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Story of a rugby fan from India

Will Richie lift the Cup again? (AFP PHOTO / Marty Melville)
Roar Guru
11th July, 2015
89
2849 Reads

Yes, you read that right – a rugby fan from India.

I’m sure plenty of you would classify an Indian rugby fan among beings such as the Loch Ness monster, the Abominable Snowman, and Slenderman, and who would blame you?

After all, keeping the Calcutta Cup aside, what is the connection between the land of the Kama Sutra and men with odd shaped balls?

Yet here I am, no more mythical than your average 19-year old. I assure you, I am not some inter-dimensional traveller from a parallel universe where Sachin Tendulkar is the world’s greatest scrum-half.

So what has brought about this anomaly of nature? How did I get hooked on to the game they play in heaven?

In one word – television. In a few more words – the broadcast of the 2011 Rugby World Cup on television, in India. And being the sports-crazy freak that I am, that oval ball and those rectangular bodies crashing into each other aroused my curiosity.

I had always been obsessed with sports. During my fledgling years in the United States, baseball and basketball had a Brazilian jiu-jitsu type grip over my young, impressionable mind. I was enthralled by the Chicago Cubs and Chicago Bulls, and it is perhaps a nod to me being Indian that cricket’s American cousin was the sport I most enjoyed.

And after I returned to India, cricket filled the void left by the two sports being taken away from me. It wasn’t really hard, you see – your chances of avoiding cricket in India are about as good as a prop not named Matt Dunning nailing a 40-metre drop goal.

Pretty slim.

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Later football (of the round ball variety) managed to do the unthinkable – knock cricket off the podium. Okay that may be an exaggeration, since many youngsters in India follow football as fervently as they do cricket. But cricket never goes away, just like the Crusaders from the Finals. Oh wait…..

But I digress. It all kicked off with the All Blacks playing Tonga. Such is the reach of the All Blacks, even we Indians who have no clue about the game know who the All Blacks are. And by a stroke of luck, I managed to witness Richard Kahui, Israel Dagg and co. help New Zealand to a 41-10 victory.

I could hardly make any sense of the game, but it had ensured that I’d come back for more.

The second match I recall following was the Springboks running riot against Namibia by 87-0. As the Proteas are my favourite cricket team, I had an easy choice for team to root for.

The bloated scoreline, the fact that they were defending champs, plus having a player who shared his name with both Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn (come on, surely I wasn’t the only one) convinced me that I had made the right choice. Only later did I realise that the Boks aren’t known for playing champagne rugby, and that Namibia can make any team look other-worldly.

Namibia versus India will be an interesting match-up.

By the time the knockout stages rolled out, I had a working knowledge of the game, enough to enjoy each game. And there were some classics – most notably the England versus France quarter-final and the final itself. Alas the Wallabies put paid to South Africa’s chances, and a forward pass – one of the only rules I knew of even before I watched rugby – denied Pat Lambie a game-changing try, much to my consternation.

Nevertheless, I was smitten. Rugby had gained another fan.

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There were many challenges I faced to keep following the game – none greater than understanding the rules and nuances, a process that took me over two years of watching matches on YouTube and numerous Google searches. Yet I still scratch my head when a scrum penalty is given – but hey, who doesn’t?

Another difficulty was getting to watch live games on television. While watching the third place playoff game between Australia and Wales, the realisation that I may not get to watch rugby again for four years dawned upon me.

Luckily for me though, it seems that Rugby World Cup 2011 generated enough ratings for a different sports channel to get rights to broadcast the Six Nations, Rugby Championship and two weekly Super Rugby games – plus finals, which have been broadcast each year since 2012.

Even the Lions Tour was broadcast, which had me overjoyed.

And one of the most significant hurdles was – or rather is – the fact that I’m alone. There is literally not a single person I know who follows rugby. I tried to convert my friends some time ago, but after showing initial signs of promise, their interest waned faster than Israel Folau’s interest in AFL.

Every time I end up telling someone I like rugby, looks of amazement follow, if they can even understand that it isn’t American football I’m talking about as most Indians are unable to distinguish between rugby and American football. “You’re the only person I know who likes rugby” is a familiar refrain.

And thus, I have never played rugby, which saddens me since the greatest joy of rugby lies in playing. However I’ve always been more of a sports follower and less of a player – the type of guy who takes vicarious pleasure in watching others’ feats of strength and/or skill.

I haven’t played cricket for many a year now and I don’t feel compelled to either. I’m a rather average footballer, although in my dreams, I regularly score the winner in a Champions League final for Manchester United, and then repeat the feat with Stoke City.

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Plus, since my body shape resembles a goal-post rather than a full-back, I think I’m just fine on the couch rather than the field for now.

Despite all these difficulties, I have remained a passionate follower of rugby union over these years. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I’ve been exposed to every detail about this great game.

From the epic 1999 semi-final to Munster’s miracle versus Gloucester, from Bill McLaren’s dulcet tones to Gordon Bray exclaiming “It’s raining tries!”

From yesteryear legends like Colin Meads, Ken Catchpole, Danie Craven, Jack Kyle, Barry John and others to Brian O’Driscoll, Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Shane Williams. From Carisbrook to Cardiff Arms Park, from Jim Telfer’s Everest speech to George Gregan mouthing “four more years”.

From Gareth Edwards versus the All Blacks in 1974, to the “Try from the end of the world” 20 years later versus the same opposition, these four years have introduced me to a whole new world. And also to rugby league, but that’s a story for another day.

And of course, I would be remiss not to mention The Roar, and all you Roarers who make this site so special. Wonderful contributors like Brett McKay, Spiro, David Lord, Diggercane, Kia Kaha, Harry Jones, Armand van Zyl, and numerous others – along with the incredibly astute Scott Allen, who sadly is no longer a part of The Roar.

Finally, the sagacious Biltongbek, who has thankfully returned, have all deeply enriched my knowledge and also improved my writing skills – so much so that I was inspired to one day write for The Roar – and that day has arrived!

So why am I writing this now? Well because the tournament that kick-started this love affair, the quadrennial gathering of the rugby world in celebration of the sport we all love – the Rugby World Cup – is returning.

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I don’t doubt that it will be broadcast here in India – they even broadcast the League World Cup, and most Indians don’t even know such a sport exists. The newspapers were so incredulous that they listed the final as Rugby: World League Cup Final – Australia versus New Zealand, 8pm.

And hopefully, like it did for one curious Mumbaikar four years ago, it will manage to captivate more Indians with that mix of brain and brawn that makes our sport so unique, and by 2016 I won’t have the singular privilege of being “the only Indian who follows rugby”.

Or maybe it will be a slugfest filled with rolling mauls and collapsed scrums and we’ll all get bored to death.

Let’s hope we don’t have any more of that!

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