CHINA continued to make slow but steady progress up the steep learning curve of international rugby yesterday, but they go into today's bowl competition still searching for their first victory of the tournament.
Having been walloped 69-0 by Samoa in their opening match on Friday night, the Chinese camp expressed the view that 'things could only get better'.
Yesterday, it was fair to say that 'things' did just that. Despite being well-beaten in both of their remaining Pool D games against Tonga and Morocco, the mainlanders did enough to suggest that they will continue to improve.
A 49-5 defeat against Tonga, followed by a closer 20-7 loss against Morocco left manager Li Gaochao cautiously optimistic of his team's chances today. 'We have played three games so far and I think the team has got better with every game.
The players in our side have never played in a tournament at this high level and they have coped very well,' Li said. 'The players were nervous on Friday before the competition but they have got more confident with each game. 'We are not going to set ourselves any targets for Sunday but if we can continue to get better, we will be happy whatever happens,' he added.
On yesterday's evidence, it appears that with a little more tactical savvy and organisation, China might well live up to predictions of being a force in Asian rugby in the new millennium. In captain Zhang Zhiqiang they have a player of exciting potential and nippy winger Mu Hua also caught the eye. China's problem, according to Li, is retaining their best players.
'We don't have a club structure in China at the moment and that is a problem. 'Most of our players come from university sides and once they leave university there are not many opportunities for them to play rugby on a regular basis,' he explained.
'But we hope that as rugby gets more popular in China this will change. Already we are trying to set up clubs in Beijing,' he added. Chinese skipper Zhang was instrumental in creating his team's first try of the Sevens with a lovely piece of work against Tonga.
Zhang made a quick half-break just outside his 22, played a cheeky grubber kick past his marker and then gathered again to release to wing man Mu Hua, who scorched outside the cover for a fine try. But the mainland's possession of the lead was fleeting and once China's players began to tire, Tonga soon began to punch holes in the defence.
China were determined to go down fighting, however, and some of their tackling was out of the top drawer. Where they came up short was in their defensive alignment. All too often Chinese players rushed into tussles with their bigger and stronger opponents and left themselves outnumbered out wide. It was a similar tale against the Moroccans, who China will meet again today in the opening round of the Bowl competition.
Although winger Mu again put his side into the lead with a well-worked try, China were eventually overpowered by the North Africans, who were also making their first appearance at the tournament. Many of the Morocco squad play in France and their experience showed during the China game. But they are by no means unbeatable, and if China get a small slice of luck they could well have something more tangible than improvement to celebrate: a win.