Hrishikesh Pendse’s sure-footed long strides are a custom, flaunted in and around the Bombay Gymkhana after a practice session. But not many recognise him, as he strolls towards a nearby coffee shop. A few stares do come his way, though they can be entirely credited to his 6’2’’ frame and muscular physique. But that’s just how India’s rugby captain enjoys it. “It’s a lot less hectic and it’s peaceful,” he says while enjoying his beverage. He does however recognise that his days of unknown bliss are numbered. He will soon be playing in Japan, a land where tall, musular rugby players are no strangers to fans. “They can even tell you random stats like the shoe-size,” he says, laughing. The move headed to the Orient comes after Pendse was offered a season’s contract at a professional rugby team in Tokyo – Suntory Sungoliath.
Interestingly enough, the deal came through after Pendse failed a trial with a lower ranked Japanese team earlier this year. But his agent in New Zealand had dispatched his ‘video curriculum vitae’ to her correspondent in Japan. “Soon I got a call asking me to come over for a trial. It was a no-brainer. They are among the top two in Japan,” Pendse mentions.
The week-long trial itself was an experience he won’t be forgetting anytime soon. “They took us through an absolute grind. Morning sessions were in the gym, and there were fitness sessions in the afternoon,” he says, reliving every detail. A handbook was also distributed among the prospective players. It contained plays and methods the team employed during matches, as well as sections highlighting its policies. The literature was meant to be studied and applied during the Saturday game, which would serve as the final stage of the tryouts. “The book was essentially homework. We had to study it and get accustomed to their playing style,” he claims.
Eventually the game went well, or at least that’s what the forward thought before the results were announced. “I knew I played well but they were pretty aloof about the whole thing. All they did was invite me to dinner that evening. I wasn’t sure if they were going to say thank you for coming, or hint that I get used to the food,” he says, smiling. The dinner proved to be the latter. And quite literally so. The meeting was held at a low-key restaurant that was known for serving parts of meat that aren’t often put on a plate. “It wasn’t that bad to taste, to be honest. But I’m going there to play. I don’t mind the food,” he says, laughing.
Pendse’s demeanour projects a feeling of controlled excitement. There is a clear measure of eagerness towards Japan, but this will not be the first time he will spend a season playing for a foreign club.
The first was in England in 2009 when he featured on London Scottish Rugby Football Club’s team sheet. The second was in New Zealand for the first stint of two for North Shore RFC. Then there was his first spell in Japan, where he played for Kobe Steelers. This was followed by two months in Hong Kong for the Hong Kong Scottish RCF. These various journeys however did not prove too fruitful for the Mumbai-lad.
“I was either bogged down because of injury or because of the fact that I’m an Indian,” he sighs. Opportunities on the pitch weren’t too easy to get given that Indian rugby was relatively unheard of abroad. “In New Zealand I was put on the bench of the reserves team without trial because they have never know an Indian playing. Finally they gave me five minutes, and that was enough for me to prove I could play,” he asserts. The coaches at North Shore immediately moved Pendse up to the senior squad bench where he eventually managed to get a few minutes to play in a few games, just before the season ended.
Kobe came calling after watching him perform. But luck wasn’t too kind with him as he injured his left knee and required surgery.
North Shore beckoned again in early 2013. “I guess they wanted to make up for their error of underestimating me. So they called me back. I had to adapt to a new playing position but I made no mistakes. At the end of the season I got the Player’s Choice for Player of the Season Award,” he recalls.
He enjoyed his time in New Zealand, especially since it was the first time he was given a chance to play in the senior team for a majority of the season. The prestigious award was the icing on the cake, but there was a sense of fear that slowly generated after the spell. Thoughts started lingering on the possibility of no further calls ups abroad. “I started thinking about retirement and on what I can do after rugby. It was quite an unnerving thought at the time,” he mentions. “But then Suntory came into the picture,” he adds, smiling thoughtfully.
The Indian captain isn’t too sure how much playing time will be given, nor is he aware if he will be in the first team. Yet he is confident of being placed well given that he excelled at the trials. The national team too will benefit from the teachings Pendse will be subject to in the coming months. “The senior players are always looked up to in the team. We always help out the coaches in whatever way we can. And these trips abroad will definitely give me something more to contribute,” he affirms.
Pendse has now spent 10 years on the Indian team, debuting as an 18-year-old. His will to play for the country hasn’t diminished, although the required paperwork before travelling to Japan has kept him away from the Indian team that has travelled to Pakistan for the Asian 5 Nations. But Pendse reckons he has another few years left to make ammends before he finally decides to hang his boots. Life after Rugby may see him take up the family’s catering business his parents run. His mother in particular would be looking forward to that day. “She hated it when I got injured. She mellowed down eventually but still preferred watching my games from a distance. Far enough so she couldn’t see much,” he says, laughing heartily.
Years in the sport have left his body scarred with injury, the most recent being the one just above his left eyebrow. Yet his teeth are something he has always managed to keep intact. “Mum’s a dentist,” he says, smiling. Understandibly, the mouth guard is the only protection he has ever used in his rugby career.