China's rugby revolution: $100M mission to grow 'olive ball'

Story highlights

  • $100M to be invested in next 10 years
  • Ambitions to host the Rugby World Cup

(CNN)China is making headlines with its stratospheric spending on global soccer stars -- but is it also undergoing a rugby revolution?

"The numbers in China are obviously mind-boggling," World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper tells CNN. "As a nation, it's the No. 1 target not just for sport but all businesses."
    A year ago, it had 76,000 rugby players. In 2016, another 60,000 Chinese were introduced to the oval-ball sport, and officials there hope for as many as a million players in five years.
    In addition, a $100 million deal to market rugby in China was signed in October.
    Just 0.01% of its populace are involved in the game -- barely a drop in the sporting ocean -- but China's politicians and sporting powers are keen on a quick step to rugby hegemony.
    As its population approaches 1.5 billion -- roughly 20% of the world's total -- it is understandable that World Rugby is leaping at the chance for the game to conquer the territory.
    But is it really possible to achieve such a gargantuan rise in playing numbers in such a short space of time?
    "We have a fixed objective of one million players in 10 years, but that's being readjusted by the federation to five years I believe," Gosper says. "That's a pretty meteoric rise."

    The $100M, 10-year plan

    While playing numbers alone are not enough to ensure China becomes a global force in the game, there are notably other initiatives -- primarily the $100 million agreed investment in the game over the next 10 years by Alisports, the sports arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba.
    After the deal, Alisports chief executive Zhang Dazhong spoke of the "undoubted potential" for rugby to become a "mass-participation sport" in China, while national captain Ma Chong told the AFP news agency, "as an athlete, I finally see hope for this sport."
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    The investment includes a "Get Into Rugby" initiative being set up at 10,000 universities and in schools across 20 of the country's 23 provinces.
    There is also an ambitious plan to train up 30,000 coaches and 15,000 match officials in the next four years, and a push to structure a XVs competition plus a professional sevens league.
    Gene Tong, the regional training manager for Asia Rugby, has been in China since 2014.
    He believes the sport is on the precipice of a big breakthrough in the next three years, with the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics sevens tournaments to be hosted by neighbor Japan.
    "It could possibly be the golden era for rugby in China, as more schools and universities are taking up the game across the whole of China and World Rugby's programs are gaining popularity and being well accepted in China," Tong told CNN.
    "Rugby in China has great potential for growth and is set to see unprecedented growth over the new few years."
    Tong acknowledges that basketball and football are much more popular in China, but points to sevens "gaining new fans" in particular.

    Can China follow Japan's lead?

    Sevens' rise has had a strong effect on rugby's global growth, but Gosper -- himself a former player in both formats of the sport -- is planning a "dual attack" in China.
    "The foundation of this great game is in XVs but sevens is obviously now an Olympic sport, which gives it huge credibility in China," he adds.
    China's rugby revolution is akin -- albeit a more muted version -- to Chinese President Xi Jinping's quest to turn the country into a footballing superpower.
    Rugby's resurgence also has presidential backing, but it pales into sporting insignificance in comparison to football.
    One football academy alone, that of Guangzhou Evergrande, has been set up with a budget of $185 million.
    The end game is for China to be a superpower in XVs, a gold medal contender in sevens at the Olympics and a World Cup host -- although all three ultimate ambitions are understandably some way off.
    "But who would have thought Japan would be World Cup hosts a few years ago?" Gosper adds.
    "It's Japan next, you've got the bidders for 2023, then there's potential in the US, Argentina's putting its hands up. And I'm sure the long-term ambition is that for China.
    "They're willing to play the long game but they have to prove their credentials to the World Rugby Council. They'll need to fill between 1.8 and two million tickets, and to be a credible host. That doesn't happen overnight."

    Sevens shortcut?

    China is one of rugby's minnows. In XVs, it is ranked 68th, a place below Chinese Taipei and just one above Papua New Guinea.
    Sevens, however, looks likely to supply a quicker route to the world stage.
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    China already has a notable presence in that regard with the annual Hong Kong Sevens, but there is also a push for a tournament on the mainland, potentially in Shanghai.
    Gosper suggests that could initially take the form of an end-of-season sevens event away from the official calendar.
    "Obviously a sevens team can get up to a competitive standard more quickly than XVs," the Australian says. "I think in four years' time we'll see China there with a men's and women's team."
    That, in part, is expected to be helped by an influx of overseas players and more experienced rugby coaches, as has been the custom with China's top football clubs.
    Such a practice has also helped Japan's national team rise as a rugby power -- in 2015 it shocked two-time champion South Africa at the World Cup, and last year its sevens team reached the semifinals of the Olympic men's tournament in Rio. Both squads were a mix of local and naturalized overseas players.

    'English-style olive ball'

    Despite its low numbers, rugby has a relatively lengthy history in China. It dates back to 1867 in Shanghai, where a version of the game is first thought to have been played, although it took until the first decade of the 20th century for the city to have its first dedicated rugby club.
    Much of the playing numbers in China had previously been in the military, seen as a perfect backdrop for training soldiers.
    A professional XVs club league is planned for 2018, while the spread of the sport will be aided by being televised on CCTV5 and E platforms through Alisports.
    But for now it doesn't pay. Rugby players with the few top sides earn the equivalent of $500 a month playing a game which literally translates as "English-style olive ball" in Mandarin.
    Despite that, "olive ball" looks here to stay in China. What price on it being a World Cup host and even champion in the decades to come?