Gone are the days when India related the sport of rugby solely to actor Rahul Bose, due to his affiliation with the country’s exceedingly popular film industry. There has been growing international representation for the sport as the national team is regularly participating in tournaments such as the Asian Five Nations.
Leading the charge is India’s first ever player to ply his trade at a foreign club, Hrishikesh Pendse.
The 28-year old is part of the squad at renowned Japanese top league stalwarts Suntory Sungoliath. Pendse’s meteoric rise has seen him brush shoulders with world cuppers like South Africa’s Schalk Burger and Fourie Du Preez.
However, the journey towards the packed stadium of Fuchu has seen him chart a route often not taken by Indian sportspersons. “I was not introduced to the sport of rugby till I was 17 years of age. But, I had a history of playing combat sports, such as Judo, which I played for 10 years,” says Pendse.
Journey to Japan
The 2010 Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi proved to be the perfect platform for India’s Captain Courageous. An otherwise forgettable campaign saw the national team crash to three straight defeats at the hands of South Africa, Wales and Tonga.
However, Pende’s talent was spotted by New Zealand’s national team selectors and he was offered a chance to play for the North Shore rugby club.
The move saw Pendse switch base from traditional Indian rugby outfit Bombay Gymkhana to Davenport, Auckland in the country, albeit as an amateur player. “I won the players choice player of the year there and received a lot of accolades there. This led to my trial period at Japanese side Kobe Steelers. Unfortunately, an injury at the time didn’t help my cause,” he said.
This was not his first stint abroad. Pendse has previously donned the jersey for London Scottish Rugby Football Club in 2009.
Problems back home in India
Apart from his domestic prowess, the Mumbai lad has been one of India’s most loyal generals, having served the team for more than a decade. A veteran of three World Cup qualifying campaigns, Pendse feels that rugby in the country has a lot of challenges to overcome.
He says, “India has unfortunately never been flush with money or sponsors. we have had some good years years, where the government has provided aid and some years when sponsors have come on board. But all in all it is fairly erratic.”
“Our federation should receive accolades as it works tirelessly to get our elite teams to tournaments across the world while also providing a sound foundation for the fledgling sport that is rugby in our country,” he adds.
However, owing to India’s vast demographic, it often becomes difficult to set up a national league without adequate sponsorship. According to Pendse, the “vast distances and a lack of sponsorship makes it difficult to conduct a consistent nationwide league. But we do have a nationwide tournament, which has helped in unearthing quality talent.”
A journeyman of sorts, Pendse’s stint across five different foreign clubs has highlighted the importance of Indian participation in foreign leagues.
He thinks it is “integral for rugby players from india to travel overseas and get thrown in the deep end in leagues abroad, learn as much as they can and then return to contribute to their clubs, states and country. Only then with more players being exposed to the rigours of international rugby will there be a raise in the calibre of indian rugby.”
Japan and India: Infrastructural differences
Despite being part of the Asian rugby landscape, India and Japan are very different when it comes to the growth trajectory of the sport.
Nicknamed the Cherry Blossoms, the team in the Land of the Rising Sun has seen a corporate-based drive boost the sport’s credentials, so much so that Japan are currently the highest ranked Asian nation in the sport, taking the 14th spot in the World Rugby rankings as compared to India, who are currently languishing in 74th position.
Pendse is quick to highlight the difference. He said,” It’s different in the fact that there is a corporate structure in Japan which means that companies financially back teams, which leads to a professional set up and in turn leads to a league that attracts the best players in the world. Japan also has provisions for everything: kit, footwear, casual wear, supplements, nutrition, medical, which sometimes gets taken for granted. In India, rugby all you have is the badge on your chest that brings people together.”
He added, “My time in Japan has inculcated a work ethic which I hope to bring to the National team once I return. I hope to be selected on the basis of my contribution to the team and then on my leadership. Once I am in that position, I will try and apply all that I have learned.”
Despite playing with the world’s finest, Pendse is not overawed by the situation. “I feel lucky just to be in their company,” he says. “Fortunately i am not one to get starstruck, so i am not to afraid to pester them with questions. they are very forthcoming with information so it’s great that i am able to get a gauge on how the best in the world go about their business.”
Past and future
During his formative years, Pendse had to choose between being a doctor or a rugby player. He said,”My mum’s a dentist and she wasn’t very happy when I took up rugby. But after I represented India, she’s happy and now even my brother is a part of the India under-19 team.”
Whether India betters its 74th position in the world rankings is something only time can tell. However, with the likes of Hrishikesh Pendse representing the Indian tricolour across the top domestic leagues around the world, the sport of rugby definitely appears to be in safe hands.