Springboks 80’s star Naas Botha, who is now coach of the Indian women’s rugby team, says he doesn’t want to get into trouble talking about South African cricket. “Let’s just say they’re having a torrid time right now,” he stubs out the topic which he doesn’t want hijacking brighter news from his end: the Indian women’s team has just scored its first Test win in the 15s over Singapore at Philippines, a hard-earned, thrilling 21-19 victory that came in the dying minutes.
Botha who cryptically adds that the South African “rugby mind is stronger than cricket”, has just watched how a 19-year-old Odia girl, Sumitra Nayak, showed nerveless poise when called upon to take a crucial penalty with 4 minutes to go, which secured India its first-ever international win in the 80-minute traditional format. Sumitra’s place-kick was the difference between a win and a loss.
Here’s what had happened in the match upto that point: India which led at 18-12, had let in a try (7 pts) after kicking a penalty for 3 more (score 18-19), and trailed by a point with 5 minutes to go. More history: India’s first full test (XVs) was last year, and the team had lost to Singapore (30-10), Philippines (19-10), Philippines again two days back (32-27) since then. In the words of the doughty, resilient national captain Vahbiz Bharucha, “Until now, we were moving up and then coming back, shuttling between progressing and regressing, just not going ahead.” Vahbiz, a warhorse of many scarring battles in the 7s, having watched the country’s slow, inch-by-inch progress, had ensured the 18-12 lead earlier, as India successfully sustained a stable scrum, and 18-year-old speed sensation Sweety Kumari picked the ball wide in open spaces and touched down for beautifully confident tries. But the forwards were tiring, and Sumitra, an ebullient scrum-half with no shortage of confidence (she’s won as junior in England, led India’s U18s and given Tedx talks on her journey), sensed the penalty she was about to take at 18-19, was a make-or-break.
Why 15s win is a stepping stone
The Indian women’s rugby team has been playing the 15s game since last May, and played the swifter 7s format for longer. In 2018, they played two matches, losing both. Two days back, they had gone down to Philippines, but corrected their mistakes in time for the Singapore game, though China and Kazakhstan finished in top two positions. The team led comfortably till 5 minutes from the end, when Singapore - a physically equal unit - scored a try, taking a 1-point lead. Indians would convert a penalty and play out the last 3 painful minutes, clinging onto the 2-point lead. “This is definitely start of things going forward. We didn’t make the final playoffs, but this is definitely the conception of good, valid women’s rugby in India,” captain Vahbiz said. While the 7s format has gained in popularity, the 15s is considered the true test of rugby skills, and technical formations.
In what warmed the hearts of the South African legend, and left former India men’s captain and her juniors coach Nasser Hussain “with no nails left”, Sumitra would step up to take the place-kick, some 25 metres out and at a slight angle, not straight as a rod.
“I wanted to desperately help the forwards because 80 minutes in that heat is tiring. Bobby didi (captain Vahbiz) had the option of tap-in but we decided I’d go for the 3-pointer place kick. I wasn’t sure because I’d practiced for it only yesterday,” she recalls the moment. Back home, she hadn’t trained with the precise kicking-tee, a specialized perch for spot kicks (at angles like a sprinter’s starting block), and made do with cones. “But I suddenly felt confident, and bhagwaan ka naam leke, I just went for it,” she says.
It was a kick taken without any visible hesitation, a rather cool tonk like a Dhoni sixer. “I blocked out every doubting voice. I think I blocked out encouraging voices too because it was noisy, and I got the job done,” she chuckles. India went up 21-19 and ran down the clock for a third-place in the Division 1 event. India is ranked 47 to Singapore’s 33, and this win should bump up their ranking a bit.
“I’ve been in similar situations,” Botha explains adding, “it’s like a winning drop-kick or a winning penalty in the World Cup football final. Or yes, the last-ball six,” he says, clearing his throat. The coach would round off by telling the women to enjoy this win. “There will only be one first-ever. At 80, they can tell people they were part of this,” said the 61-year-old.
But the win came on the back of some back-breaking physical conditioning workouts – where the team put in the hard yards in Bhubaneshwar’s heat twice a day, under specialist Jannie Brooks. “He’s a very sports-specific guy,” Botha says, which means he reads out rugby’s painful truth to the girls. “In rugby, as you get fitter, training becomes tougher. Last two weeks, the women were put through this, and we loaded it more and more. But they never complained, and knew they needed to get through this,” he says, about a time when they needed 36 hours to recover from the extreme heat conditions.
While it’s been patient learning for the team – from stabilizing scrums to at some point, demolishing rival scrums, surviving defensive structures, tackling and securing ground balls and passing it wide, Sumitra’s learnt some rough lessons far too early.
“My father abandoned my mother in Jajpur district, and went and married someone else. She wasn’t educated post Class 9, but she courageously brought me and my two siblings to Bhubneshwar and washed people’s clothes and utensils to ensure we didn’t go hungry initially in a big city. She enrolled me at Kalinga Institute (KISS, one of India’s top junior rugby projects) where I started the sport. She now runs a beauty parlour and is a little settled. But those early years have taught me to face the worst situations with guts. Nothing scares me, because like my mother, I have a very strong heart ,” the teenager, oldest of three, recalls.
A huge fan of the USA rugby player Perry Baker, a sprinting winger, who hasn’t let his wiry frame come in the way of this hugely physical game, Sumitra was only told by mother Gayatri to learn to defend, so that she wouldn’t get tackled badly. “I’d scared her initially, saying anything can happen in this sport. She said, nothing will, but you must learn to run fast,” she ends. On Saturday, Sumitra Nayak, ran away with a little piece of exhilarating history.