Members of the Royal Air Force Rugby Sevens team play a practice game with children of the Khelo Rugby programme at Rangers Club on Thursday (Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya)
Little Arjun was taking a little breather on the side of the field, oblivious to the rain. Though out of breath, the boy from a Bhowanipore slum had a huge grin on his face. Quite understandable, given that Arjun had just played alongside the Royal Air Force (RAF) Rugby Sevens Team at Rangers Club on the Maidan.
It is to put more such smiles on the faces of kids like Arjun that the RAF team is visiting Calcutta. They will also play in the Calcutta International Sevens Tournament at CC&FC on Saturday and Sunday.
Called the “Spitfires” after their fighter planes, the 12-member RAF team arrived in Calcutta on Tuesday and spent Wednesday visiting localities in Kidderpore, where Calcutta-based rugby club Jungle Crows runs a coaching programme called Khelo Rugby for children of disadvantaged families. The Spitfires are here to coach the kids, play with them, share tips and tricks and are “having a lot of fun,” as Squadron Leader Tim Barlow told Metro after a press meet on Thursday.
This is Barlow’s second trip to Calcutta after September 2011, along with team captain Flight Lieutenant Rory Wood, but the other members of the team are new to the city. “Khelo Rugby is such a wonderful programme and it is so heart-warming to see these kids run, play, jump and laugh. We’ve been to the localities where they stay and so we got an idea of the disadvantages they face each day. We are so glad we came here and the children seem to love to play with us too,” said Barlow.
Flight Lieutenant Kat Falconer, the team physio, was equally impressed with the little kids. “I learnt that they don’t always get the most nutritious diet. I advise them to drink lots of water to keep themselves hydrated when they play rugby,” smiled the pretty lady.
On June 26, the RAF team will organise a Khelo Rugby tournament for the kids, giving them an opportunity to put into practice all that they have learnt from the big, burly men in the past few days. The tourney will be held on Nawab Ali Maidan, opposite CMRI, and over 10 kiddie teams have already signed up.
British deputy high commissioner in eastern India Sanjay Wadvani said such exercises were a part of people-to-people contacts. “UK and India engage at the national level, at the state level, on diplomacy, on business and other facets. But this is a direct contact among people and this runs far deeper,” said Wadvani, himself an under-19 county-level rugby player. “I had to give up when I was 22, because I was posted in China, where there is no rugby,” laughed the deputy high commissioner.
According to Paul Walsh, a former UK diplomat who has made Calcutta his home and started Jungle Crows, such meetings are a great opportunity for the kids. “These guys are like giants to the children. But they really enjoy playing with the big guys. It gives them something to aspire towards, something to dream of and make happen,” said Walsh.
Like Khelo Rugby founder Zaffar Khan, who was, in his own words, “an idle young man in Calcutta” before rugby found him. Today, thanks to this sport, Zaffar is not only travelling the world and coaching young boys in his native Afghanistan but also studying sports management on scholarship in the UK.
Maybe little Arjun is next.