China set for first step on long rugby journey

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 March, 1998, 12:00am

Red hot rugby, a la Chinese, will be on show for the first time this weekend at the 22nd Hong Kong Sevens, which is backed by Credit Suisse First Boston - the last-minute sponsor of the event.

China, making their debut, will provide the novelty in a year which has a make-or-break feel to it.

The Home Unions have shunned the event. None of the big-name players from the Southern Hemisphere has turned up either. No wonder a perceived feeling of gloom and doom.

Even the legendary David Campese, turning up for Australia for the 11th time at this tournament, feels the lack of 'atmosphere'.

'The Home Unions will be missed. Probably the reason they did not come this time is because they never bloody win at all,' joked Campese, one of the few stars on show this weekend.

He has his reasons for turning up. At the twilight of an illustrious career, Campese is looking for one last hurrah - winning a gold medal for Australia at the Commonwealth Games in September in Kuala Lumpur.

The Australian Rugby Union have thus picked the former Wallaby winger to captain an untested side at the Hong Kong Sevens, seen as a crucial buildup to the Commonwealth Games.

China have no such ambitions. They are just beginning on a journey into the unknown. It was only last year - at the Carlsberg 10s - that they were officially welcomed into the world rugby fraternity by the International Rugby Board.

Today they will make their grand entry on to the world stage. China are in a tough pool alongside Western Samoa, Tonga and fellow-debutants Morroco. The Chinese can expect a rousing reception when they take the field this evening at 7.10 pm against awesome sevens specialists the Samoans. It will be a David versus Goliath encounter.

'I'm going to be nervous. I'm sure the rest of my teammates will be nervous too,' said captain Zhang Zhiqiang. 'My heart will be beating . . . I'm very excited.' If it is of any significance, the fact that Zhang has been inside the impressive 40,000-seater So Kon Po stadium before might just help soothe his nerves.

'I have been a spectator for the past three years and it has been a great experience for me. But this time it will be even more exciting as I will actually be running on to the field,' said Zhang, a centre three-quarter in 15-a-side.

In the past few years, Zhang has turned out for the Beijing Agricultural University at the Carlsberg 10s. He graduates today.

'This is my fifth year since I became a rugby player. There is no money in playing rugby in China. We are all amateurs. I know that some players around the world get a lot of money, but for us it is just a chance to play,' said Zhang.

Zhang was a member of the Chinese team who lost 33-3 to Singapore last November in the country's first 15-a-side international. He did not lead his country on that occasion, but has been called up this time.

'Zhang is very fast and probably the best player we have got. He is the player to watch out for,' said coach Zheng Hongjun.

According to the Chinese coach, the entire team consists of former runners. Not Ma's Army material, but still quite pacey.

'We are all excited. In about five years time we might win, but this time we are here to learn,' added Zheng.

For a tried and tested veteran like Campese, the excitement will be generated by winning. But for the 23-year-old Zhang, a native of Shandong province, the thrills at the moment will come from just taking part.

'Chinese rugby is just starting. I want to be a star,' said Zhang. He gets his chance this weekend.