captain Nasser Hussain, now retired, who chipped in as player on Thursday, posted on Indian Rugby Football Union’s Facebook account: “With Match Day today, Team India is faced with a herculean task as they take the field with 12 players + 2 management (to try and make up numbers) in the first A5N test against the Uzbeks. Unfortunately, 12 players from the Indian Army selected to represent the country were denied clearance to travel to Pakistan by the Ministry, on the eve of the team’s departure.
Nonetheless, the boys are up for the challenge and ready to go out there and do their country proud. On a lighter note, the joke doing the rounds on tour has been our comparison to the Spartans – ready for battle boys – bleed blue!”