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Chinese rugby match

How Alibaba could help China take over the rugby world

Inspiring the Chinese nation to take on the All Blacks and Wallabies in the world of rugby might seem fanciful, but one company is investing US$100m to do exactly that. Alex Mead, eric’s content director, talks to World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper about how Alibaba are hoping to make China a rugby force to be reckoned with.

In the world of sport, having talent or potential means nothing without dedication and, quite often, the money to back it all up. This is the case when it comes to rugby, not individuals of course – if a player is truly good enough, he or she will be found somehow – but whole nations. The game of who can make it and who can’t, often comes down to those with serious finance. If that were not the case, then we would be living in a world where Fiji, Samoa and Tonga – the nations with undoubtedly the most naturally gifted players in the world – take turns to win Rugby World Cups, but we don’t, at least not yet anyway. The same could also be said about the nation with the world’s biggest population.

Playing purely a numbers’ game, stating that China could be competitive in any sport it chooses to turn its hand to is stating the obvious, rugby included. After all, they have 1.3 billion people and, being over-simplistic, you need just 15 players to play a game of rugby against another nation. But you have to get those 15 there. And the funnel from whence they came is vast. That 15 is from a squad of 23; that squad of 23 is selected from an elite of hundreds; the hundreds are plucked from a player base of thousands; and those thousands are supported by a network of coaches, administrators and fans numbering in the hundreds of thousands; all sourced from a population in the millions (usually).

On the plus side, that ‘millions’ element when applied to China is ‘billions’, so they’re off to a good start. What’s required to engage those billions, however, is money. And that’s where the China story has been getting a bit interesting.

Brett Gosper
Brett Gosper, World Rugby CEO

Enter Alibaba

It was announced last year that World Rugby and Alibaba – through its new sports division Alisports – had signed a partnership agreement to not only promote rugby in China, but get it to the rugby world’s top table and, hopefully, one day maybe even host a Rugby World Cup. “We were approached by Alisports,” explains Brett Gosper, the CEO of World Rugby, “they’re the sport division of Alibaba – who are basically the Chinese Amazon – and they wanted to invest considerable sums to get China up to speed, in terms of participation and competitively. They want to grow the sport and host events like the World Sevens Series and maybe one day the Rugby World Cup.

While World Rugby aren’t exactly starting from the beginning with Chinese rugby, in numbers terms, it is very much in its infancy. “There’s only about 76,000 players in China, maybe a few more, but 100,000 maximum,” continues Gosper. “But they [Alisports] are incredibly ambitious. They want the numbers to go up to one million players in five years, we think it’ll take 10, but let’s see what happens. They’ve pledged US$100m over 10 years across grassroots, senior leagues, player development and creating a professional competition. We’ll be managing annual spend and working with the Chinese Rugby Football Association.

I definitely think part of the interest in China came from the fact they observed Japan at the Rugby World Cup.

Even those official figures of 76,000 provide encouragement to World Rugby and Alisports, as it represents a 40% increase in participation numbers in 2016, a huge lift when compared to other markets. China isn’t alone either, with Asia as a whole seeing something of a rugby revolution taking place – the whole continent witnessed a 35% increase in numbers last year.

Inspired by Japan

The success of Japan has certainly had an impact. Enthusiasm for the sport, and a decent player base, has always been present in Japan, but tangible success against the bigger nations was always missing. That changed, of course, at the Rugby World Cup in 2015, when Japan, coached by Australian Eddie Jones, won three of their four games including taking the scalp of former world champions South Africa. In rugby terms, such upsets are unheard of, especially at a world cup when every major nation brings its very best players. “I definitely think part of the interest in China came from the fact they observed Japan at the Rugby World Cup,” admits Gosper. “That 2015 success didn’t go unnoticed. There’s also rivalry among Chinese cities, and with Hong Kong they’ve hit the heights with the Hong Kong Sevens and I think other cities want to emulate that.”

Olympic sport

Rugby’s entry into the Olympics in its sevens format has certainly help the sport’s cause, with China’s Government backed Olympic committee effectively running sport in the country. Rugby falls under the ‘small ball sector’ and the Chinese Rugby Football Association answers to that committee. “The most significant event [in promoting rugby] was rugby getting into the Olympics,” admits Gosper. “Being an Olympic sport gives it huge credibility, not just with the government but the population and public as well, so it’s a pretty big area for us.”

