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How Ruby Tui is inspiring rugby's growth in India

By Adam Julian
Ruby Tui of New Zealand celebrates winning the Rugby World Cup 2021 Final match between New Zealand and England at Eden Park on November 12, 2022, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Ruby Tui is easily the most popular rugby player in New Zealand at present. Her autobiography Straight Up is a best seller – placed on reserve 75 times at one Wellington library alone in November.

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The winger had Eden Park in rapturous shortly after the Black Ferns 34-31 win over England in the World Cup final leading the sell-out crowd in a rendition of Tutira Mai Nga Iwi, a well-known waiata which means come together as one.

It was a moment so beautiful and unusual, especially when contrasted with typically modest and sometimes dour Kiwi sporting celebrations, it even caught the eye of Nasser Hussain, CEO of India Rugby.

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“There was no coverage of the World Cup in India, but I saw the game and after the match on the internet. It was amazing but not a surprise,” Hussain said.

“In August 2018 Ruby was on holiday in India and reached out randomly to volunteer her services for free at Bombay Gymkhana. She helped coach kids, rolling around with them in the mud, and was such a positive, memorable, and vibrant role model.

“Rugby is a growing sport in India but visibility is the biggest challenge for our game. Characters like Ruby Tui help everyone.”

In 2018 Tui had been in the New Zealand Sevens team for six years but had missed the inaugural Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast after contacting mumps. Her profile really exploded after the Black Ferns Sevens won the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 2021.

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India Rugby’s CEO Hussain is no stranger to rugby and unlikely to be impressed by any sudden gravy train.

When India played their first official test match in 1998, Nasser was the youngest player in the team aged 18. His father Aga Hussain (ex-President of Asia Rugby) was one of the oldest and the captain. India was beaten 85-0 by Singapore on October 26.

India has only played 47 tests since that inauspicious start. Hussain, India’s most capped player, has been involved in 37 of them winning ten times, nine as captain.

Hussain started in the loose forwards but a stint in England while completing his Masters in Sports Management at University of Northumbria, Newcastle Upon Tyne, saw him “deported to the backs due to a lack of size.”

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Hussain flourished with extra space, and he is India’s all-time leading try scorer with 18.

Additionally, he played in the first Indian Sevens team in 1999 featuring in every event India contested up until 2012.

In 2010 he captained India at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi scoring a try against defending World Champions Wales in the opening game.

The All Black Sevens would win the gold medal with Craig De Goldi spearheading some New Zealand support coaching the game in India. Jordan Bunce (son of former All Black Frank Bunce) is another whose been active in this space.

Hussain was National Development Manager for India Rugby in 2010 and admits India would have been better positioned now than what they were a dozen years ago to capitalise on the benefits of hosting a major international event.

“When Sevens was included in the Olympics government funding became a source, we could potentially tap into which wasn’t the case in 2010,” Hussain said.

“Some of the strategies we have in place around coaching, fixtures and marketing are much better than what they were back then.”

Hussain became CEO of India Rugby in 2016 and playing numbers have soared from 35,000 in 2015 to over 75,000 by the end of April 2018.

In 2019 Nielson research claimed there were 25.7 million rugby fans in India and described rugby as “a vibrant, growing sport that is increasingly broadening its global appeal.”

India’s men are ranked 85th in the world but it must be stressed Asia only gets one automatic place at the World Cup which is invariably secured by powerful Japan. The women are 43rd in the world.

They made their international debut in 2009. In February 2017, they won five out of six matches at the Asian Rugby Sevens in Laos to return home with a silver medal. Six out of 12 members of that team were from one of India’s poorest states, Odisha.

Historically rugby was the domain of the big-city elite in India. Bombay Gymkhana, who Hussain has been playing for since 1995, is a prestigious gentlemen’s club established in 1875 and no longer accepts new members.

“The perception of rugby as an elite game is one that we’ve fought to change and the growth of the sport in rural areas is proof that we’re having some success,” Hussain said.

“Stories like Ruby Tui are universally appealing. From a tough background she’s used rugby for empowerment and that’s very inspiring.”

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