OFFBEAT Though the city has clubs like the Chennai Cheetahs, a lot has to be done to popularise rugby

It is at first an incongruous sight, the group of barefoot men scrambling on the sands of Elliot’s Beach pursuing a rugby ball. But consider this — more than a decade before the Chennai Super Kings appeared in their blinding yellow jerseys, the city had its own rugby team — Chennai Cheetahs. Having been on the radar all these years, the Cheetahs are now ranked second among India’s clubs, and have won the All India Division I title twice in the last six years.

It began quite haphazardly in 1997, when a visiting client from the U.K. taught a group of NIIT employees how to play. The newly-formed team debuted at a major tournament the same year, at the All India Sevens tournament in Delhi, and finished 17th out of 18 teams. Among that pioneering pack of Cheetahs was U. Mohan Krishna, who would in two years’ time become the first president of the Tamil Nadu Rugby Football Union.

“In the only match we won, against Orissa, I scored the first try,” Krishna recollects.

Formal coaching

The Cheetahs fared no better in All India tournaments over the next few years, and this rankled Krishna. “By 2000, we knew we were going (to the All India Division I tournament), getting beaten and coming back,” he says. “We realised that we needed a formal coaching set-up. By the end of 2001, we hired Emil Vartazarian as coach.”

The arrival of the Tehran-born Vartazarian, perhaps India’s best ever rugby player, paid immediate dividends. In 2002 and 2003, the Cheetahs reached the semifinals and in 2004 finally won the Division I title, and repeated the feat two years later.

Alongside that success, rugby was growing in the city and across the rest of South India. To take the sport to schools and colleges, Krishna had set up the South India Rugby Football Association in 2005. A notable success of their programmes was the assimilation of five players from the Anjuman-E-Himayath-E-Islam orphanage into the Cheetahs side. “One of them, Gopi (Balaraman Gopinath), is now part of the Indian team,” says Krishna.

But the pace of development was slow. And so, last year, Krishna hired Mike Pirrit, a former New Zealand Police player who had helped the Cheetahs to its first title in 2004, as Regional Development Manager for South India. Backed by funds from the International Rugby Board, the two now have lofty ambitions for rugby’s growth.

“The problem here is you’ve got people who are maybe 22 to 25 starting rugby for the first time,” says Pirrit. “They’re trying to learn a sport where, say, a New Zealander has been playing since he’s five. So what we need is more 13- and 14-year-olds playing the sport. So we’re looking at creating a good mix of school, college and orphanage teams, and from there the cream can rise to the top.”

The next few months will be hectic, says Pirrit. “At the moment, we’ve got 29 teams — a mixture of police teams, clubs, colleges and schools. By February it will be 50-60, and then we’ve got places like Pondicherry, Salem, Ooty, Mysore — we’re going to have rugby teams in all of these areas. So again, we’ve got the problem of — great, that’s more teams, but they’ll be playing rugby for the first time. So we have to develop coaches, either import them, or get coaches from Chennai to go there.”

So besides the existing Rugby Development Officers based in Chennai, Pirrit has got in touch with rugby contacts from New Zealand. “I mailed a bunch of coaches asking if they’d be interested in coming here and helping with the project, and within ten minutes six of them responded, all wanting to know more.”

But while the IRB will fund coaching personnel, SIRFA will need to find sponsors for its other requirements.

And so Krishna recently stepped down as SIRFA president to focus on Transworld India Rugby, a company he’s formed to raise funds for rugby through events.

“Over the coming months, we’re going to have a fund-raising ball, and a touch rugby tournament featuring some well-known cricketers and actors,” says Pirrit. “After that, we’re also looking at staging boxing events with some of India’s best boxers, maybe even bring in some professional heavyweights.”

“So while we’re looking to raise funds through these events, we also welcome sponsors to, say, fund the rugby programme in one school, providing kits and equipment for the children, as well as food,” says Krishna. “Nutrition is a major concern. A lot of schools we’re coaching in are corporation schools, and unless their food requirements are taken care of, the project will fall flat on its face.”

Finding proper training grounds is another issue — it’s dogged even the Cheetahs, who still train at the beach. “We (Chennai Cheetahs) have achieved whatever success we’ve had despite these shortcomings,” says Krishna.

“We’ve tried to get Nehru Stadium for practice — we got in touch with the SDAT, we said we’ll either use it first thing in the morning, or we’ll pay to use the lights at night, but they’ve said no, they’ll only allow football,” says Pirrit.

“So if someone’s willing to lease us a ground, that’s great,” says Krishna. “Or we’re looking at a sharing arrangement with school grounds, where we’ll install a grass pitch and pay for its maintenance. Apart from rugby, the school can use the ground for other sports too. By December, we hope to have identified four or five such grounds. If we have that, we have in place the infrastructure for rugby’s sustained growth.”

KARTHIK KRISHNASWAMY