India captain Vahbiz Bharucha struggled to contain her nerves as Sumitra Nayak addressed a late penalty in her side’s Asia Rugby Women’s Championship Division I meeting with Singapore.
With India trailing by a point and a first-ever test win within reach, Bharucha’s initial reaction was to point to the posts. But at the bidding of her forwards, doubts began to creep in.
Coach Naas Botha ensured that Nayak was given the ball but even as the scrum-half sent it sailing between the uprights few connected with the team could have predicted the impact their 21-19 victory in the Philippines would have back home.
“[Nayak] kicks and I’m running, and I see it go between the bars and I’m like ‘Oh, yes!’” Bharucha told World Rugby.
“I don’t know about my nervousness, I can only imagine how nervous Sumitra must have been. She was such a cool cucumber on that kick.”
"We want to prove that girls can do anything"— Asia Rugby (@asiarugby) July 3, 2019
Another inspiring woman from @rugbyindia! Sumitra Nayak ran away from home at just four years old with her Mother and siblings, and now she's part of history having kicked the winning penalty! #TryAndStopUs @worldrugby pic.twitter.com/NmVaeEvICy
Magnitude of reaction
For a team that only made their international bow last year and was playing just their fourth test match, the bronze medal that arrived with the 22 June win was quite an achievement.
News of the result quickly went viral in India as celebrities and politicians, including Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju and actors Amitabh Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor and Raveena Tandon, congratulated Bharucha, Nayak and their team-mates on the historic feat.
Former India player and Bollywood star Rahul Bose, meanwhile, implored the country’s media to get behind the team and his call was answered as India’s biggest newspapers and websites – the Times of India, The Hindu and Hindustan Times included – picked up the story.
On their return home, the players were greeted with jubilant celebrations in Bihar and Punjab, videos of which helped to swell the reach of both Rugby India and Asia Rugby on social media.
“We were surprised by the magnitude of the reaction, not by the reaction itself,” Bharucha said.
“Because we knew that once the country wins the word spreads like fire and people get to know about it, but the amount of celebrities and well-known people that were congratulating us over various social media platforms was something that took us by surprise.”
According to Rugby India, the union increased its following on Twitter by 35 per cent in the three days after the victory, while its Instagram page grew by 14 per cent.
In total, the governing body says that posts and videos relating to the Singapore win garnered a social media reach of close to 400,000.
After @RugbyIndia's historic win over Singapore in the 15s game, learn more about one of the key figures in the team Sweta Shahi and her incredible rugby journey. #Unstoppable #WomenInRugby #TryAndStopUs— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 25, 2019
Read more: https://t.co/yLWqBKmTmV pic.twitter.com/KCKKxsXbaF
For Asia Rugby the total reach was 1.7 million, which according to a spokesperson is “much, much bigger” than would be expected for a single match.
“We’re pretty pleased firstly with the way the girls have performed and what they’ve achieved,” Rugby India General Manager Nasser Hussain said.
More than cricket
“In a short span of a year they’ve managed to register their first win in only their fourth ever international match, so, it’s been incredible in terms of their commitment and the work that’s gone in.
“It’s been really captured and picked up and shared quite a bit, by not just the publications but also the sports ministry, a few celebrities and things like that. So people have taken a lot of notice of it, which is really good. All credit to the girls for their hard work.”
The impact that India’s victory has had is even more impressive given that it came at a time when attention was focused on England, where Virat Kohli and Co were contesting the Cricket World Cup.
Like the nation’s female hockey players, India women’s exploits with an oval ball have proved there is room for more than one sport in the country’s affections. Hussain hopes that reach can be translated into awareness.
“We’re very happy that the sport has got a bit of traction now,” he said.
“Amitabh Bachchan has 37.7 million followers on Twitter. He put a message out, which is great because people do take notice.
“I mean, the most often reaction we get when we go into different circles and we say ‘Oh, we’re involved in rugby’ is ‘Oh, we didn’t know India played rugby’.
“And hopefully it feels like this will change that perception.”
The squad has regrouped for a training camp this week ahead of the Asia Rugby Women’s Sevens Trophy next month, and Bharucha believes that 15s success “has set this benchmark in general for the country’s performance”.
Rugby India, meanwhile, has begun talks with Springbok legend Botha over a more long-term agreement.
Hussain is aware that India – in women’s and men’s, sevens and 15s – needs greater exposure at international level but he believes events of the weeks since Nayak dissected the posts in the Philippines prove there is an appetite for rugby in the country.
“Just with this one win and a couple of the videos that were shared, you see the amount of buzz around it. We’ve not even scratched the surface with that and it’s pretty significant already,” he said.
“So, there is a lot that is out there that we can tap into, and it’s just a matter of time that we start doing that on an ongoing basis and then a lot of these girls will probably become celebrities in their own right.
“And that’s what you need for a sport to grow – especially in a country like India.”
With heroes like Vahbiz Bharucha, Sumitra Nayak and Sweta Shahi – one of the Unstoppables in World Rugby's Women in Rugby campaign – to look up to, the future looks bright for women's rugby in particular in India.