The long and short of it
It's all about sevens as rugby neophytes China, dazzled by the Olympic rings, focus mainly on 'the short game'. Yet against all odds, including government indifference, the national 15-a-side team have moved up the Asian totem pole.
Led by old warhorse Johnny Zhang Zhiqiang, China defeated Guam 28-18 in the final of the HSBC Asian Five Nations Division Three tournament in Jakarta last weekend to earn promotion to Division Two next year and move up two places in the world rankings to 63. The win has raised faint hopes that the game on the mainland will not be engulfed by sevens mania.
'I still hold out hope for the 15s game in China, although today everything is about sevens,' says the 38-year-old Zhang, who was recalled from retirement to lead an attempt to climb back into the top echelon of Asian rugby, alongside the likes of Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, whose company they once kept.
Like Zhang, China's coach, Zheng Hongjun, believes the road ahead is fraught with pitfalls. 'The government's focus is now firmly on sevens,' Zheng said. 'The main challenges facing the 15s game are funds and the availability of players, both of which go primarily to sevens.'
In March 1997, China was welcomed as the 76th member of the International Rugby Board by the late Vernon Pugh at a small ceremony at Hong Kong Football Club. Pugh, a barrister by trade, was the first elected chairman of the world governing body. He was a visionary and dreamed that by 2020 China would be a force in Asia, and on the world stage. He also felt that if rugby was to truly become global, it needed to be in the Olympics.
If the likeable Welshman was around today, he would have seen one of his predictions being realised. As for China, those hopes have failed to materialise. Instead of progressing, China's 15s game has gone through a turbulent period in recent years.
Zhang hopes Jakarta 2011 will be the turning point. The former skipper of the national sevens team - he holds the IRB record for the most number of points scored at the Hong Kong Sevens - is a diehard supporter of 15s as it allows a player to develop all-round skills. 'I think 15s is a great platform for personal development and learning key skills such as teamwork and communication,' Zhang said. 'The longer version is the best training ground for learning the fundamentals of rugby, and our win in Jakarta gives me renewed hope for 15s.'
Zhang played a pivotal role in the triumph, scoring a hat-trick of tries and 18 points, but it once again showed China still depends on individual brilliance, and teamwork is a long way off.
Since the announcement that sevens had become an Olympic sport, 12 of China's 22 provinces have already taken it up in preparation for the 2013 China National Games in Liaoning province.
Next to the Olympics, the National Games is regarded as the most important and prestigious multi-sports event for athletes. Not only does it give the champion province bragging rights for four years, it is also the grooming ground for the future batch of Olympians.
'There are 12 provinces now fielding sevens teams and these players are treated royally by the provincial governments,' says Jarrad Gallagher, IRB's regional development manager for Asia. 'All the emphasis in rugby is on sevens and the government is backing it right to the hilt. This has also opened the door for more people to play rugby.'
Sevens has quickly acquired the aura of elitism, with the provincial teams built around a couple of members of the national sevens team.
'The players have a guaranteed lifestyle until 2013 with the provinces. They are at an elite level and they get respect and everything along with it,' Gallagher said.
Yet, this focus on sevens is helping to raise the profile of rugby, and by default the 15-a-side game, according to Zhang, who earned his spurs in the Hong Kong First Division league when he turned out for DeA Tigers.
'This is what China needs: a strong and vibrant domestic 15s competition. It is only the universities and the army [PLA] who play 15s, and now with the national focus on sevens, 15-a-side has taken a back seat,' Zhang said.
The team in Jakarta comprised mostly students from China Agricultural University in Beijing, the fount of the game in the mainland.
'We came together for a two-week training camp prior to the tournament. Usually we train two to three times a week, but it is not always possible,' said coach Zheng.
Li Haiyang, 21, is in his first year of university. Two years ago, he was drafted into the rugby team and last weekend he was playing for the national side. Such quick progress from novice to national player can only happen in China.
'The government's focus is definitely on sevens, but at university it's all about 15s. It is a well-liked sport and interest is growing rapidly,' said Li, a second-rower from China Agricultural University. 'I just want to continue to work hard and earn more opportunities to play for the national side.'
While the provinces will concentrate on bringing on sevens players, Zheng revealed that the China Rugby Association was still intent on developing the 15s game.
'Our intention is to link 15s to the universities and the army. Our ultimate aim will be to get back into the top division in the Asian Five Nations,' Zheng said.
That first step on the road back has been taken thanks mainly to Zhang, who played in China's first international fixture in 1997 when China lost 33-3 to Singapore.
At the time, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's then technical director George Simpkin, who had been instrumental in taking the game into the mainland in 1991 when 100 Chinese rugby players from Hong Kong travelled to play a series of games against the Guangzhou Agricultural University, said the way forward was to establish a league structure.
That never materialised due to lack of funds, and although China made progress, even famously defeating Hong Kong in a test match once, the game continued to struggle for funds and legitimacy. As it does today with all the money and focus on sevens.
Recently, Japanese sportswear giant Mizuno signed a deal with the Chinese Rugby Association - for sevens.
'The only problem with this is that if players only stick to playing sevens, they won't be able to draw upon the benefit of 15s,' said Gallagher.
Zhang is the case in point.