Military beginnings

Unlike in other countries, such as Australia, where rugby might enjoy particular success in specific regions, there are no such major hotbeds in China from which to build the base. “Rugby had always tended to be a military sport in China,” explains Gosper, “some regions were more developed than others, but you’re talking such low numbers that you’d hardly call anywhere a hotbed. Probably the women’s sevens area is the most developed, they’re reasonably competitive, but the tournament appearances have been a bit sporadic.” In an attempt to spread the word, Alisports has already been making use of World Rugby’s footage, sharing action from World Rugby Sevens Series and previous Rugby World Cups across its channels to engage potential rugby fans, players, volunteers and officials nationwide.

On the ground, school programmes are in the process of being launched, and while success in 15s is the ultimate goal, sevens is pivotal to the initiative, especially as the national side currently rank 67th in the full version of game, below Andorra and above Bosnia & Herzegovina. “In 15s they’re a fair way from being competitive,” admits Gosper, “but in sevens it takes less time and money to be competitive, and within a few years I think China’s men and women can be knocking on the door of the core teams.

“We need greater investment both in coaching and team members in 15s, but the goal is hosting a Rugby World Cup at the end and sevens is the easier way to open the game up. We’ve seen this with other countries and sevens could be a driving force for Chinese rugby.”

Professional leagues

The first steps in opening up both variants of the game, is through professional leagues. But, unlike its soccer counterpart, don’t expect eye-watering sums of money to be offered to tempt overseas players to add a bit of stardust to the competition. “We’re setting up sevens and 15s national leagues,” explains Gosper, “these will include a professional league for both men and women. It’s not big money in western standards, but it should launch next year. We’re also working on the possibility of setting up a Masters Sevens Tournament, that would involve some of the best of the world series teams, to try and test themselves early on in a major tournament.”

Being an Olympic sport gives it huge credibility, not just with the government but the population and public as well.

Before Chinese rugby fans get too carried away, for all the talk of hosting international tournaments, and creating a pathway to the Rugby World Cup, there are foundations to be in put place first, something Gosper is only too aware of. “We’ve not got a great deal of coaching expertise and the one million in five years isn’t the only target, there’s also targets in terms of infrastructure, referees, medical and volunteers too. “We know from working with different markets how important structures are, there’s no point mass numbers turning up without coaches, volunteers and referees to support them.” Should China get serious about rugby, as USA, Russia and Germany are already in the process of doing, it would certainly add an extra angle to the audience spectacle. China v Japan would certainly become an instant hit with armchair viewers. “We want to have the highest populated countries on the planet playing rugby,” says Gosper. “We already have the UK, Japan and France; USA, Russia and Germany are on the rise and hopefully China can join that group too. The numbers suggest that if China gets serious, they have the power to slingshot past a lot of nations. The president’s also apparently a rugby fan, so I think that could help too!

China: Rugby World Cup hosts 2031?

The benefits that rugby brings should also appeal to the Chinese public, reckons Gosper. “It teaches kids not just about the active side of things but also life skills such as character and the value of sport and teamwork,” he says, “I think that’s what’s been at the heart of rolling out rugby to different nations, it has appealing qualities. Also, it’s a sport for everyone, and with such a large population, they’re definitely going to be able to find someone to fit into every position.”

Even with the funding though, is hosting a Rugby World Cup in China a realistic goal? “When I initially spoke to Alisports they wanted to try and make that happen as soon as possible, perhaps 12 years on from the next one [2019],” says Gosper, “but first you have to make the sport popular in your own country before hosting a Rugby World Cup and to do that you have to become competitive. When you host a world cup you qualify automatically which means you must be able to compete with the top 20 sides in the world.” There are no favours here either, they’ll have to go through the process of bidding for a Rugby World Cup, just like everyone else. “It will be a challenge for sure,” admits, Gosper, “but if they fulfil all their competition ambitions, then it’s definitely not out of the question.

Rugby world, you have been warned.

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