China targets Olympic sevens
China will focus mainly on sevens in the short term - setting its sights on the 2016 Olympics - with its 15s programme taking a back seat, says former captain Johnny Zhang Zhiqiang.
Zhang (pictured), who will coach the mainland team at next weekend's Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens, said the Chinese Rugby Union and central government had placed a priority on rugby sevens.
The other top goal was establishing a core team in the HSBC Sevens World Series. 'The realistic goal for China is to focus on developing sevens rather than 15s,' Zhang told the South China Morning Post in an exclusive interview. 'Rugby is still new in China and due to the lack of famous players to inspire the next generation, the China Rugby Union plans to first develop sevens and push for 15s later.'
Zhang is still the leading try scorer at the Hong Kong Sevens and is second-highest points-scorer. He played at 10 Hong Kong Sevens with his last appearance being in 2010.
In 15s, China will take part in Division Two in the HSBC Asian Five Nations this year alongside Malaysia, Thailand and Iran. They won promotion from Division Three last year. The inclusion of rugby sevens in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 has sparked a big push by the central government and provincial governments to develop the game.
For the first time, a China Sevens Championships was held in Hefei, Anhui, last November with nine men's teams and eight women's teams participating.
'More provinces and cities have started to form their own rugby teams for sevens and the government has started to offer more support,' Zhang said.
'All the provincial teams devote a lot of resources to develop sevens and are hiring the best coaches in the country, as well as recruiting international rugby experts from places like Fiji, New Zealand, England and South Korea.
'At the same time many local governments send their teams overseas for training and to gain more competition experience.' Nine provinces have men's teams - Beijing, Shandong, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Liaoning, Inner Mongolia, Hebei, Shanxi and Guangdong - while the PLA also plays the game.
The same number of provinces also have women's teams, although three are situated in different areas with Anhui, Sichuan and Xinjiang coming on board.
The National Games in Liaoning next year will feature sevens as a medal sport. Only Olympic sports figure at these games.
The Chinese squad will largely comprise players from the China Agricultural University in Beijing, which has traditionally been the hotbed of rugby.
But Zhang said with all the development going on he expected more players from other provinces to filter into the national set-up. The decision to increase the number of core teams in the world series by three was also welcomed by Zhang.
'It would be huge to finish in the top three, giving us more opportunity to play on the world stage.
'In the past we used to play at the Australia Sevens and the New Zealand Sevens, but now we only compete at the Hong Kong Sevens. We are looking forward to trying to secure a berth in the world series.'
China are grouped with Tonga, Uruguay and Hong Kong in pool D in the preliminary round.
China have never qualified for the World Cup Sevens, and Zhang said that would also be another goal. The Asian qualifying tournament for next year's World Cup in Moscow will be held this year in Singapore, with three teams set to qualify.