Women's rugby team in China hold hopes for the nation

Olympic recognition has been a boon for the women's game on the mainland, expanding the pool of players beyond major centres

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 5:16am

Romance and matrimony have robbed China of their most experienced players but thankfully the mainland rugby gene-pool is bigger these days and there is hope in the air as the mainland women get their second World Cup campaign under way.

Four years ago in Dubai, China finished ninth out of the 16 teams participating in the inaugural Women's World Cup Sevens. That tournament had more to do with getting rugby sevens into the Olympic Games - to prove to the world, and especially the International Olympic Committee, that the sport was a game for both sexes.

Having achieved that goal - six months after Dubai the IOC voted rugby sevens in as a medal sport from the 2016 Games - the International Rugby Board has now turned a more serious eye on developing the women's game, having also put in place a women's World Series.

But it is the Olympics that have been a boon for China. Its women's head coach, Zheng Hongjun, says because of the Olympics, he has more players to pick from. Recent figures show that China has nearly 3,000 women playing rugby.

"I have lost a number of key, experienced players from four year ago because they either gave up rugby to get married or wished to continue their studies. But today more provinces are playing sevens and have women's teams so there are more players to pick from," Zheng said.

His squad in Moscow is brimming with young players, most of them inexperienced. While in the past most of the players would have been drawn from Beijing, this time the selection has been widespread, proving that the influence of the Olympics is already having an impact.

"In September we will have the China National Games and rugby sevens will be a sport for the first time. This has resulted in a number of provinces having rugby teams for both men and women, and this is helping the national team.

"This side in Moscow has got four players from Beijing, three for Shandong, two each from Jiangsu and Anhui and one from Sichuan," Zheng said.

While the Chinese men struggle to be competitive at international level, the men have made tremendous strides and are the flagbearers for the nation. Zheng, who once used to train the men's national team, said the odds were against the men.

"It is very difficult to get the best players for the national squad. The PLA players cannot get visas to play outside China for instance," Zheng said. "It is up to us [the women] to do well now and carry the torch in the absence of the men."

It will not be easy. China are drawn with defending champions Australia, South Africa and Ireland in their preliminary-round pool. The main goal will be to finish ahead of Japan and grab bragging rights to being the best in Asia.

"This World Cup is important as it will show us where we are with regard to world standards," Sheng said. "With the Olympics coming up in three years, we need to be the best in Asia if we are to qualify."