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Hong Kong Rugby Union

World Rugby chief outlines how China plans to become a global force in the sport ‘in a hurry’ after US$100 million cash injection

Lofty goals include getting one a million players involved and ultimately hosting the Rugby World Cup, says Brett Gosper

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 October, 2016, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2016, 12:34am

China is a nation in a hurry to make an impact on the rugby scene and World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper couldn’t be happier.

As of this week, the Chinese Rugby Football Association has a serious ally, with Alibaba’s sports division – Alisports – to inject US$100 million into the sport in the country over the next 10 years.

There are plans for professional leagues, sevens programmes and mass participation in schools and universities, and the addition of 30,000 trained coaches and 15,000 trained match officials by 2020.

Gosper told the South China Morning Post that China is hoping to have all of these in place “as soon as possible”, with a domestic 15s league potentially running as early as next year.

Hosting the World Cup has been touted as the ultimate goal.

China plans to use sevens rugby as a springboard to catapult it into global awareness, but will base its long-term plans on a 15s foundation.

Alibaba’s sports division to pump US$100 million into rugby in China in bid to popularise the game

“We’re all in a hurry and that’s a good thing,” Gosper said.

“They are very keen, and rightfully so, to grow both [forms] but I think they believe, as seen in other markets, the infrastructural base of the sport is 15s and therefore the infrastructure around which you build everything else.

“[But] a very quick way to introduce the population and some player success is sevens. They see sevens as a chance to compete very quickly on the world stage and in order to get competitive they are probably seeing a three-year time span in terms of a really intense programme.”

China’s men are currently ranked 68th in the world in 15s and finished fourth in the recent Asia Rugby Sevens Series.

The women finished behind only Japan in the Asia sevens series and are 24th in 15s.

Gosper is excited about the potential a competitive China offers the game.

Alibaba’s sports division to pump US$100 million into rugby in China in bid to popularise the game

“One day we would hope them to be competitive enough to be knocking on the door of a Rugby World Cup and creating more income for World Rugby through broadcast rights,” Gosper said.

“In terms of the sheer numbers it will give to rugby as a sport throughout the world, compared to most other sports and compared to most other Olympic sports, [this] is interesting in itself.”

There is no bigger lure than the Olympics when it comes to sport in China and Gosper knows the recent inclusion of sevens in the Games is the key to meeting what seem like lofty targets.

The plan is to attract one million new players in 10,000 universities and schools within five years, with the programme set to be recognised by China’s Education Bureau.

“Obviously the Olympics give credibility in a country where rugby is not well known,” Gosper said.

“Initially we thought it might take 10 years to get to a million, but we worked very hard with the Chinese Rugby Football Association and with Alisports and the strong belief is that we can do that number within five years.”

Hong Kong has a role to play in the development of rugby in China, says union boss Vern Reid

Alisports will work with online viewing service Rugby Pass to beam rugby from the world over into China, something Gosper sees as crucial to “satisfying anyone who is curious or getting into the game”.

“Content is an important part of the strategy and we will be providing a lot of our content to China so they can deploy this through Alibaba’s digital channels and so on,” he said.

As for the rest of Asia, Gosper feels the investment will help “dynamise” the region and prompt other Asian countries to create greater ties with China.

Hong Kong is best placed to work closely with China throughout the different stages of the deal, whether that be educating officials in the early days or helping the country realise its goal of hosting high-profile events.

“I think Hong Kong will be of great interest to the Chinese,” Gosper said.

“I think they will want to understand the successes at the development level … also maybe the high-performance point of view and even reconciling 15s and sevens. Certainly Hong Kong in the sevens area is a very interesting mould both in terms of staging a world class event and also driving an increase in player performance.”