AS New Zealand's mighty rugby team prepares to defend its Hong Kong Sevens crown, George Simpkin is already celebrating a major breakthrough for the sport. The expatriate New Zealander and technical director for the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union (HKRFU) has, for the past three years, been a man with a mission: to introduce rugby to China. First, he tackled the ambitious plan by staging a week-long rugby clinic with a People's Liberation Army (PLA) troop in Beijing. The next step in his campaign was to organise a training camp for 100 novice rugby coaches in Shanghai - the logic being that 'if you coach a coach, two teams totalling 30 players benefit'. Since then, the sport has taken a foothold across the length and breadth of China and last month Mr Simpkin's zeal was finally rewarded with the formation of China's first provincial rugby association. The launch of the Guangdong Province Union, which he described as a 'huge breakthrough', now opens the door to structured leagues on the mainland, as well as regular matches against Hong Kong teams and international competition. Mr Simpkin, who formerly coached the New Zealand provincial side, Waikato, as well as Fiji, said: 'We even have Cossacks, Mongolians and Uzbekhistanis playing.' China may play in the Hong Kong Invitational Sevens once the country forms a national body to govern the sport - a move which may be likely now that rugby is to be played as a demonstration sport at the Sydney Olympics. In the meantime, two teams (Beijing Agricultural University and the Guangdong PLA) will be competing in the Carlsberg 10s tournament on March 22 and 23 and will be guests of the HKRFU at this year's Sevens. Dave Roberts, chief executive of the HKRFU, said the move was a natural lead-in to China competing in the Sevens. 'I would hope that, by the time Hong Kong hosts the World Cup Sevens in 1997, China will be vying to qualify,' he said. 'Potentially, they are a strong rugby-playing nation.' The HKRFU also has ulterior motives for introducing rugby to China - and particularly to the PLA. 'One of the reasons for establishing a rugby structure in China is because we are looking ahead to 1997,' Mr Roberts said. 'A lot of our pitches are on military land and, when the PLA takes them over, we want them to continue to be used for playing rugby. Encouraging the PLA to play rugby is part of our strategy.' Mr Simpkin said $1.6 million had already been invested in introducing rugby to China, where the players 'can't afford balls or boots'. The HKRFU has now applied for funding from rugby's international governing body to promote the sport further in China. A major coaching school is proposed for Beijing and Mr Simpkin wants to distribute 2,000 video tapes on every aspect of rugby to coaches throughout the country. 'They are incredibly tough players,' Mr Simpkin said. 'They manage to play on rock-solid grounds and could easily compete internationally within four or five years if the state sponsors the sport. 'After all, they can select the biggest and strongest athletes from a total population of about 1.18 billion.'