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State of the union gets a clean bill of health


Spiro Zavos

Thrills and spills … the excitement of sevens, as seen in this match in London last weekend, is driving the growth ...

Thrills and spills … the excitement of sevens, as seen in this match in London last weekend, is driving the growth of rugby in China. Photo: Getty Images

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.

16 comments so far

  • Time for me to wake up, listen and watch.

    good one
    Forster, NSW
    Date and time
    May 19, 2012, 8:42AM
    • The IRB tells us that Sri Lanka has more young registered rugby players than Australia, Japan, NZ, Argentina. How's that for a growth area?

      Gravity Basher
      Date and time
      May 19, 2012, 10:09AM
      • I'm an australian of sri lankan origin. As a former colony of England, rugby has always been a popular sport in SL just like cricket and soccer. They have a healthy school and club competetions.

        Date and time
        May 21, 2012, 4:25PM
    • From someone who has founded a rugby club here and organizes one of the biggest 10's tournament in China, China will never be good at any team sport under the current system of state run elite sport programs, especially rugby.

      Rugby grows here year by year, which is awesome, but its not because of anything that the CRFU or CCP has done. Purely because of grass roots enthusiasts, either foreigners or curious locals.

      Date and time
      May 19, 2012, 1:05PM
      • @ Si
        When you say 'here' I presume you are talking about China?
        If that is the case then don't lose heart as the machinations of all political parties is self interest. Doesn't matter whether it's in China or 'here' it's all the same.
        Grow you good thing !
        Quiet ironically it is very much the peoples' game - light the torch and it will burn. Burn baby, burn.

        inner west sydney
        Date and time
        May 19, 2012, 7:37PM
      • Yeah, good point! I mean, using the numbers logic why hasn't Chinese football done anything? Because of endemic corruption at management level and beyond and because despite it's popularity, the statistics - although I don't have them to hand - suggest that less and less kids are actually enticed into playing football for a variety of reasons. Just compare HK, where an English political and judicial system has led to a more liberal environment, and where rugby continues to thrive.

        Date and time
        May 19, 2012, 9:42PM
      • The corruption isn't really the problem, well not the biggest anyway, the problem is the Govt doesnt support ANY grass roots sports. Not just rugby. Ok, you like rugby, cool, now, where to find a pitch?? There are none. same for football (soccer), and basketball, which are much more popular here. There simply is no place to just go and kick a footy. It's not about space either, Taiwan has tons of rugby fields as they get support from the Govt, and rugby is played by far more locals there with only 1 or 2 foreign clubs, the rest are locally run and they even have a proper competition run by the TRU.

        The Chinese govt supports elite sports thru the universities and the PLA only, outside that its really difficult to get into. But now 7s is an Olympic sport. So of course the Govt wants to pursue it, and all universities are trying to set up a team now, they have no money to fund a team or coach tho. They only play amongst themselves, which is kind of the blind leading the blind, and only at one off competitions like the National Games or University Games. There is no league for them.

        Date and time
        May 20, 2012, 10:56AM
      • (cont.)
        A very few of them are trying to engage with the foreign clubs, but there is always problems, who knows, hopefully it will get better soon.

        The IRB has a rep in China, but they won't even come to see our tournament, we even supply our own refs thru the Hong Kong RFU, and like I say, it's probably the biggest thing for rugby in China every year. Basically, the IRB isn't concerned with non sanctioned clubs here, even tho we want to support (and do invite) the Chinese teams, as more teams means a better playing environment for everyone.

        Date and time
        May 20, 2012, 10:58AM
      • @ Si
        Don't lose heart keep chippin' away. As the Ad says 'it won't happen overnight but it will happen' !
        Your's is a great battle but with will and commitment you may make a difference. I realise that Basketball should be HUGE in China but alas through what-ever reason this has stalled. This is not the fault of the people but the short-term needs or ambitions of the Party. China should be a significant player in two of the worlds' biggest sports ie Basketball and now (possibly) Rugby !

        inner west sydney
        Date and time
        May 20, 2012, 6:33PM
    • I think you will find that Sevens tournaments are fairly common at school boy level already Spiros.
      Additionally I think the state unions work pretty hard @ developing the game @ junior levels and that comment is pretty insulting to them.
      I do think it is great that rugby is spreading into more countries across the globe. China with such a huge population could be a super power in no time. Why hasn't australia sent coaches? - perhaps protecting their own back yard as usual.

      Date and time
      May 19, 2012, 3:11PM

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