A change maker in India’s Rugby Union scene : Akash Balmiki

By Indranil Halder

“It take alot more than just skills to play the sport rugby…

You need to be fearless…

you need to be motivated and you need to be in love with the game…” says Akash’s Facebook post. A rugby union player, who just represented West Bengal against Delhi in Rugby India’s 2022 Senior Nationals

Rugby7s semifinal. A championship held at Pataliputra Sports Complex, Kankarbagh,Patna, Bihar.

Rugby Union & India:

In 1823, rugby as a sport started from Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, United Kingdom.

In 1872, rugby was played between players representing England and Scotland in Calcutta on Christmas Day and continued.

In 1968, Rugby India was founded as Indian Rugby Football Union. It is affiliated with World Rugby.

In 1998, Rahul Bose ( actor, director and social activist) was part of the first Indian national rugby team. Played in Asian Rugby Football Union Championship. Played for India for 11 years. Retired in 2009. Remains with Indian Rugby Board. Working to popularising rugby.

In 2022, a movie named JungleCry, about twelve underprivileged orphan kids representing Indian rugby union in the World Cup, United Kingdom is now released.

How has rugby progressing in India?

Rugby union and Indian city of Kolkata are synonymous. Played since 1870s. Today there are two Calcutta Cups to glorify the winners of rugby union tournaments. One competed since 1879. The cup is decorated with cobras and an elephant. Played between Scotland , England and Ireland in Europe. While the other is Kolkata’s own Calcutta Cup and is competed each year by eight Kolkata local clubs. According to Bangkok Post article titled, ‘ Kolkata: birthplace of the Calcutta Cup, and still India’s rugby hub’ – “Today rugby is played by home-grown sides like the Calcutta Football and Cricket Club (CCFC, founded in 1792), the police, La Martinere Old Boys and a team from the city’s Armenian community took over.” 188-year-old Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (ACPA) along with the Davidian Girls’ School is an integral part of Kolkata’s rugby union screen and India’ sporting heritage.

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In 2004, Indian rugby union heritage gained momentum with the arrival of former UK diplomat-turned-Kolkata resident Paul Walsh. Established Jungle Crows. Part of Khelo Rugby project. Jungle Crows trains kids from financially and socially disadvantaged Indian population. With power of rugby union and enthusiastic team of recruits, Paul is bringing positive changes to many Indian subcontinent lives. Khelo Rugby home ground is Maidan(Central Park of Kolkata), where kids from various communities are seen learning and playing rugby union. Under Paul’s guidance, Akash started playing an active role to train himself with the core skills of rugby union and also encourage round the years participations in Khelo Rugby camps. Camps are for both boys and girls.

In 2018, GQ magazine in India, ran a story titled, ‘Kolkata-based Jungle Crows Foundation is using rugby to empower youth from disadvantaged communities’ and Akash was happy to state that he was the first in his family to go overseas playing rugby union. Even with such inspiring stories, great history and heritage connections between rugby union and Kolkata, natives of Bengal still chose to neglect the game and it’s benefits.

How is Akash’s participation helping rugby union in India?

Firstly, Akash Balmiki, is an amazing rugby player. Even with a life full of underprivileged challenges, he grew up playing rugby union. Made rugby related travels to many countries including New Zealand, United Kingdom and Dubai. Represented India in Asian Five Nation championship under nineteen (u19)and in Rugby 7s. Coaches hundreds of kids( both boys & girls) in the Khelo Rugby Community. Trains under seventeen (U17)boys for rugby and All India National Champions.

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Himself won 2018 Calcutta Cup Championship. The photo of him, holding the sensational Kolkata’s own Calcutta Cup(one of several local and national competitions in India) trophy, seemed to tells the world, one of the many success stories Paul Walsh had managed to achieve with rugby union at grass-root level in India.

Currently, associated with Khelo Rugby(part of the World Rugby’s spirit of rugby program), rugby based project headquartered in Kolkata, India. Aiming to popularise rugby union with thousands of underprivileged children in Indian city of Kolkata and other parts of India. During Covid pandemic, Akash continued to play the sports with a “pandemic-compliant” protocol that included regular use of disinfectant, less physical contact and increased trainings for core strength.

In 2021, when Rugby India made plan for the growth of rugby union in India. The first camp was in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. Akash was selected for Rugby India camp. He attended the camp as over 18 years of age National Team player. Akash feels rugby union is becoming popular.

Time has come for the sport to be continually supported by both local and national governments. Currently, silver medal winning performance of the Indian women’s rugby team’s at the 2017 Asia Sevens Championship has highlighted the sport for national interest.

Today, in India, like Akash, there are over 30,000 players connected to rugby union sports. And institutions such as Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences – (KISS) ( an NGO in India, headquartered in Bhubaneswar, Odisha) had provided over 15,000 kids with clothing, schooling and introduction to the game of rugby union. Already, such initiatives saw 25 students from KISS represent Indian national rugby teams.

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To continue progress, Rugby Union in India needs well trained locally experienced rugby player/coach/Jungle Crows alumnus like Akash to highlight diversity and inclusion, teach first hand rugby union skills to kids and inherit the idea that with any upbringing in the Indian society, anyone can play rugby union. And availability of modern training equipments, great infrastructures, financial supports, nutritional diet with promising career, will only encourage millions more waiting to embrace rugby union as India is the youngest country in the world. Young people are India’s most valuable asset. At a recent book launch in Balmain,Sydney, Satyajit Das (former banker, one of the world’s 50 most influential financial figures in 2014 according to Bloomberg) stated ,”India is leapfrogging with technology but need to focus on manufacturing, education and health.”Such focus will help Indian youth in build a modern India.

Akash, who has given most of his life to rugby union in India at grass-root level, says“Rugby Union is essential for every Indian indigenous (tribal) , city or rural kids and development of their health. I will continue to train them for sportsmanship or sportswomanship in the Indian subcontinent.” Will be patiently waiting to see India join countries such as Australia, South Africa and France for a game of rugby union hosted by Wallabies, at the Allianz Stadium in Sydney, Australia.