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Rugby scales Pak barrier

Srinagar, Nov. 4: Jammu and Kashmir’s rugby team will leave for Pakistan tomorrow to take part in a weeklong event, opening a new chapter in the state’s sporting ties with the neighbouring country.

Government officials could not remember any team from the state playing in Pakistan before, the deterrents being Islamabad’s claim over Kashmir and unrest in the Valley.

“I don’t think any team from the state ever went to Pakistan before, though Pakistani wrestlers have been coming to the state for the past few years,” state youth services and sports director J.P. Singh said.

Mohammad Iqbal, chairperson of the state rugby association, said the sporting body had received an invite from the non-government organisers of a sport fest in Lahore.

“They approached us through Rugby India, which selected only two teams for participation, one from Jammu and Kashmir and the other from New Delhi,” Iqbal said.

“A team of 12 players and three officials will leave for Pakistan tomorrow. This is the first time we have received an invite from Pakistan. Our team is very excited.”

Altogether, 152 Indians will participate in various disciplines at the November 7-15 Punjab International Sports Festival. The event will feature rugby teams from Uzbekistan, New Zealand and Laos apart from India and Pakistan.

State rugby association patron Sarmad Hafiz said the Jammu and Kashmir team had been playing excellent rugby at the national level and the Pakistani event would give the players international exposure.

“The sporting festival is taking place in the Pakistani state of Punjab and is not being organised by any government there…. Our boys will act as Jammu and Kashmir’s ambassadors in Pakistan,” he said.

Hafiz said the rugby association had been working hard to promote the game in the state, and that the sport had received a fillip after events such as snow rugby were organised recently.

“We have brought rugby coaches from New Zealand and Canada,” he said.

Pakistan, which claims Kashmir is a disputed territory, has in the past opposed New Delhi’s initiatives to host international sporting events in the Valley.

No official Pakistani team has ever visited the state but some wrestlers from across the border have been coming to Jammu’s Katra town from the past few years to participate in a competition held on the foothills of the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine. Their visits, however, have been private initiatives.

Militancy has for long prevented sportsmen and sportswomen even from the rest of India from playing in the Valley, but that too is beginning to change.

The Santosh Trophy, India’s national football championship, was held in the state in 2008. The Valley this year hosted top Indian football clubs, including Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting, for the first time since the Federation Cup of 1986.