When you recall great sporting contests between Pakistan and India, you might be tempted to think cricket. You could cast your mind back to the 1999 Test match in Chennai, which Pakistan won by just 12 runs and received a standing ovation from the normally partisan home crowd.
Or you might consider the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 final at the Wanderers, Johannesburg, in 2007 when India were victorious by five runs in a thrilling final-over finish. And, of course, there was the amazing semi-final of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 in Mohali when India sent a nation into raptures as two prime ministers, side by side, looked on.
But there is a new game in town and a sporting rivalry of an identically different kind has been born. Division 3 of the Under 19 Asian Rugby Championship is not a tournament that normally receives wide coverage, even in the host nation, but when Pakistan plays India in any sport and at any level, nothing is normal and this particular encounter generated high-profile media attention across both vast countries.
At Punjab Stadium, Lahore, in front of crowd in excess of 10,000 and with flags from both countries draped side by side over the stands, Pakistan won 13-11 in a hard-fought and enthralling encounter. The event was organised by the Pakistan Rugby Union (PRU) in collaboration with the Sports Board Punjab and the Asian Rugby Football Union.
Integrity, respect, solidarity, passion and discipline
PRU President Fawzi Khwaja said the match was a thrilling spectacle where the physically dominant forwards from the Pakistan team controlled the match and managed to secure the win.
“It was a closely contested match and the Pakistan forwards did very well,” Khwaja told The Express Tribune afterwards. “Our forwards were better than theirs and our whole team performed well.”
But this match was more than merely 80 minutes of rugby. It was an opportunity for players and supporters to stress the game’s values of integrity, respect, solidarity, passion and discipline and reiterate the fact that sport can be a force for peace between two nations whose shared history is compromised by division, distrust and war.
India’s team manager Kulvinder Singh said the final was a step towards peace and it sent a clear message to both governments.
Sending a message to New Delhi and Islamabad
"I am happy that kids of below 19 years are playing in this final. I wish the oneness back between India and Pakistan. We are sending a message of peace to New Delhi and Islamabad,” said Singh.
"I came here as a player in 1999 and now as a manager and have always felt at ease, got so much love and warmth that I feel at home. I know there are so many derailments but I am sure Pakistan will take India as its brother and India would feel the same way," he said.
Pakistan captain Dawood Gill said while the result was important to him and his team, there was a wider context to the match that transcended the number of points on the board.
"Pakistan is making progress in rugby and I am very happy we beat India but really it's all for the peace of the two nations. That’s what is important," said Gill.
Matt Oakley, the IRB’s Rugby Services Manager – Asia, was present in order to conduct a review of the Pakistan Rugby Union during the week of the tournament, including visiting various schools and universities in Lahore and Faisalabad to see the Union’s urban and rural programmes where they will grow the game. In particular, they will do this using the IRB’s innovative mass participation Get Into Rugby programme, which is now on stream and spreading throughout the world.
Helping the prospects of talented young players
Oakley said: “Significantly and excitingly, up to 30 rugby scholarships are annually available in Lahore alone, in five universities, providing free education to talented Rugby players from 18-21 years of age. This is a great initiative and one that is bound to help the quality of rugby being played as well as helping to improve the longer-term prospects of some of the game’s more talented players.”
The year 2025 will be the centenary anniversary of rugby being introduced in the country – Karachi, in what was then British-ruled India, hosted the first recorded rugby match in what later became Pakistan in 1925. The IRB will now work with the PRU to create and support structures from bottom to top, such as player pathway and talent identification programmes to harness the growing national, state, public and private sector support for the game so that it grows.
“It was great to see so many schoolchildren at the Pakistan v India match in Lahore. Many of them were watching rugby for the very first time. We are working hard to make sure that all of them have the opportunity to take up the game and to reach their own personal heights. Who knows how many of them might be representing their country or be in university on a rugby scholarship in a few years’ time?” added Oakley.