Asian Games medal a target, Olympics a dream for women's rugby player Sandhya Rai

Asian Games medal a target, Olympics a dream for women's rugby player Sandhya Rai

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(Indian Rugby Football Union)

When it comes to rugby, all you can think of is, tall, burly players, mostly stronger than other athletes, who can put their bodies on the line for the sake of their teams. These are no regular players with ripped bodies, but naively speaking, body-builders, who could double up as endurance runners.

In fact, to excel at the sport, every position on the field has the ideal height and weight, which of course varies from nation to nation. As per the various studies, data collected from some of the top nations in women's rugby -- Australia, England, New Zealand, France, and the USA, show that the average height for any given player is 1.70m.

When it comes to Indian women, the standards remain the same, with their stature increasing every time they step into the park. On most occasions, they match their opponents' physicality, if not better, and surpass them in skill. That's one of the reasons why the women's team is now ranked ninth in Asia in the seniors, and only second in the juniors. 

And from those junior ranks has come India's biggest sensation, Sandhya Rai, a fullback, who is one of the most sought-after players in the world, and is the only one from the country to be among the 16 ‘unstoppable’ women players shortlisted from Asia. The former U-18 captain, who isn't the strongest built as per India standards too, more than makes up for it with her speed, agility, skill, and is a rugged operator More than anything else, she knows what works in her favor, and what might not.

"One thing I'm working on currently is my upper-body strength. Skill-wise I feel, I'm right up there but need to combine it with strength as well now. I understand my limitations of being short and not that heavy, so need to work on my strength constantly. Even in a gym, the focus is to strengthen the upper body. My trainer has made a schedule for me that focuses on building upper body strength.

"Just talking about the body, I think the lower body is my strong point. I have the belief that I can take on any player in the world. As for the upper body, you just need to look a bit more imposing in the park," Rai told SportsCafe.  

She has been one of those, who has seen women's rugby grow to where it is today, starting from a zero. Recalling those days, when there were no camps, equipment, supplements, and injury management was a luxury, she now hopes to win a medal at the Asian Games. Rankings, high or low, she feels are not a true reflection of what a team can achieve. Not just that, she also feels that qualification to the Olympics can be a reality in 2028 if not 2024. 

"Rankings can be a bit misleading. I think it's because in rugby we play a lot of club and age group matches and international matches are not that frequent. But as the Indian team, 9 times of 10, we are confident of winning the match, no matter who the opponent is. 

"Now we are looking forward to the Asian Games camp. This is a big opportunity for us to show, and see, where we stand in the continent at the moment. You know, we are looking at the Games as only the first step to qualification for the Olympics. This would be the first time I'd be playing against some of their senior teams. I'm quite sure to win against those nations," she continued.

"I've seen a time when the facilities for us were minimum and there was a lot of scope for improvement in every area. There was no injury management as well. But now, I'd like to say that we are professional athletes and we get the right exposure in terms of tournaments, the right coaching, and facilities as well. We are among the medal contenders in Asia, so a lot has changed over the years, and positive changes only."

Sandhya, like other players and stakeholders for women's rugby in India, wants to see India as a powerhouse in the sport, but for that, she realises, the team needs to overcome the best in Asia. The Asian Games could have India play against Japan, the best in the continent, and the youngster wants to see how the team performs against the giants. "Japan will be the team to beat there. We can't really compare India and Japan now, since they are one of the best in the world, but we are definitely the most improved. If we were to play a match right now, I'm not sure if we'd win, but we'll surely give them a run for their money. Having said that, we are looking at a medal at the Asian Games," she concluded. 

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