Kolkata watches as rugby legacy vanishes year after year

First they saw rugby's biggest rivalry — Armenians vs La Martinere Old Boys (LMOB) — simply evaporate one day when it was all that the city's ruggers talked about till a decade and half ago. Having a history in the sport dating back to more than a century and boasting of the oldest rugby patron club outside of England — the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CCFC), Kolkatans find themselves staring increasingly forlornly at losses for their four teams at national tournaments.

As the All India and South Asia rugby championship heads into its decisive stages in Mumbai, the Kolkatan teams have again failed to grab the top spots and there are fears of frittering away the legacy of the decades of the 70s and 80s. Different teams slipped differently over the years as the city's demography altered, with the Armenian and Anglo Indian community dwindling in numbers.

Gradual decline

Kolkata Police, the best team at the city's premier tournament, the Calcutta Cup, couldn't make the grade for the nationals through the Callaghan Cup qualifiers. Armenians — who revived their team two seasons ago — are still just boys against men, while CCFC have stayed content with their mid-table position, their progress a plateau for years now. The last time a Kolkatan side won a national was the Armenians in 1997.

"The glory years of Indian rugby had the Armenian and LMOB teams engaged in one of the biggest sporting rivalries. Those were the vintage 'flair' years for rugby. I wish that could happen again," says LMOB's former player Tony McLuskie, now a regional development officer. "It's difficult to retain players because there are better remunerations with pro clubs. Some of us stayed, but we couldn't stop others from leaving in 2002," says Tony who played in a long line of legends — Sydney Edge, Babul McLeod, Milford Hennessy, Nandu Chandavarkar, and later along with the McLuskie brothers, Herman and Chris Bulsara and David Yah.

LMOB's decline after their last title in 1991 coincided with the deflating of their arch rivals — the blonde, blue-eyed Armenians — naturals at the sport, a close-knit unit at their hostel where they came to study and play from all over the world. "The Armenians lost their residential talent as they moved out of India, and they are now relying on a fresh batch of youngsters coming every year," says their coach David Purdy.

Elsewhere, though Calcutta Police have picked local titles, their all-India aspirations seem severely handicapped with little technical expertise to take them to the next level. CCFC hosts all rugby in Kolkata, but can do precious little to raise its own standards, though a Seconds side 'Panthers', comprising youngsters, has surfaced recently.

"There was a time when at LMOB we had absolute training discipline, and would bring cassettes from UK and learn international moves watching tapes on the VCR. Kolkata was at the top then. But then suddenly others have picked up in the country. Kolkata struggles, though we're taking it to schools," Chandavarkar says.

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