As the 11th Senior National Rugby 7s Championship unfolds in Pune, aspiring young rugby players from various state teams across India aim to secure a spot in the national squad. Leading the charge is Waisale Serevi, a revered figure in the rugby world who is now the head coach of the Indian national men’s and women’s teams.

At the age of 56, Serevi’s journey from a celebrated player to the coaching field mirrors his passion for the game and his dedication to nurturing grassroots talent. He is a former Fijian player and coach and a member of the World Rugby Hall of Fame. With a career spanning 21 years, including seven World Cups and numerous captaincy roles, Serevi brings years of experience and a fresh vision to Indian rugby.

“In the US, earlier, rugby was mostly big only in San Francisco, Colorado, New York and so on. I went to meet a few of my Fijian friends in Seattle, where there was nothing, and I was blessed to have had an opportunity to open Serevi Rugby,” he says. Serevi Rugby is a rugby academy in Seattle, Washington, USA. He reflects on how the institution had to initially conduct PE programs in schools to get the kids talking about this sport and to get them to join afternoon sessions at the academy slowly.

Serevi is keenly observing state-level teams for prospects in the national squad. “Two main criteria are important- we look at their working of the ball- what the player does when they don’t have it, efforts they take up to get the ball back to compete amongst each other and so on,” he says, highlighting what he is searching for.

“Consistency is next; you need to do good things one after the other because in rugby 7s, if everyone makes the same mistake, that’s five mistakes,” Serevi continues. Rugby 7s is a variant of rugby union in which teams are made up of seven players playing seven-minute halves instead of the usual 15 players playing 40-minute halves.

Festive offer

His coaching philosophy looks beyond mere skill development and instils core values. “Before I went on my first tour of Fiji in 1989, my dad called me, and he said, you need to be Waisale Serevi as you go, and Waisale Serevi when you come back,” he recalls, emphasizing the role of honesty, human development and character in the sport.

“Secondly, he told me, you have to respect everyone, whether it is the President of the country or the cleaner of the streets. When I was young, no top players came to help me. I found my way to the top. I always tell the kids that people will like you not for what you achieve in life but for you as a person who cares about people,” he says.

When asked what made him accept the opportunity to coach the Indian team, he narrates a historical story. “I look back, maybe 100-150 or 200 years ago, I don’t know the real number, there were Indians that came to Fiji to help the sugar industry and to create business in Fiji- we learned a lot from them during that. time, because we are not good at running businesses! So the best way for Fiji to pay back to India, to me, was through rugby – the top rugby player from Fiji to come to India and give back to the country. That is what made me say yes,” he notes, excited to coach the students to the next level.

Serevi met Rahul Bose, the president of the Indian Rugby Football Union, also known as Rugby India, in France, where they first discussed Serevi’s new path in India.

For Serevi, coaching is also about shaping yourself as you grow. “Stand up and shake the opposition’s hand when you lose games. On and off the field, you represent yourself, your family, your district, the state and India. Any bad thing a player does paints a bad picture of all of us, the coaches, the players and the country,” he asserts, setting high standards for his players.

Amidst his coaching duties, Serevi finds solace in family and football. “With my family, we go on day trips at the end of the year because everyone is in different countries—one of my kids is in Japan, one in New Zealand, one in Fiji, my wife is in the US, and I am now in India. Maybe everyone will come to India!” he laughs.

“Understanding each player’s background is essential,” he says, emphasizing the importance of cultural sensitivity in coaching. “As a young guy, you want to do things on your own and don’t want to listen to anyone- I see some of myself (when he was younger) in these kids. In India, people have their own cultures, beliefs, ideas, and ways of life. The only thing you can do (as a coach) is to jump into that area, come to that level, talk to them and listen to them. I cannot force what we do in Fiji on them. When you interact with players, you can immediately know how to change their mindsets and explain why we say what we say,” he explains.

Seeing a bright future for India, Serevi is hopeful for the talent he sees among the players in the tournament. “I saw the under-18 team. They were about 16 or 17 years old. They were playing like the ones for the under-20 section!” he says.