“It’s like how Hulk needs to control his heart rate to stay in human form,” Vahbiz Bharucha chuckles, explaining the essential difference between Rugby 7s and a 15s Test match. It isn’t just a difference of a 7- minute match and a 40 – minute cracklefest of bones. “It’s hit all of us in the last month that we need to put our brains down to this. We can’t just explode and hope to finish a match in minutes running on adrenaline. We can’t make decisions individually, but need to carry the whole team,” says India’s strongest and canniest player as the country plays its first-ever international Rugby XVs meet in Singapore, after years of turning out for the short, snappy 7s game.
“Blood and sweat has gone into preparing for this. Literally,” she says. Three bloodied noses have been patched back together, through preparation – a knock on the artery of the nose for Vahbiz and a rattled nose bridge for Claudia Crizzle who is the first Goan in the national team. Training has gone from trial and error in speed and agility for the quickie 7-a side format to sustained strength and endurance work with squats and push-ups.
Coaches have been stressing that their fitness will last them 10 minutes, while the next 30 minutes, the brain will have to drag them in the slipstream and stay persistently at it. The team has even mapped for itself an ethics chart (“we know the good from the bad when it comes to tackles”) and found a routine for the water-breaks.
“Earlier we’d just dawdle away and sip water in our own corner in practice. Now everyone sits and drinks water together in training. It’s been important in team-building. Because it’s not just come-run like mad-go home,” Vahbiz, the tall centre No. 12 rugger, a very astute and powerful leader, says.
It’s helped bring together the nine speedy girls from Orissa, six of the bigs who’ll form the forward pack coming from India’s champion Delhi Hurricanes side and the Maharashtra girls who alongwith strength and size, bring the technical core to the table.
Perhaps the most exciting talent headed to Singapore, however, is full-back Sandhya Rai. Exceedingly talented, Sandhya plays fullback for India – a leadership position on the field, an attacking player who also reads the game well enough to know when to switch to defense. Fast and strong, she is also the quickest mind on the field – who though only 5’4”, can capture high balls while making split second decisions.
Sandhya, daughter of daily wage earners at a tea estate, comes from the Saraswatipur village near Siliguri in North Bengal – where two other India team-mates comes from. She caught the eye of seasoned Kolkata coach Paul Walsh five years ago, and has evolved into a crackling talent even captaining India’s U18s after she was found to possess a fine game sense and clever improvisations. It’s an incredible opportunity for Women’s Rugby 15s though Singapore and Philippines are both expected to field converts from their Sevens teams just like India.
Rugby is known for its brutally exacting demands on the body. 40 minutes of high-intensity scrumming and running and kicking in the women’s 15s game is a physical challenge.
Subhalaxmi Barik has subsisted on 4 hours sleep daily for the last 3 years since her son Sushant was born. In her job as a forestry department guard in Orissa, Barik routinely chased down elephant poachers and wood smugglers.
“I walk 15 km daily for my work. That’s after dropping off my son to school and my game fitness work where my father pushes me to run 10 rounds with him. My parents insist that I continue in sport after marriage and the child. I have all the support, but I need to do all the hard work on my own,” she says. Her son has been ill the last few days, and the Singapore trip has torn her everytime she speaks to the toddler on videochat.
“I’ve had some exciting times in my regular job. Once in the Chandaka forest, I set off on my guard duty and walked past 2-3 deserted mountains into the deep jungle. I came across a dead body on a pyre in a cremation ground and then got chased by an elephant all in one night. Nothing in rugby scares me in comparison,” she says, sleepless and excited about this new start for her and India.