Rugby: China, the sleeping dragon of world rugby?

By Julian Bennetts

The United States has often been touted as a future frontier of world rugby but Julian Bennetts reveals the beginnings of a real rugby revolution are already under way in China.
China's Zhao Wenqing, right, celebrates as Japan's Mifuyu Koide walks past at the pool match of the Asia Rugby Sevens Women qualifier. Photo / AP
China's Zhao Wenqing, right, celebrates as Japan's Mifuyu Koide walks past at the pool match of the Asia Rugby Sevens Women qualifier. Photo / AP

When Japan beat South Africa in Brighton at last year's Rugby World Cup, the tremor from the shock result was felt 12,800km away in Beijing.

While Japan has a long history in rugby, it is a sport that until recently had little place in the Chinese consciousness. That, though, is set to change. Even before Japan's victory, discussions were under way between World Rugby, the Chinese government and AliSports, the sporting arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba, over investment in the country's rugby structure.

For World Rugby and AliSports, such negotiations offered scope for a dramatic expansion in a new market. For China, it provided a chance to beat their bitter rivals in years to come, but, more importantly, the potential opportunity to excel at another world sport.

"Do I see the day when China play England at Twickenham? One day, you would hope that will happen. It is a question of when, really," says World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper.

If the Chinese have their way, then the "when" will be sooner than anyone had initially dreamt. Throughout negotiations, the Chinese government felt both World Rugby and AliSports were being too cautious. So when it was announced in October that AliSports had agreed to invest $145 million into Chinese rugby over the next 10 years, the programme was startling in its scale and speed.

"We sat down with the Chinese government department [the Multiball Games Administrative Centre of General Administration of Sport] to go through some of the targets and the ones we had fixed were not as ambitious as the ones they ended up fixing," says Gosper.

"We said to them we want a million players in the next 10 years. They said make it five. We will also have 30,000 coaches and 15,000 officials in China by 2020."

A key part of this plan is to make a play for huge events in an effort to inspire people to take up the sport. Negotiations are under way for the country to host rugby's first US$1 million match, as part of an end-of-year sevens tournament that could take place as early as this year. It is also hoped China will bid to host the Rugby World Cup as early as 2027.

"We are very much interested in bidding for the world's major rugby tournaments," says Weihong Cui, secretary general of the Chinese Rugby Football Union. "The Chinese government has been giving full support to developing sport in China, especially hosting major influential sport games. The AliSports investment will inject vigour into the development of rugby in China."

"They think big," confirms Gosper. "In their minds, they think two or three World Cups away is possible. We have said to them you have to be competitive as a nation and you have to have an interest in the volume to sell around two million tickets.

"It would be great for strategic reasons for them to host it, but it also has to be right for the commercial look and feel of the tournament."

"Then we are in the process of discussing a Masters Sevens tournament, which could be held as early as 2017. It would be the top eight of the World Series finishers competing for the highest ever prizemoney we have seen in sevens - like the Barclays ATP Tournament in tennis.

"In order to be seen as a premier event, it needs something specific
and prizemoney would seem a good way of doing that."

The prizemoney will come from AliSports, whose parent company turned over $21 billion last year. It is expected to put rugby front and centre of its TV and digital platforms as it takes advantage of the Chinese government's decision to relax state control of sports in late 2015, having already invested in events and sports as diverse as Fifa's Club World Cup, the NFL and boxing.

There is confidence the interest in the sport is there, as evidenced by the fact that 44 million people in China watched sevens at the Rio Olympics - double the amount in the United Kingdom and second only to the United States worldwide.

The scope of the project has never been seen in rugby before, but the will of the Chinese government to make it happen means those involved are highly confident of success, with a professional sevens and XVs league to start almost from scratch either at the end of this year or the beginning of next.

Some overseas players will be recruited and outside help is expected on the coaching and administrative side, although China's unique culture means they will drive it themselves rather than rely on foreign influence.

China's Tong Xueqin, left, is tackled by Japan's Mifuyu Koide at the pool match of the Asia Rugby Sevens Women qualifier. Photo / AP
China's Tong Xueqin, left, is tackled by Japan's Mifuyu Koide at the pool match of the Asia Rugby Sevens Women qualifier. Photo / AP

"There is a 'save face' culture in China, and that is very important," says Ben Gollings, England Sevens' record points scorer and head coach of the Chinese men and women's sevens sides for a year until this northern summer.

"You cannot go there as a foreigner and say: 'I am everything and I underpin it all.' They won't work with you if you do that - you have to support them and give them the ideas, and you get a lot more support back that way."

China has only 76,000 registered players, although that number is already 40 per cent higher than at the end of 2014. It is a huge jump to get to a million registered players in five years, but Gollings believes it is possible.

"I don't think it's impossible with the sheer mass of the country - a million players playing rugby is really quite small when you consider the population size [of 1.736 billion]," he says.

"As soon as they get rugby into the universities and schools, that will propel it forward. Rugby is growing in Asia and the government have targeted it as a small-balls sport they can perform in and when it comes to hosting events, they aren't shy.

"At the moment, it is very much sided towards the provinces, they have the teams. Most run a men and women's team but not all."

"There is no question China has the athletes and they have an incredible infrastructure. We were a live-in team and trained at Olympic training facilities and there are three or four of those in every province that are as good as any [English] Premiership rugby club has."

Qualifying for the Olympics is also a key part of the plans and the national side are expected to start cherry-picking athletes from other sports to boost their hopes of qualifying for Tokyo 2020 - hopes improved by the fact Japan qualify automatically as hosts.

At present, China's women's team - who won bronze at the 2014 Youth Olympics - are considered a better bet to do so than the men, having narrowly missed out on Rio under Gollings' stewardship, although Cui says both men's and women's sides are "expected" to qualify.

And as the sport enters a new era, one of expansion away from the core markets of the Six Nations and Southern Hemisphere giants, there is a feeling China's hugely ambitious plans could just work.

"The time is right," says Gollings. "They have the infrastructure and the mass of
people to do it. Japan are such big rivals and their success will propel the sport's growth.
"The key factor is to have people driving the right way to make it happen quicker. If they can pull it all together, there is no reason it can't happen."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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