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USA rugby head coach Mike Friday believes India can break new ground in women’s sevens format

Could India participate at a rugby World Cup? Or win a medal at the Olympics in this contact sport? If Rugby India’s vision for the next decade holds true, this could indeed turn out to be a reality.

Rugby sevens, which is a T20-esque format of rugby, made its debut at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. This format involves teams made up of seven players playing seven-minute halves, instead of the usual 15 players playing 40-minute halves.

Fiji won the gold medal on the men’s side in rugby sevens while the women’s gold was clinched by Australia. Rugby India, which was established in 1998 as the sole governing body for the sport of rugby in India, is attempting to develop and popularise this shorter format of the game in the county.

With rugby being included in the School Games Federation of India (SGFI) for all age-groups, the sport is now being played in some 100 schools all over the country. And the first step towards that Olympic gold medal is qualifying for the Youth Olympics.

The Indian U-17 girls’ rugby team has been preparing since a year to participate for the Asian Qualifier to be held in Dubai on 29th and 30th November. A national selection pre-camp was held in Kolkata in October where 40 girls from all over the country participated. The best 20 players were shortlisted for a national training camp in Mumbai.

Joining the training camp was noted rugby coach Mike Friday, who is currently the head coach of the USA men’s rugby sevens team. His past record includes coaching successful teams like England and Kenya, and he was in Mumbai to share his expertise with the Indian camp.

If you are wondering why Rugby India is investing so much time and money into the U-17 girls’ rugby team, there is sound reasoning behind this move. With rugby, India are breaking new ground. This is a sport that is completely alien in our country, and we have very little experience with it.

Targetting and developing the sport from the grassroots means that the federation is trying to build a solid foundation first. And the men’s game already features a small group of nations as heavyweights.

“Rugby Seven’s is a sport that can become popular in India because it is for everybody. On the women’s side, there is little legacy in the game. India can catch up very quickly and compete with the best. With the size of the population, numbers are on your side,” Friday told Firstpost in an interview at the Bombay Gymkhana in Mumbai.

“I have been brought here by the Olympic Channel. They brought me here to help and develop rugby in India, to try and see if we can make a difference in a short period of time before they (Indian junior girls’ team) compete in this tournament,” he added.

The Asian Qualifier features 12 countries from Asia including Japan, Laos, Kazakhstan, Iran, Honk Kong, Sri Lanka, Philippines, China, Thailand, Malaysia, India and hosts UAE. India are in Pool A with Japan and Laos.

Japan, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan are the leading favourites to win this tournament and qualify for the Youth Olympics. For India, a fourth-placed finish or higher would be a positive result and indicate that some progress has been made.

When asked what the Indian team’s target should be in Dubai, Friday had a very interesting take to offer. “For the team, the target is to win every game. Genuinely, that is the target. If they achieve that, it’ll be great.  For me, all I care about is that they are smiling and having fun. And two, that they do their best.

“Winning is a by-product. Just because you win, it doesn’t mean you have done your best. Just because you lose, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t done your best. I think the important thing is that they represent themselves, and do the best to represent the shirt and the flag that they wear,” he said.

For rugby, which is a contact sport where players need to tackle each other, physical strength is one of the key assets. And this could turn out to be the biggest shortcoming for India. As the recently-concluded FIFA U-17 World Cup showed, the Indian kids were miles behind in terms of physical stature and build.

But Friday feels that India can still succeed despite the physical drawbacks. “Their biggest challenge is the physicality part because the reality is they are a small team. But they are brave, and they are energetic, which is their biggest asset. We have got to encourage and create that belief and inner confidence and that warrior mentality that they can go out there and win. They are more than capable of doing it.

We have worked on some technical things around their body heights, to allow them to make the most of their size and their speed. Now, we need to see whether they are able to translate that into the competition. There are a lot of big teams, a lot of physical teams. But the girls are excited to take on this challenge,” Friday explained.

Despite India’s embryonic stage in this sport, Friday is confident that we can compete at the top level in the next five years. He insists that investment in coaches and infrastructure is the need of the hour.

“They need to increase the awareness around the game. But more importantly, they need to invest in the infrastructure and the coaches to train the players. If you create a quality coaching network, that means you can hit and spread to more players, which then would grow your talent pool.

If you teach them properly — proper techniques in all of the core skills, rugby EQ and rugby understanding, then all of a sudden you have this swell of players to pick from. And with a swell of players, you have competition. Competition raises standards, which allows you to compete with the rest of the world,” he told Firstpost.

And how do we overcome the physical barrier? Friday explained that this sport isn’t just about size, but about strength and power. “With women, it’s very different to men. You need sport nutrition, supplementation, but there’s also strength and conditioning, and investing in proper gym programmes to develop players.

You need to develop their core strength, flexibility and power. It’s not about your size, it’s about your power to your size ratio. It’s not about having big muscles or bulky build, it’s about maximising.

If you look at the world circuit, the female players are athletic looking. They are not muscular women, they are powerful and elegant women,” Friday said.

For the Asian Qualifier in Dubai, a team of 12 girls has been selected after the national camp — four of them hail from West Bengal, five from Odisha, two from New Delhi and one from Bihar.

Most of these girls come from impoverished backgrounds and have seen a lot of struggle at a very young age. But Friday believes that their upbringing can be turned into an asset.

“The resilience in these young ladies is phenomenal, because of their upbringing and what they have had to cope with at various times of their lives. You don’t want to lose that resilience, you want to harness that ability to maximise their physical development

At the end of my week’s training, if they feel they are better rugby players, then I have done my job. I am teaching them how to manage what contact there is, which is important for their size; how they can be efficient and effective; their rugby understanding of how to use the whole pitch, and the importance of basics and the things they need to focus on in order to practice perfect technique,” Friday concluded.

Now it’s over to these young girls, as they take their first baby steps and represent India in Dubai.

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