A glimpse of the rugby action at Kidderpore on Tuesday. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta
Nawab Ali Park in Kidderpore came alive to the sound of children’s voices on Tuesday morning as the Royal Air Force Rugby Sevens team rounded off their city tour by conducting the RAF Spitfires Khelo Rugby Tournament.
The children, trained by city club Jungle Crows, which is behind the Khelo Rugby programme, represented the eight teams that vied for top honours.
They had also received training from the 12-member Spitfires squad, which flew down from the UK a week ago with the express purpose of reaching out to underprivileged children through the game and giving them something to smile about.
“We have been coaching, working on rugby basics and passing on tricks to these kids. The trip to Calcutta exceeded all our expectations,” said flying officer Lloyd Owen, running across the field and keeping time for the matches that were happening on two pitches simultaneously.
With names like Brooklyn Bears, Howrah Panthers, Kasia Bagan Leopards, Hyde Road Lions, Bijoy Basu Cheetahs, Salt Lake Sharks, Nawab Ali Rhinos and Bhawani Bhavan Tigers, the teams were up for the scrum and scrimmage.
They were playing tag rugby, the milder form of touch rugby, but the children in their enthusiasm occasionally ended up tackling each other.
“Tackling… that’s the best part of rugby, I love the marpit,” said 12-year-old Mala Mallick, a slip of a girl from a Bhowanipore slum, all smiles at the chance to play with the oval ball, that too with boys her age.
Arjun Mallick, also 12, has fallen in love with the game after being introduced to it a few months ago. “I watch rugby matches on TV at home. My favourite player is Frédéric Michalak of France.”
Cheering from the sidelines was the British deputy high commissioner to eastern India, Sanjay Wadvani. “This is a great opportunity for the children. Thankfully it’s not raining this time. It was all muddy during the Spitfires tour last year,” he said.
The Bhawani Bhavan Tigers eventually took home the trophy beating the Hyde Road Lions.
Did training by the Spitfires help? “They taught us many, many tricks,” said eight-year-old Mohammed Sameer of the victorious team with a naughty grin on his face.
Even those who did not make a headway into the tournament were not disheartened. “I used to go to school, return home, work and go for tuitions. The day would end with a game of hide and seek. Now, during rugby camps, we head straight for training from school. Even my mother encourages me,” said 11-year-old Jyoti Kumari Paswan of the Howrah Panthers. She has been playing the game for the past two months.
For the Spitfires, the week was hectic but fantastic. Squadron leader Tim Barlow said: “We haven’t had much of a rest in between all the coaching, socialising and training. But the kids are having so much of fun that it is a real pleasure just to be involved in such a programme. We hope to come back next year.”
Jungle Crows manager Abhishek Singh said: “Each child who came here also made new friends from another part of the city with the knowledge that they all belong to one big family, that of Khelo Rugby.”