I first came to live in Kolkata in 2002. Like most cities it revealed itself through many different layers. A hotbed of sport wasn’t one I’d expected, but it was exhilarating to discover. Whether a football derby at Salt Lake, a days horse racing on the Maidan, jogging through the Dhapa or golf with friends what wasn’t there to love.
In 2004 with no more worthy aim than to have some fun, myself and a group of friends started the Jungle Crows. This was the rugby club that was soon doing more than just the rugby. We basically had nothing when we started, borrowed a rugby ball and got a load of friends bouncing about on a corner of the Maidan.
The game and seeing that the youngsters that take it up have the best chance in life has become something I am completely committed to. After my Diplomatic posting in Kolkata was completed I never went back to the UK Foreign Office I stayed in Kolkata. I took up various jobs, always with the Jungle Crows taking up mornings, evenings, all my time. I loved it.
At different times keeping the rugby going has been a challenge. We’ve made mistakes for sure, come up against some prejudices, banged on doors that were reluctant to open. But through it all the release is getting out on the field and throwing that odd shaped ball around. The game will always be the prize.
Our partnerships have been critical and never more so than in this year of pandemic. The world started going into lockdowns just as the Royal Air Force Rugby 7s team flew out of India in March. We’d played them, given them a run for it, lost, but what fantastic experiences for our Jungle Crows players. Organising the whole thing, making new friendships, experiencing a different culture - all passionate about rugby.
Few countries in the world can sustain professional rugby players, men or women. India is no exception. Kit, travel, injury, nutrition, the list of what clubs and players have to manage goes on. Stay in school or college and play only lasts a certain length of time. Finding a job that has a positive attitude to a non mainstream sport is difficult. We’ve been privileged to develop strong ties with Decathlon and Cure Fit. Where better for young sporting stars to grow their futures.
Since 2004 we’ve hardly missed a rugby tournament in India - boys, girls, women's, men's. It’s been exciting to be a part of the rapid rise of women's rugby especially. We came second in India’s first ever women's tournament played at Bombay Gymkhana in 2009. We’ve bounced around as a competitive outfit ever since. To see the growth in the profile of Rugby India Women gets everyone motivated.
I’ve crisscrossed India chasing the rugby ball. It has given me an insight into sport. I was a volunteer at the Commonwealth Games and have been a part of three National Games. The dedication of our India athletes is astounding. The initiatives now being pursued by the government and private sector to support sports can make a step change in achievement. The growth of investment into for-profit leagues and tournaments will give many more sports people the chance to earn a living from their passion. This is all very exciting.
Everyday our young ruggers keep practicing. Working on their skills, kicking and passing the ball. For many of them we work on their social development at the same time. Our Khelo Rugby project running for ten years now was founded by our own players wanting to give back. Many of them hailing from deprived communities have been lucky to have sport as a way out, a settling effect on them and friends. Our work with such youngsters is now even more important, we’ve seen school dropouts rise, families lose hope. Working together is now critical. We’ve equipped children with mobile phones and more will come, working together with the Decathlon Foundation to enable better access to online classes.
Like every sports person across the world we have to keep growing, improving our performance, getting better. This doesn’t mean throwing out what has worked for us, though that is sometimes necessary - just ask any top ranked golfer - but I prefer to look at constant improvement. Small changes that can make a difference. Trying to learn from what we’ve achieved. Not making the same mistakes too many times.
Perhaps the greatest thing I’ve learned on this journey is that it is not about me. My delight and motivation comes from seeing smiles on a foggy Maidan morning or a whatsapp from a young player who has just been selected for India. From seeing our field in Kolkata go from a wasteland to a stunning green space, from a first catch to a winning score. It’s been a heck of a journey!
Paul’s (@chirpycrow) inspiring journey has resulted in 100s of kids leading their lives with dignity & self respect. Jungle Crows’ flagship program ‘Khelo Rugby’ helps these kids learn Rugby, not only to represent India in the sport but also to learn life skills and many other aspects of life which helps them become the best version of themselves. You can also participate in the Khelo Rugby by making a small contribution on - https://www.ketto.org/PassForPassion You can read more about Jungle Crows on : https://junglecrows.net/