Kochi: In the past few years, an oval ball has been flying over Kerala’s sports landscape, without making much noise. The sports-loving youth of the state have found a new interest in rugby, the game known for its aggressive tackling and offensive tactics, courtesy the 35th National Games held in Kerala in 2015. The hosts got a chance to play rugby in the tournament and the women’s team went on to win bronze, inspiring many to pursue the game.
This year, in the 37th Games held in Goa, Kerala were the only south Indian team whose men’s and women’s rugby teams qualified for the event. The men’s team ended up fifth and women’s finished sixth. Besides this, the state teams have won medals in around 10 national events at various levels in the recent past.
The State Rugby Association, which got recognised by the Kerala State Sports Council (KSSC) in 2018, has been at the forefront of the mission to popularise the game in the state, organising events and facilitating training.
There are over 110 rugby clubs, including school teams, in the state now, according to the state association.
“Rugby was in Kerala at least for the past 30 years, however, the people started to pay attention to the game mostly after the 2015 National Games here. Ever since then, we have been aggressively trying to promote the sport at the grassroots level with a focus on schools and colleges. Now, we have registered rugby associations in all 14 districts. Each district has at least eight clubs, including school teams,” Jayakrishnan R, secretary, State Rugby Association, told Onmanorama.
R Vishnu Raj, a player-turned-coach, said there has been an increased enthusiasm among youngsters to practise and play rugby of late. “I shifted my focus from kabadi to rugby because I was attracted by its combat nature. I think youth are interested in the sports for the same reason. It’s a game with much potential in a state like Kerala where football is already popular,” Vishnu, who heads the Department of Physical Education at Universal Engineering College, Vallivattom, Thrissur, said.
A native of Kollam, Vishnu Raj was selected to attend the national rugby camp, He was a member of the Calicut University team which won silver in the All India Inter-University Championships in 2021. He is also the coach of both the men’s and women’s teams of Thrissur. He has also trained the students of Calicut University for two years.
At Universal College, he trains around 15 students regularly. The coaching is given in two sessions in the morning and evening. The college bears all the expenses of the students receiving training. One of them has attended the Under-20 Indian camp.
The college recently hosted selection trials for the students under the Kerala Technological University and also conducted a camp for the selected players.
Kerala’s efforts to promote rugby has received international support also. In July, 2022, Andrea Moretti, a former Italian rugby union player and an assistant coach of Italy, was in Kozhikode to interact with the Kerala team ahead of the National Games. In 2016, French player Joseph Campana held a camp in Kollam which was attended by around 500 children, Jayakrishnan said.
Jayakrishnan said lack of proper grounds for practice is a major concern when it comes to rugby in Kerala. “The only full-fledged rugby stadium we have is in Kollam. Often teams practise on beaches to avoid injuries from falls. Absence of international coaching is also a drawback,” he said.
The state association is also trying to include the game in the school games and among the sports disciplines whose winners are eligible for reservation in the recruitments by the Public Service Commission (PSC). The aim is to woo more children and youth into the game with rewards in the form of grace marks in board exams and job opportunities.
The KSSC has already moved a proposal to the state government to include rugby among the sports events considered for PSC reservations. “We submitted the proposal in January and awaiting the government’s reply,” A Leena, secretary, KSSC, said.