World Rugby’s desire to conquer new frontiers is no secret. Last year they teamed up with Chinese conglomerate Alibaba, who announced that they are to pump $100m into Chinese rugby. They are setting a lofty goal of a million people playing the sport in China within 5-10 years.
With promises of professional leagues, big money 7s tournaments and designs on Olympic rugby medals, I will delve into the current state and investigate what the future holds.
Dissecting the Alibaba deal
Rugby is a widely unknown sport in China; if you show the oval ball to most people they assume it’s an American Football.
There are Chinese players, but a lot of the major clubs are predominantly made up of expat players. There are supposedly 76,000 players currently, or to put that into perspective, 0.005% of the population.
Rugby simply doesn’t register on the consciousness of the average Chinese person, but Alibaba aims to change that. They want to initiate mass participation in over 10,000 schools and universities, train 30,000 coaches and 15,000 match officials by 2020, broadcast rugby on their TV and streaming services and develop a professional league in China for the top performers to play in.
The word on the ground in China
I arrived in Wuhan, China for the first time in 2009. The transformation of the city over the past 8 years has been remarkable. It is very symptomatic of the development of China as a country itself. The country is now looking beyond its borders to project ‘soft power’ internationally through the medium of Chinese culture. One of the ways it is seeking to do this is by succeeding in the international sporting arena. It has had success at the Olympics and has invested large sums into football (soccer) academies.
Now, it seems, the superpower also has its sights set on being a global force in the sport of rugby.
Back in 2009, there was one expat bar where you might be able to watch rugby, and getting there was a nightmare. Nowadays, Wuhan has its own rugby team. I spoke to Martin Sullivan from the Wuhan Baiji about the state of his current team. He also divulged his thoughts on Chinese rugby as a whole and gave his verdict on the future.
“Rugby in China within the expat community is actually quite well developed. The number of teams is on the increase and, in particular, our ladies’ teams are growing quite a lot. The Chinese state doesn’t really do any grassroots level rugby to my knowledge. A lot of the time it’s basically taking students at their sports universities and attempting to create an elite athlete mill much in the same way that they do with other Olympic sports. Whereas the expat teams are developing a lot of grassroots rugby.”
Thoughs on the future?
Martin identified governing bodies as being obstructive to development.
“Unfortunately, Chinese rugby does tend to be quite disjointed. This is changing slowly. As far as I’m aware, the CRFA (Chinese Football Rugby Association) still advertises American Football as well as rugby. It’s this lack of differentiation which is damaging rugby. American Football is growing quite rapidly in China simply because they have the NFL backing. It is American and can be used as a symbol of wealth. There is a lot of money, they have this idea of marketing; it’s the Americans playing at free market trade again. Even NHL ice hockey is beginning to gain momentum.”
And as for his thoughts for the future?
Immediate dividends from the Alibaba investment seems unlikely. “The main thing which is actually holding back Chinese rugby is the lack of facilities, lack of grass pitches, lack of trained coaches and lack of understanding of rugby. Can they develop a team in the next 10 years? Unlikely. Will they try? Yeah, they’ll chuck huge amounts of money at it. Will they win a medal or even come close winning a medal in the Olympics? The ladies team, perhaps. But the men’s team, no. They don’t do team sports basically, so they won’t be able to in the next 10 years at least. Maybe the next 20 years. Times are changing and the Chinese have already shown how fast they can develop in other aspects of life.”
Team sport struggles and social barriers
China has the potential to sink immense financial resource into growing rugby. However, there is a fear that there are cultural and societal barriers that may be much more obstructive.
Two sports that are popular with Chinese people and have large participation figures are football (soccer) and basketball. The Chinese have played these sports for decades and there are professional league structures in place. The Chinese Super League has made headlines offering eye-watering salaries to their superstar players. With these large player numbers and the monetary muscle to back it all up, why aren’t the football and basketball teams successful on an international level?
China is currently 24th in the FIBA world basketball rankings. The football team have become something of a laughing stock within the country. Their less than illuminating achievements of late include losing to a civil-war-decimated Syria in World Cup 2018 qualifying. This has pushed them down the FIFA world rankings to 71st.
At the risk of going off somewhat tangentially and talking about another sport on a rugby website, personal experience of playing football in China has highlighted what potential obstacles may be in place for China to succeed at team sports on the international stage.
The individual placed above the team
Individual success is prized much more highly than that of the team. There is so much pressure heaped upon the one child of each family to succeed and elevate themselves above their peers.
On the football field that constitutes to: everyone wants to be a Messi, nobody wants to be a Mascherano.
I’ve seen time and time again how somebody gets much more adulation for dribbling aimlessly, rather than harrying a defender which leads to a team goal. Everyone wants to be the star, very few want to do the ‘dirty work’ for the team.
The one-child policy manifesting itself onto the standard of Chinese teamwork may seem like I’m jumping to conclusions. But even to anyone who’s not spent time in China, there do appear to be some fundamental problems at play. After such massive participation and investment in the football and basketball teams, how can they be so internationally undistinguished?
Good teamwork in rugby is essential. With this in mind, given the track record of other Chinese national team sports, this doesn’t bode too well for rugby. However, I would love to be proved wrong and perhaps – with better coaching encouraging better teamwork from an early age – their international teams would be much more competitive in the future.
Education and healthcare not fostering rugby development
With the focus on school studies and getting into university, not many parents see being a professional sportsperson as a viable career option.
Most secondary schools start at 7:30 am and finish past 8 pm in the evening. This leaves little time for extracurricular sports. As a result, kids won’t get as much chance to practice any burgeoning rugby skills they may have. There are such things as football schools in China, where children are educated whilst simultaneously being able to spend many hours of the day being coached football. So, if the state also developed rugby schools for talented young athletes, this method could perhaps overcome the barriers against sporting achievement in the regular school system.
Last but not least, most rugby players have a fairly extensive list of injuries and hospital visits. With a private and comparatively expensive healthcare system in China, the game of rugby may not seem very palatable to locals.
With the resources that the country possesses, both in terms of population and financial backing, China absolutely has the potential to be a rugby power at some point in the future. But unfortunately, I don’t think it is something that we will see anytime soon. Whilst the prospect of a strong Chinese team is a mouth-watering one for World Rugby, there are fundamental issues that need to be tackled before they can become a major player on the international stage.
Author: George Wood
I am, and have always been, obsessed by sports. I have a particular interest in the development of rugby globally and spend hours watching, researching and reading about obscure rugby news and games from around the world.
I previously had a 6 year stint in China, where I set up an expat football team in Wuhan. I now reside in London, working as a statistical analyst, spending large amounts of my free time watching sports with my wife.