RAF pilots' rural rugby mission

Jungle Crows project makes dreams and memories

By Ayan Paul in Calcutta
  • Published 10.03.18
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Bruce Bucknell, the British deputy high commissioner, with members of the Royal Air Force Rugby Sevens team. Picture by B. Halder

Calcutta: Jake Lovatt, a young flying officer with the Royal Air Force (RAF), couldn't have imagined that the best memories of his first trip to India would be of spending a couple of nights on the floor of a church and playing rugby with kids on the bank of a river in a remote Bengal village.

Jake is part of the Royal Air Force Rugby Sevens team currently in the city to support Khelo Rugby, a sports-for-development project run by Jungle Crows. The RAF rugby squad, known as Spitfires, will also compete in the Calcutta Rugby 7s tournament this weekend.

Members of the British team, named after the iconic fighter aircraft that was used during the Second World War, had visited Saraswatipur, a tiny village in Jalpaiguri district, to meet children who are part of the Khelo Rugby project and share some tips with them.

Jake, who had joined the RAF three years ago, described it as an "incredible" experience. "The kids are so enthusiastic. They are focused on their game and playing with them on silver sand was great fun. Most of them are very skilful," said Jake, who is keen to visit Saraswatipur again.

Squadron leader Tim Barlow was amazed to see the boys and girls at the Khelo Rugby camp oozing confidence. "When I first came here in 2011, Jungle Crows had just started its journey and the children didn't know what to expect. They are pretty confident now. They are more educated. They know about health and hygiene, the importance of teamwork and community spirit. Their skill levels are now really high in rugby. Three girls whom I coached five years ago in Saraswatipur have already played for India," said Tim, who is also the head coach and director of the RAF rugby team.

This is Tim's seventh trip to the city and he has become an expert on its street food.

Jamie Douglas, who has been with the RAF for nine years, first came here four years ago and has seen the remarkable difference made by Khelo Rugby. "The girls who started playing rugby in villages four years ago are now playing for India. It's incredible," said Jamie, who also marvelled at the view of the Kanchenjungha from Tiger Hill in Darjeeling.

Bruce Bucknell, the British deputy high commissioner, said reaching out to young people was very important and the RAF rugby team had done exactly that. "I want to thank them for going to north Bengal and spending time with the children of the Jungle Crows project. Jungle Crows has done some fantastic work with young people across the state. There's nothing like team sport to bring people together," he said.

Paul Walsh, who founded Jungle Crows, regards giving children choices and opportunities as the key. In Saraswatipur, girls failing to clear the Class X exams was common until the Jungle Crows scholarship programme was launched. "Now, many girls are clearing the exams, opting for higher studies and building careers of their choice," Walsh said.