WHEN the 2.285 million strong People's Liberation Army of China designated rugby as one of its 10 core sports, I was told by the chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Union, Rob Fisher, that officials had written to him asking for some coaches. The NZRU asked how many coaches they wanted. "They suggested 1000 coaches would be a good start," Fisher told me. And how many did the NZRU send? "We sent them one coach."
Just as a journey of 1000 miles starts with the first step, the long march of rugby into China has started with that single coach. Last week the IRB signed a memorandum of understanding with the leading manufacturing city of Guangzhou (population 12.7 million) and the Chinese Rugby Football Association to make it a growth hub for rugby. The city hosted the Asian Games in 2010, which included a sevens tournament. A capacity crowd of 30,000 filled the University Town Stadium for the tournament. China's national side has already played Test rugby and the women's team took part in the IRB Women's Seven Challenge Cup in London last weekend. Next year, for the first time, sevens will be included in the China National Games at Guangzhou.
Asia has 80 per cent of the world's youth. The IRB has targeted the region and especially China as a "key growth area" for rugby. There will be a significant push leading up to the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019. But the main engine driving growth, in Asia and throughout the rest of the world, is sevens, which returns to the Olympics at Rio in 2016. At Twickenham last weekend, 100,000 spectators gathered to watch the two days of the IRB Sevens World Series. Spain reached the quarter-finals for the first time. Fiji won the tournament. Australia (which won the Tokyo leg in the World Series) was defeated by Argentina in the plate final. New Zealand won the World Series for the 10th time. This year's series was watched by a record 547,500 fans in nine tournaments around the world. The Sevens World Cup is being hosted in Moscow (an emerging rugby city) in June 2013.
Australia is the women's sevens rugby world champion. But it seems to me that rugby unions around Australia have left most of the sevens development to the ARU. Now that Nick Farr-Jones (a great sevens player) has been appointed at the chairman of the NSW Rugby Union, we might get some action on promoting sevens in the state with special club and schools tournaments, perhaps. He might consider, too, a rugby brother-city relationship with Sydney and Guangzhou.
This weekend, Leinster could win its third Heineken Cup final in the past four years. Their opponents are Ulster. There will be a sell-out 90,000 crowd at Twickenham. Crowds and television ratings in New Zealand are up by more than 30 per cent for this year's Super Rugby tournament. Similar television ratings apply in Australia. And to ensure that the spectacle aspect of rugby continues to be enhanced, the IRB this week announced five proposed amendments that will further speed up the game. A quick throw-in "anywhere outside the field of play between the line of touch and the player's goal line" will be allowed. The fielder of the ball should be able to start a running attack more easily with this change. In turn, the change will force teams to eschew kicking for touch. The ball will be in play longer, which will lead to more running play. Another amendment will force halfbacks to "use-it-or-lose-it" within five seconds of the referee's call with available ball at the back of the ruck. This will end the tedium of watching halfbacks standing over a rucked ball like emperor penguins guarding an egg.
This year's Super Rugby tournament is the most interesting season since 1996. Scotland and Wales (the most exciting team in Europe) are playing the Wallabies here next month. To borrow a phrase from American politics, the ''State of the Rugby Union'' here and abroad is strong and growing stronger.