Rugby is still alive in Kolkata, home of the Calcutta Cup - GulfToday

Rugby is still alive in Kolkata, home of the Calcutta Cup

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In this photo taken on June 21, 2019, Indian children sit with a rugby ball near their home in a slum area of the Kidderpore neighbourhood in Kolkata. Photographer: Amit Datta/AFP.

Simon Sturdee

In the 1870s, when the Calcutta Rugby Football Club started charging for drinks, interest among British colonials waned and it was disbanded leaving 270 silver rupees in the kitty, or so story goes.

These were melted down to make the Calcutta Cup, the exquisite and now battered trophy still contested annually by England and Scotland, with cobras for handles and an elephant perched on top.

When England and Scotland play rugby each year, the winner hoists that cup — a relic of the sport's roots in India, and a nod to the city where it is still thriving to this day.

While the trophy went on to become one of the most famous prizes in rugby, the sport also survived in Kolkata, as the hot and bustling former capital of British India is now known. 

Indeed today it is the hub of rugby in India, and doing much good in the deprived city in the process, thanks in part to two British expats who gave up their careers to make Kolkata their home.

The other Calcutta Cup

A big name in Kolkata's sporting scene is the Calcutta Football and Cricket Club (CCFC), its walls festooned with photos of sporting captains of yore. Founded in 1792, it is the oldest cricket club outside Britain, only five years younger than the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord's, known as the 'home of cricket'.

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This photo taken on June 22, 2019 shows the historic Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CCFC) in Kolkata. Photographer: Amit Datta/AFP.

But the CCFC is not just about cricket. "The 'F' in CCFC is for rugby and not football," points out sports coordinator Saurav Chaterjee, as members play darts in the bar. One of the many trophies in the packed cabinets behind him is none other than the Calcutta Cup.

But this is a different trophy from the more famous one now housed in the Museum of Rugby in Twickenham, England. Kolkata's own Calcutta Cup, smaller than its namesake, is keenly contested every year by about eight Kolkata clubs, one of several local and national competitions.

Before independence in 1947, winners included British military teams like the King's Own Regiment. But then home-grown sides like the CCFC, the police, La Martinere Old Boys and a team from the city's Armenian community took over.

"We have a very huge history here of rugby in Kolkata," said Ryan Galstaun, 37, a member of that community refereeing boys' and girls' sevens in sweltering heat.

‘Just for a lark'

But in recent years there have been two new kids on the scene, Future Hope and the Jungle Crows.

Both were started by Brits — a former bank manager and an ex-diplomat — and both have won the local Calcutta Cup multiple times with teams made up of former street children. The clubs are also about more than just rugby, using the sport to help both boys and girls from Kolkata's poorer areas — of which there are many — on the road towards a brighter future.

Paul Walsh, 50, says he started Jungle Crows in 2004 with two compatriots "just for a lark." The other two have moved on but Walsh, from Chester in northern England and now an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), stayed.

His Khelo Rugby project involves taking a rugby ball into poor communities, gaining children's trust and helping them in other areas, including giving them money for schooling and training.

"You get the odd-shaped ball out, you get the rugby ball out, and it will light up any child's face," Walsh said. "They're interested. So that initial enthusiasm, we just kind of build on that really."

Dire poverty

"My home situation is very bad," said Vicky, 19, who started playing rugby 10 years ago and is now at college thanks to Jungle Crows, and helping to coach the next generation.

As he speaks, a group of children delightedly splatter through the mud playing British Bulldog, a rough-and-tumble variant of tag, on a piece of wasteland near the Kolkata port where families live in dire poverty.

We discovered that if you started to teach rugby theory in the classroom, the children weren't so worried about getting into a classroom.

Future Hope founder Tim Grandage, 60, meanwhile first came to Kolkata in 1987 to work for HSBC bank and was "shocked" by the number of kids on the street. Getting them to play rugby taught them discipline and teamwork, and learning the rules of the game also got many of the children used to a school setting, he says.

"We discovered that if you started to teach rugby theory in the classroom, the children weren't so worried about getting into a classroom," Grandage said.

Three decades later, the organisation has a school with several hundred children. One ex-pupil now runs the Indian operations of Decathlon, the French sporting retailer.

"I hated banking, it was boring as anything, although my colleagues were fantastic," Grandage said, adding: "I always keep a silver rupee from 1840 in my back pocket."

Agence France-Presse

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