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China play rugby waiting game
Thirst for gold means 'olive ball game' could go national if rugby chosen as Olympic sport.
Last Modified: 08 Sep 2009 08:27 GMT

Johnny Zhang is tackled during the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar [GALLO/GETTY]

Few people will be fretting over next month's decision on the inclusion of rugby in the Olympics as much as and the band of enthusiasts who have run the sport in China on a shoestring budget for the last 20 years.

Such is China's obsession with Olympic success that a vote from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to add sevens rugby to the schedule for the 2016 Summer Games would transform the "olive ball game", as it is known in Chinese.

Rugby would immediately attract central government funding and, more importantly, become a sport at China's quadrennial National Games, which in turn would lead to the establishment of teams in most of the country's 31 provinces and regions.

"If rugby manages to get into the Olympics there will inevitably be a great development in China," Zheng Hongjun, China's head coach, said at his office in a scruffy building at the China Agricultural University in Beijing on Tuesday.

"The state will pay more attention to it so rugby can enjoy a quick expansion all over the country as the sports schools' provincial teams will be launched one after another.

"And we will eventually see professional players being produced by the state sports structure."

Heart and soul

The China Agricultural University is the heart and soul of Chinese rugby, providing the team with a 500,000-yuan ($73,210) annual grant which, along with a few scraps of sponsorship, have sustained the sport since 1990.

Zheng estimates that there are at most 300 Chinese rugby players, and it is the prospect of being able to choose from more than his pool of keen but limited students, along with a few soldiers, that excites him most.

"Honestly, our current student players are not the most talented sportsmen in the country as the best athletes might not be able to enter the universities through exams and could only go into the sports school system," he said.

"Sevens rugby is more fitting with Chinese people's speed, mobility and relatively smaller body size. And, significantly, it's an Asian Games event"

China head coach Zheng Hongjun

The university launched mainland China's first rugby team after a professor return from studies in Japan in 1989, and it has essentially doubled as the national team ever since.

Zheng played at scrum half and was one of the first coaches, watching videos and travelling to Hong Kong, Britain and Australia to learn about the game.

"It was difficult at the beginning. This was a brand new sport in China," he recalled.

"People said all kinds of negative things. But I had faith in rugby.

"It was so exciting and I thought it would definitely have good prospects."

China joined the International Rugby Board (IRB) in 1996 and played their first Test against Singapore the following year, but in recent years they have been focusing almost exclusively on sevens.

"It's less expensive, more fitting with Chinese people's speed, mobility and relatively smaller body size and, significantly, it's an Asian Games event," said Zheng.

Asian bronze

China won a bronze medal when sevens made its Asian Games debut in Doha, Qatar in 2006, inspired by captain and now coach Johnny Zhang.

The changes may come too late for Zhang, who plans to retire after next year's Asian Games in Guangzhou, but he has already claimed his footnote in the record books as the leading points and try scorer in the history of the Hong Kong Sevens.

A women's tournament would also be included if the IOC approves rugby for 2016 at its October 3-5 congress in Copenhagen.

That would be good news for players such as Bai Ying, who number even fewer than their male counterparts and challenge Chinese ideas of femininity.

"Everyone thinks it's weird for women to play rugby because it requires a tough and muscular body," the 25-year-old said.

"People feel like: 'Wow, why have you made yourself so big? How ugly!', but healthy is also beautiful."

Source:
Agencies
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