Zhang sets his sights on a new goal

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 March, 2010, 12:00am

It's early days yet in the Olympic dream, says China's 'Mr Rugby' Johnny Zhang Zhiqiang, but the benefits are already being felt on the mainland thanks to the game's profile being raised.

'The Olympic inclusion is a very exciting opportunity,' says Zhang. 'Policy and system updates of the Chinese Rugby Union are now in the process. Funding has not been clarified yet, but rugby in China has really received intangible benefits such as more media interviews, more media exposure. This has received a positive attitude. 'I think because of this the whole funding will improve, but it's early days yet,' he says.

Zhang, who will turn his hand to coaching and hopes to lead China to the Olympics, believes the sport has already been given a shot in the arm at grassroots level.

'The players are more excited and more passionate, and we are seeing more young children sign up. Perhaps one day they will represent their country at the Olympics.'

The IRB's regional general manager in Asia, Jared Gallagher, says the most important step is getting sevens into the 2013 National Games in Liaoning.

'This will have a dramatic effect on rugby as it will essentially widen the base of China's elite rugby players in the 2016 Olympics,' Gallagher said.

'In regards to funding, it is early stages at the moment. However, it is clear that rugby in China will have more recognition. And using this recognition to support the development of rugby as well as the elite game will be a good challenge.'

Zhang is determined to leave a legacy for China and rugby at the Hong Kong Sevens, and this year hopes to better his all-time record of a total of 202 points and 24 tries.

'I am 36 now and this will be my last year playing at the Hong Kong Sevens, but I would still like to coach the China national team.

'I am definitely trying to challenge myself to achieve an ever better score this year, so I have been working quite hard to make my body effective enough. I am aware that age is creeping up on me!'

Shandong-born Zhang believes there are two key reasons why he has been successful. 'Firstly, I really love rugby, and secondly, I am quite disciplined and focused.'

Before he retires to spend more time with his two-year-old son, Zhang has his sights set on a gold medal closer to home.

'I am also in serious training for the Asian Games. Apart from the Hong Kong Sevens, the biggest event in Asian sevens this year is in Guangzhou and it will be important to do well on our home turf.

'We are targeting a gold medal from this event, and are hopeful more Chinese people will come to the stadium to witness the game and develop a love of rugby.'

Despite having home-ground advantage, Zhang knows his team - mostly inexperienced youngsters apart from himself - will have some serious competition in November.

'Obviously Japan and Korea are both very strong teams and will be our greatest challenge,' he said.

Best of the best

Points scorers

Zhang Zhiqiang (China): 202
Ben Gollings (England): 182
Waisale Serevi (Fiji): 158
William Ryder (Fiji): 154
Simon Amor (England): 140
Santiago Gomez Cora (Argentina): 117
Uale Mai (Samoa): 111
Jovesa Naivalu (US): 102
Lolo Lui (Samoa): 99
Amasio Raoma (New Zealand): 97

Try scorers

Zhang Zhiqiang: 24
Santiago Gomez Cora: 23
Jovesa Naivalu: 20
Richard Haughton (England): 17
Fabian Juries (South Africa): 17
Karl Tenana (New Zealand): 17
Ben Gollings: 16
William Ryder: 16
Marius Schoeman (Russia): 16
Uale Mai: 15
Justin Wilson (New Zealand): 15