Sisters of skill out to make impact for Chinese sevens side

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 August, 2008, 12:00am

Now the Olympics are over, many eyes will be on the Chinese women's sevens team as they bid to become the first mainland side to qualify for the Rugby World Cup Sevens.

While maintaining a neutral stance, there is no doubt the International Rugby Board would be delighted to see China's men and women book their place in the 2009 Sevens showpiece in Dubai when they play at the Asian qualifiers in Hong Kong on October 4-5.

'China has never played at a World Cup and their best chance this time lies with the women,' according to Jarrad Gallagher, the IRB's development manager for Asia. For the first time, a women's World Cup will be held with the men's event.

'The men will find it tough to qualify as only two berths are available and they will face stiff competition from the likes of Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. But the women have a realistic chance,' Gallagher says.

Senior IRB officials, including chairman Bernard Lapasset, have been in Beijing for the past three weeks rubbing shoulders with members of the International Olympic Committee as they strive to present rugby sevens' case for inclusion as a medal sport at the 2016 Olympics.

The best possible scenario for rugby's world governing body would be the presence of China at the World Cup.

'Yes, it would help the cause,' says Gallagher. 'And I'm confident the Chinese women will qualify. They are ranked number two behind Kazakhstan and should be able to finish in the top three. I will be disappointed if they don't qualify.'

China are one of nine teams competing for three women qualification places - the others being the Arabian Gulf, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Kazakhstan, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

During his stay in Beijing, IRB chief Lapasset met the captain of the Chinese women's team - 22-year-old full-back Liu Yan - and watched the squad training for the Hong Kong qualifiers.

'We have been training hard for the past three months,' says Liu. 'Our goal is not only to qualify for the World Cup next year, but also build a strong team for the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou.'

Gallagher admitted that most of the focus was on the Asian Games, which were even more important than the World Cup for the Chinese.

'Looking at their squad [Chinese women] right now, I can see they have lost a number of their regular players who have qualified from university and moved on. They are thinking ahead to the 2010 Asian Games. Our hope is that they can retain some of these players for the World Cup qualifiers,' Gallagher says.

'But even without these players, China will still be a good side as their key players are still around, including their captain and vice-captain. This side has speed and if they can sharpen their skills in the next month, they will be a threat.'

Liu, from Shandong, has been playing the game for four years. While winning through to the World Cup is important she also regards herself as a trail-blazer.

'If we do well, we can inspire the next generation to play and get involved with rugby. And who knows, one day we may get rugby sevens to be an Olympic sport as well. What an honour that would be,' Liu says.

China's men won the bronze medal in the 2006 Asian Games in Doha and are aiming to go at least one better and reach the gold medal match when the Games are held in Guangzhou.

Chinese Rugby Union secretary-general Liu Rongyao says that is not an impossible task. 'We are very competitive in Asia,' he says. 'Rugby Sevens is very suitable for Chinese people.

'If we do well and make it to the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai, and get gold at the Asian Games in 2010, rugby could really take off in China.'

That would be the dream scenario for the IRB - to have the country which won the most gold medals in Beijing doing well in a sport which they want included at the 2016 Olympics.

Rugby sevens will be up against golf, squash, karate and roller-sports - all of whom failed in their bid to make it into the 2012 London Olympics - as well as baseball and softball.

The latter two were voted out, and Beijing was their last Games. They will be making a case for reinstatement.

'It is going to be a tough challenge,' Gallagher says.

'We at the IRB have met many IOC officials these past few weeks, but a lot of work still remains to be done.'

Liu and her team could make it easier if they do the job in Hong Kong in October.

Fighting chance

The number of Asian qualifying places up for grabs for the women's World Cup Sevens from nine competing teams: 3