Hong Kong Sevens

Rambo Leung relishes the challenge of conquering the mainland

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am

His name is Rambo and he's a man on a mission, but getting rugby to flourish in China could be even trickier than some of his namesake's adventures - if rather less dangerous.

Rambo Leung Yung-kit became the first local Chinese player to play for the Hong Kong national XVs side in 1993, and having served the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union in various capacities for over 20 years, is now spreading the rugby gospel to the mainland as China consultant for the International Rugby Board.

Focused on provincial and pathway development, his goals are to increase participation and the number of spectators at matches, and increase awareness of the sport in government and other circles. Given that many mainlanders don't even know what rugby is, it's a daunting task, but the former hooker is tackling the challenge with the gusto he showed in his playing days.

'This is my sixth year in China,' said Leung as he took a break from his duties at last month's Shanghai Sevens, where China went out in the quarter-finals to eventual winners South Korea. 'From 2002-07 I was working for the Hong Kong union on secondment to Shenyang in the northeast. At that time we had only about 18 universities that had a team and no one understood what we were doing, but the players and coaches were very supportive because they could see it's a real man's game.

'They could see it builds up teamwork, and something on the negative side about the one-child policy in China is that these kids know less about teamwork and communication,' added Leung, whose passionate advocacy for the sport's ability to instil those virtues is infectious.

'In one primary school in Shenyang we sent them to represent China in an international tournament. The kids started off only getting 70 points [in exams], but by the next year they were getting 90 points because we said only kids that studied well would be allowed to play and the kids love rugby. The best result is when the student goes to middle school and they're representing the school and leading their classmates because of the confidence and teamwork they got from the game; rugby can change these kids. [My goal] is not just about promoting rugby as a professional sport.'

Since China made its international debut in 1997, the IRB has made it one of its key targets for development. The game received a huge boost on the mainland with the inclusion of rugby sevens in the Olympics and consequent influx of financial support. Most provinces now have their own sevens team, while the sport will make its debut in the National Games in 2013. But Leung admits there's still a long way to go.

'Most people in China would not have seen rugby or even know what it is,' he says. 'Shanghai is different. Beijing and Guangzhou have it on TV, but that's not the case elsewhere. The IRB is trying to work with provincial TV channels to provide a feed for them.

'It will be interesting to see the National Games. Every province wants a gold medal to benchmark their development. Fourteen provinces have a team now, five or six aren't even focusing on these games in 2013, they're focused on the next one in 2017.'

While obviously delighted with these developments, Leung is eager to ensure that XVs and playing the game for the sake of enjoyment are not forgotten.

'On the development side we still need a push there to introduce them to different concepts,' he says. 'We stress it's a leisure activity as well, it's not just about Olympic gold. If you go that way you get more spectators, more community understanding. It's not just about one more gold medal, but about the impact for your city or province to work more together.

'The players get a salary and maybe support in education for their future career, but what pleases me is that people are playing for the love of the game now, not just because they're athletic and can make a living from it, but because they love the game. That can be a big aid for development as well, being motivated by love and not just money. Sevens is great because of the medical and financial support and so on, but we also want to develop the 15-a-side game because there's a band of knowledge and understanding about the game that it gives players.'

There's no league structure, the short nature of sevens and the distances involved in travelling making it impractical. 'But a lot of provinces would like a series,' says Leung. 'We're pushing an idea like the China series. Maybe each province could host a tournament with a few weeks between provinces.'

As evidence of how seriously provinces are taking the game, Leung says some are planning to go to Fiji and New Zealand to train for up to six months, while the IRB is providing advice to two provinces who want to hire foreign coaches.

Leung says the women's team have more immediate prospects of success - they beat Kazakhstan to win a four-team tournament at the Shanghai Sevens, avenging their Asian Games final defeat and making the CCTV news - but says the men's team 'have made great strides in the last few years on their physical development and on their game knowledge'.

And if some success is achieved, Leung is in no doubt the response will be massive. The Shanghai Sevens crowd looked sparse as the event was upgraded to the 20,000-seat Yuanshen Stadium for the first time, but Leung pointed out that many of them were Chinese, rather than expats.

'We also did well in the Asian Games in Guangzhou,' he says. 'Ten thousand people came to watch every day for three days and at the end 16,000 asked to come and watch more, because now they loved the game.'

More recruits for Rambo's army; meanwhile, he'll continue to fight the good fight.