They took a good half part of the match to absorb the pressure,going scoreless. But when the Maharashtra State Police rugby team reacted after the break against Bombay Gymkhana,they rammed home the match-winning tries in lapsing minutes of the Bombay Cup final over the weekend. Like a patrolling unit regaining control of a situation,the rugger cops systematically slowed down their opponents’ power and speed before Ranjit Jambhle touched down,followed by Suhas Benke to clinch the title in the six-team tourney,which serves as a warm-up for the upcoming All India championship.
It’s been a long five-year wait for the state cops who persevered through a change in personnel in the interim to regain a Cup they last won in 2007. One of Mumbai’s only two dominant rugby teams from the city,MSP were Bombay Cup winners six times of seven years in the last decade. But like happens to most winning units,a transition was inevitable,as almost half dozen of their players,who had all turned out in Indian national colours,eased themselves out of the game after active careers of close to a decade. So,Rajesh Tondwarkar,Narendra Khade,Sachin Mhaskar,Praveen,Victor Salunke and Julius Lobo had all retired from rugby by 2006,when the Bombay Cup titles too dried up. MSP had been accustomed to making the semis or finals of the All India tournament in those days,but after the departure of their key players,they were forced into serious rebuilding.
One of the troubles that a side like MSP will forever have to contend with when aspiring to put together a rugby team is that they almost never have players who’ve learnt the game in their childhoods. It’s mostly the wrestlers,khokho specialists,footballers and boxers who are invited to form the team,and like player-turned-coach Ganesh Sawant says,gelling together takes time in this rule-intensive and set-piece heavy game. “It takes at least 2-3 years for a group to find rhythm together. With retirement of several of our players,we were in transition. Now we’ve found that combination again.”
Himself a veteran of 24 internationals having turned out for India between 2001 and 2008,Sawant,who was in fact an Eklavya awardee for kho-kho in 2003 understands the difficulties of first persuading sportsmen from other disciplines to take up his sport,and then impart the skills and finally get the group to groove together. But heading into a new national season,Sawant believes he’s found the right mix.
There’s blind-side flanker Avinash Shinde who recently shone at the Asian Five Nations and has impressed many,cornering for himself a Starting Fifteen spot and making it his own. Originally a wrestler with SRPF,hailing from Raigad district,the flanker has shown tremendous improvement in the last 3 years,with his cool nerves and individual hard-working enterprise,even while learning plenty from Hrishikesh Pendse and Gautam Dagar,the two flankers who have been India regulars.
Besides him,there’s Dayanand Sutar who plays hooker and flanker Rohit Jambhle who make up the core of this fighting squad. In the barely 5 months that they get to train together between April and September,Sawant has ensured that MSP head into the All India aspiring for a good result. “We think we have a good chance to make semis at least. According to draw of lots,we might run into Bombay Gymkhana first up. And going by our current form,we will give them a good fight,” Sawant says.
There was also the minor blip in 2009 when the team ended up disqualified when some of its newer players got carried away in a match against a foerign team and a brawl ensued. “The team’s come a long way since then in terms of maturity. They were young and new to the sport,” Sawant says. Five from MSP made it to the Maharashtra Sevens squad that won gold at the Ranchi National Games in 2011,and were even awarded Rs 5 lac for the top podium showing,winning DG’s medals. “Now we want to do real well at the All India,and this batch looks ready to fulfill its potential.”