Shanghai Sevens lure for Olympic gold
IN a bid to build a long-term relationship with China, the International Rugby Board have offered the mainland the opportunity to host a leg of the World Sevens Series next year in Shanghai.
'The Shanghai Sevens could be one of the tournaments included in the World Sevens Series next year,' said Vernon Pugh, IRB chairman.
Pugh, who told Asian Rugby Football Union officials this week that the region had an important role to play in IRB plans to push the game into the 2008 Olympics, knows only too well the special significance of China.
Attempts to get the game into the 2004 Olympics in Athens failed simply because the International Olympic Committee had already decided to put a cap on the numbers of athletes participating at 10,000. The host city for the 2008 Olympics will be decided in Moscow next July. A strong contender is Beijing, who lost last time to Sydney. It is felt that a strong wave of sympathy votes will win Beijing the Games this time around.
If that happens, the IRB want to be in pole position to push their case for rugby in the Olympics. 'We have already started work on that,' said Pugh. He was referring to the IRB laying the groundwork with China. 'We know that Beijing is a strong favourite to win the 2008 Games and we know this decision will be made by next year.' Hence the carrot of giving Shanghai the chance to host a leg of the World Sevens Series. 'I hope Beijing will not be unhappy that we have asked Shanghai and not them,' laughed Pugh. 'It is one country after all.' The IRB have increased links with China, members since 1997. Earlier this year they earmarked China as one of the countries for a special project grant and promised to support the move to start a cross-border league between Hong Kong teams and Chinese sides next season.
All this assistance has been accepted gratefully by the Chinese Rugby Football Association, the governing body on the mainland. But they want more. 'If the IRB hope that China can host a leg of the World Sevens Series, then they should help us out with technical support and also more funding,' said Walter Li Gaochao, CRFA chairman. 'We are honoured that the IRB wants to host a tournament in Shanghai. We have the stadium to host such an important tournament but what we lack is people who can run the tournament. Also if it is to be a 16-team event, we need to spend a lot of money,' said Li.
Li realises that China has a big role to play in world rugby in the future. 'I know how important China is. Apart from the hopes of rugby being included in the 2008 Olympics, there is also the simple economic factor - China is a big market. China has become important in the world.' The forward-looking IRB also know that. 'I watched China make their debut internationally in Singapore in 1997. They were very enthusiastic, but they lost. The fact that they have now started to win matches is very encouraging. There has been a lot of progress,' says Pugh who attended the ARFU council meeting on Friday and is guest of honour at today's finale to the 17th Asian Championship.
Pugh is also delighted that the sport has once again been included as a medal sport at the 2002 Asian Games in Pusan. 'This is the second successive Asian Games where rugby will be a medal sport. The Asian Games is the second biggest multi-sport event next to the Olympics and the fact that rugby is being played will be enough proof for the International Olympic Committee to include the sport in the Olympics,' Pugh said.
Although satisfied with Asia's contribution, the IRB wants more in the form of more countries in the region playing rugby.
'There are 44 countries at the Asian Games. But we have only 12 members on board at present. The IRB wants us to increase to around 20 in the next five years,' said Jamie Scott, ARFU secretary general.
Having already promised Asia a place on the IRB executive council next year, Pugh and the IRB will continue pushing ARFU to extend its borders, and continue to nurture the growing love affair with China.