The Indian women's rugby team is at a preparatory camp for a tournament they probably won't be going to: the Asian Games.
In the 523-member contingent (276 men, 247 women) across 36 disciplines cleared for participation by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), rugby figures nowhere. Four years ago, the Indian rugby teams were not allowed to travel for the Incheon Games despite meeting the requisite selection criteria for the 2014 Games. This time, yet again, a similar fate possibly awaits them for the August 18-September 2 tournament.
The IOA criteria for individual and team sports is a top-six and top-eight finish respectively at the previous Asian Games or recent Asian competitions.
"Both the men's and women's teams were quarterfinalists at the 2010 Games but we were still not sent to Incheon," says Nasser Hussain, coach of the Indian women's rugby team. "This time again, despite getting an in-principle approval -- and the camp allotment is testament to that approval -- we're again left with no answers, reasoning or clarification [about] being left out of the contingent."
Ironically, the team is currently in Kolkata for an Asian Games camp approved and sanctioned by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and the Sports Authority of India.
The team won silver at the Asian Rugby Sevens in Vientiane in February last year and was invited to participate in the Asian Series, which features the top eight sides, on the basis of that performance. "We did not have the funds to send our team for it," says Hussain. "So we lost out on that chance and the slot was then given to another team."
Bizarrely, while the IOA could find no room for inclusion of disciplines such as football and rugby, little-known sports that which might require a Google search to confirm their existence -- pencak silat (13 men, 9 women), kurash (8 men, 6 women) and sambo (2 men, 4 women) -- have been added. "We have gone by criteria and they have done well in recent Asian events," a senior IOA member said in defence.
It's the first time that these three disciplines have been included in the Asian Games programme. Sambo and pencak silat are forms of martial art while kurash is a folk wrestling style. While the Indian sambo team returned empty-handed, their kurash counterparts won three medals at the Asian Indoor Games in Turkmenistan last year. The pencak silat team won five medals at the Asian Games test event in February. However, none of these sport federations are registered with the IOA, and sambo and kurash are not even recognized by the Sports Ministry. Pencak silat only got its recognition last year.
For the Indian rugby women, who made their international Test debut in June this year in what was their second international tournament in two years, the Asian Games is the most high-profile event. The first time they got an Asian Games entry was in 2006 and the Indian Rugby Football Union ended up paying for the trip from its own pocket. "If they're not on the list announced by IOA, then they're probably not going," sports secretary Rahul Bhatnagar said, holding out little hope.
However, there are no answers yet on why the rugby team was approved for a preparatory camp if there's precious little intention of sending them for the Games.
In their international tournament-starved weeks, days and months, the Asian Games is the rugby girls' biggest stage. "Our calendar and preparations revolve around the Games," says Neha Pardeshi, captain of the women's team. "We waited eight years for this opportunity. It shouldn't be snatched away from us. We're in the camp preparing, hoping and pushing ourselves. We're all hanging in there."