Target LA: Seven-year plan for India rugby sevens team to earn Olympics spot
Rugby India has put in place a graded stipend scale for its players. If there is a camp lasting five weeks, it begins with a payout of Rs. 300 a day and ends with the tournament where a player gets Rs. 1500 a day.
If Wrestling Federation of India’s misdirected furies, aimed at elite athletes and private organisations caused gloom over medieval management of Indian sport, it’s best to look away. Towards best practices being adopted in some corners of Indian sport where mileage and eyeballs are so scant that its CEO laughs, saying his sport takes the Odisha tourism tagline “close to heart – India’s best kept secret,” seriously. The CEO is a former India rugby captain, Nasser Hussain, who leads Rugby India with a single mission in mind—to take the sevens team to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.
This has meant working backwards and completing a range of tasks today. From hiring an elite South African coaching team, to recce trips to sort out Indian food supplied before every overseas tournament, finding fitting rugby boots for junior girls, sorting out supplies of towels, mosquito repellent, toothpaste and everything in between. And crash pads and tackle bags for training, injury-focused sports insurance, parent outreach, pushing for reserved slots in school and college admissions and even jobs. As John McEnroe would not say, they are being very serious.
There’s a plan in place, a seven-year plan, says Rahul Bose, Indian Rugby Football Union member, former rugby international, and head of the sponsorship and product committee. The world may know Bose first as an actor but along with Hussain, he was in the Indian rugby team that made its international debut in 1998. Every short cut those teammates took during the first decade of Indian rugby is what the current IRFU board wants to avoid while putting together a team ready for LA2028.
Listening to Hussain and Bose talk is reassuring because Rugby India has players at the centre of their detailing and execution. It is the way professional sport is run worldwide, that can be run even in India, even with its myriad hierarchies, social obstacles and financial constraints. What sports administration shows through its functioning is not just efficiency or profitability, but intention and focus.
Hussain says, “It helps in being a player, you can sit down and think back of what we didn’t have and what we would have liked and make that sort of wish list we can provide to the next generation of player.” In 2020, Rugby India signed an agreement with the Odisha government around its men’s and women’s teams. Bose said when they met the Odisha chief minister and his team of sports bureaucrats “it was very clear, they asked us, ‘what do you want the money for?’ We said we want the money to pay the players for the first time in our lives.”
Rugby India has put in place a graded stipend scale for its players. If there is a camp lasting five weeks, say, it begins with a payout of Rs. 300 a day and ends with the tournament where a player gets Rs. 1500 a day. “So a player can walk away after 40 days of commitment with about Rs. 40,000. It’s not much but it’s a start.”
The payout is over and above the facilities given in the camp, from accommodation, food and a separate travel allowance to get to the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) campus and Kalinga Institute of Indutrial Technology (KIIT). Hussain marvels at the field. “Actually a dedicated rugby field for us. With goalposts. I don’t remember a single camp I went to that had goal posts on a rugby field.” Bose adds, “With markings!”
In camp, the Indians will work with South African rugby legend Naas Botha alongside sevens coach Ludwiche Van Deventer (forward) and Jannie Brooks (strength and conditioning). The team’s sponsors have come from all sources, Rugby India’s LA2028 blueprint extending formal agreements, like with their oldest sponsor Societe Generale; crystallising informal partnerships, like with KISS/KIIT through Odisha state support and the Abhinav Bindra Target Performance centre in Bhubaneswar. Plus, there are sponsorships in cash from air transport company Blade and in kind from sports nutrition providers Fast and Up.
Currently the U-18 girls are in camp at KIIT, training for the Asian U-18 in Uzbekistan in the third week of September. The camp for men and women will begin soon for an October-end tournament weekend—four tournaments across five months—after which the domestic season will kick in, the calendar turned on its head by Covid. The U-18s boys and girls are key to LA2028 mission, and currently Rugby India’s plan is to find ways to ensure their “stickability” with rugby. So, working with parents, ensuring sustained studies, jobs are all required on the way to shooting for a spot in the Olympics.
Rugby India has 18000 registered players from its national tournaments and Bose says, “Rugby today is the largest unknown sport in the country because it’s not on mass media, not on TV. It’s in 270 districts, 35 percent of the country.” He promises a big jump in media news over the next 12 months. But what about the toothpaste and towels? "That’s part of a care package players receive when they get into camp.”