Springboks' Indian-origin physio in Rugby India's mentorship plans

Tanushree Pillay and wing Cheslin Kolbe pose with the World Cup trophy. Tanushree says it was the platform laid by coach Rassie Erasmus that led to the Springboks winning the World Cup. Sean Everett

The joke within the Springboks during the World Cup was that the physio room was a 7-11. What ran in common between the Japanese-American international chain of convenience stores and the room filled with grimacing, burly, lumberjack players lying on their backs or getting a limb strapped, were the work hours - 7am to 11pm. And in the case of the latter, a team of untiring physios, tending to concussions, strains and contusions, carrying a whiff of Deep Heat and putting their lives on hold for six months a year.

After bottomless sessions and months of treating and preventing player injuries, Tanushree Pillay, one among the three-member Springboks physio team, is now readying for time with family. The experience of being part of a World Cup-winning team, Tanushree tells ESPN, has been "in the preparation". Early in November, the Springboks beat England 32-12 in sparkling, devastating fashion at the Rugby World Cup final.

"The platform that coach Rassie (Erasmus) laid for us from the outset, right from the alignment camps, you could already feel then there was so much synergy in the team and clear arc line of what everyone's role forward was going to be and the number of hours we were going to put in. We met Prince Harry and our president in Japan and were totally star struck but when we got home and saw the people - CEOs, children, grannies, everyone standing together in welcome, even in the poorest of areas, it just blew us away."

A fourth-generation South African immigrant, Tanushree remembers visiting her ancestral home in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu as a child, tugging at her father's arm, walking past a judge outside the district court and wondering aloud over how strikingly similar he looked to her uncle, and skipping through a boom gate that led to a chirpy Baskin Robbins store. "I recall thinking, 'wow this must be the trendiest town around', says Tanushree. Her impression of the Indian rugby teams isn't quite as ideal. "I've had interactions with the Indian Sevens teams but not so much one-on-one conversations. My impression of rugby in India is that it's still young and developing. A lot needs to be done in terms of basic scientific evidence for nutrition, strength and conditioning, and building a foundation at a young age. For all of this, you can't start from the elite teams. There has to be depth. As the sport grows in popularity and more people start playing it, the investment will flow and then it will offer a good platform to bring in greater expertise." She cites Japan's rise in the ranks of the sport despite a fledgling existence, history and interest as an example for most Tier-2 nations to follow, including India.

"Japan has busted the myth of people being too small to play rugby," says Tanushree, "It's just about having the right mix and balance. The sterling fight they put up against the top nations and ran deep into the World Cup, until the quarterfinals, offers countries with a developing rugby program both an example and hope."

Rugby India is in fact planning to invite Tanushree to hold sessions with physios and trainers involved with the national teams during her visit to the country early next year. An offer, Tanushree says "she would more than gladly welcome". "In the medical fraternity, we always say there are no secrets of a magic wand," she says, "We are very evidence-based, always looking to research and I'm keen to share my experiences and ideas with younger professionals. I've always been a teacher by nature and rugby takes continuous education. I've lectured at several institutions throughout my career so teaching wouldn't be anything new to me. If Rugby India does want me over to mentor, guide and share what I know, I'd be happy to have that opportunity."

One of the major injury instances that the Springboks had to contend with during the World Cup was a twisted left ankle that wing Cheslin Kolbe suffered during the dying minutes of their third pool game against Italy. He went on to sit out of the remaining matches and returned only for the final. The physio team that included Vivian Verwant and another female physiotherapist in Rene Naylor, in addition to Tanushree, leafed through medical journals to look at additional rehabilitation techniques. "We have to turn to scientific research and keep ourselves up to speed with cutting-edge therapies to be able to help an athlete heal and recuperate," says Tanushree.

"It's long hours, whether it's the training sessions, the preparation that goes into training, treating players in between and still having to open the clinic in the evening and be available to help in injury prevention or rehabilitation. You have to love your job. It's hugely demanding. There is nothing glamorous about it. There's a lot of time away from family involved both for us and the players and these guys end up spending a lot of time in the physio room. They can speak freely and openly, knowing it's an environment of trust and support."

The Springboks, famed for relishing and owning physical exchanges, also bring with them the expected corollary of a higher incidence of injuries which are broad spectrum, involving players of various shapes and sizes from the youngest and smallest in the wing, to the heaviest and strongest upfront. "We deal with a lot with contact injuries, bumps and bruises, so it's not one joint more predisposed to injury than the others," says Tanushree, "As a national team physio, you need to be versatile and deliver a variety of therapies. Our players are coming from all over the world so they are exposed to therapies in France, England and Italy among others, so you need to be able to master them to be able to continue with the treatment plans that have been administered to them in their respective clubs. You can't be scared to learn or make mistakes because you have to get better every day."

Tanushree stepped into sport to fill in for a former colleague, but ended up staying. In 2005, while working at a psychiatric hospital, one of the staff members who was to travel for the Special Olympics with the South African team could no longer do so and asked her if she was willing to go in her place. "I thought I have nothing to lose, so I might as well give it a go," she says. From there on, she involved herself in camps, was part of her university rugby team while pursuing her Masters degree.

After finishing her Masters in physiotherapy in 2006. she received her Phd from UWC for a thesis that investigated protocols for rehabilitative injury prevention among netball players in 2014. In 2007, SA Rugby appointed her as physiotherapist of the Springboks women's 7s, the under 20 women's and senior women's rugby teams. She's also worked with the men's volleyball team and was part of the 2011 Shanghai PGA Golf championships.

Tanushree went on to work in multi-sport events too and was part of the South African netball and rugby 7s teams at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the field hockey side at the 2012 Olympics. She was integrated into the Springboks' camp in 2015 ahead of their departure for the World Cup, assisting them with rehab, treatment and therapies but didn't travel with them for the tournament. A year later, she formally joined the team.

When you're travelling around with 31 male players, and staff that's predominantly male too, you could be seen to be doing an awfully difficult job in a gender-skewed environment. Tanushree, though, doesn't care too much for binaries. She got married last year and lives with her parents and 95-year-old grandmother in Cape town while her husband, a French national who lives in Paris, is also a fellow rugby nut and works in the administrative wing of the French rugby team.

"In any workplace," says Tanushree, "there are so many stereotypes around women that are married or mothers. I don't look at what I do as different from any woman in a community out there who have to get to work, while tending households. Over the years, I've just learnt to stand my ground. When you're good at your job, you're seen for your worth more than for who you are."