“The best is yet to come”: Sanaya Mehta using Capgemini programme to drive change in India

We spoke to the Rugby India vice-president about her love of the game and her participation in the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme.

Sanaya Mehta admits her relationship with rugby was not a case of love at first sight.

On occasion as a child she would watch her father, former Rugby India president Numazar Mehta, return home from matches with bumps and bruises and could not understand why anyone would want to play.

“What kind of crazy game is this?” Mehta (pictured above left) remembers asking herself as Numazar nursed knee and shoulder injuries.

Yet, more than three decades later, rugby would win her over almost instantly when she picked up an oval ball for the first time.

“When I was around 39, I saw girls playing rugby at our local club and I was shocked,” Mehta told World Rugby.

“I’m someone who always fights for equal rights and yet I didn't even think about girls playing rugby!”

Asked if she wanted to play, Mehta jumped at the chance. “I started playing and I enjoyed it from the word go,” she said.

“I was a sprinter in school, so I found it thrilling because you just take the ball and run. You don't have to bounce it and you don’t have to dribble, you just run. I was hooked from the first run.

“Now, I was the one rolling in the mud and diving and playing rugby in the rain and I thought it was the best thing ever!”

Mehta’s only regret now? Leaving it so late to get onto the pitch.

“If I was younger when I started, I could have perhaps played at a higher level,” she added. “But I’ve enjoyed my journey into rugby.”

Family legacy

That voyage now includes a third generation of the Mehta family, as Sanaya plays for the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club alongside her 17-year-old daughter Samara.

“She’s so strong!” Mehta said. “We both sprint together. When we started off, she was a little bit slower than me, so I used to run past her and score a try, which used to infuriate her.

“Now, she’s become faster and so much stronger so when she comes running towards me, I’m petrified, and I’m tempted to run in the opposite direction.

“Because if she catches me, I know she’s going to give me the hardest tackle possible!”

In the eight years since Mehta started playing, her love affair with the game has become about more than family pride though.

Her time is split between her career as a women’s health and wellness coach (her “morning job”), the family outdoor advertising business (her “afternoon job”) and rugby. “The rest of the time I’m with Rugby India,” she explained.

According to Mehta, “the more you put into rugby the more you get out of it” and she has witnessed the impact the game can have since being elected onto the Rugby India board and Asia Rugby sub-committee.

Having played with and against a number of talented players from rural areas of India, Mehta asked herself a question: “If we don’t make sure these talented young sports women reach their full potential and get on the podium, then who else will?”

Rugby revolution

That desire has only been strengthened in the 15 months since she was accepted onto the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme.

Although she initially hesitated about applying, Mehta was convinced to do so by programme alumni Nahid Biyarjomandi and she is glad she did.

“There are so many women from around the world who applied for this and to be selected from amongst them is very special and a great feeling,” she said.

“I was excited to interact with women from around the world because until now my exposure was limited to Asia.

“So, because of a programme like this, I could interact with fellow women leaders in rugby from around the world and it has been a super learning experience.”

Mehta was unable to attend the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Summit in Paris last October but has interacted with the courses available through Capgemini University.

She has also used her Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme funding to make two trips to remote, rural areas of India where the captains of the women’s senior and U18 national teams were raised.

Those trips have shown Mehta how exposing women and girls to rugby at a young age can prove transformative to whole communities.

“Most girls stop playing by the age of 13,” she explained. “When they hit puberty most of them stop playing any sport, forget about rugby.

“Because some of the girls from these underprivileged areas of India have played rugby, not just locally but nationally and internationally, they have inspired a new generation of female rugby players.

“When they return from trips abroad, often with medals, the entire community or village goes through a revolution where girls are allowed to play sport. They’re no longer seen as a weakness but as champions who bring hope for the future.

“They’re not married before they are 18. Instead, they go to college and arm themselves with all the ingredients for a bright future.”

Women in rugby in India have been on an accelerated path over the past 10 years, but Mehta is hopeful the best is still to come.

“Rugby has reached all the parts of the country, but we are still at the early stages. So, we’re at the start of what promises to be an exciting future,” she said.

“What we’re seeing is great, but the story could get so much bigger and so much better. So, it’s a very good start and the possibilities are endless.”

Mehta’s participation in the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme has only strengthened that resolve.

“Rugby is for everyone. That smile we see on the kids’ faces when they’re playing is everything.”

Last updated: Jun 25, 2024, 2:17:11 PM
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