Niu Jian looks like a sturdy second-rower, or one of that new generation of tall, quick hookers who have transformed the scrum and given a welcome injection of pace into the modern game. He's sitting with the easy grace of an athlete at rest, a long-sleeved T-shirt stretched across his broad upper torso and a short-brimmed hat, like the ones worn by hip-hop stars, on his head. He looks just like any other young sportsman, basically. But then Niu, who plays for China's top side, China Agricultural University (CAU), and is a definite contender for the national rugby team, puts a hospital face mask on - common practice in this Beijing clinic where the 22-year-old star has been undergoing treatment for leukemia. Niu has been wearing the hat since he started chemotherapy for his illness. 'I love rugby, I enjoy it. It's a challenging game, a man's game. I'll never forget the coach telling me how you needed to have both the speed over short distances and the endurance over longer distances as well as body strength,' says the self-effacing law student, who comes from Shijiazhuang, the capital of nearby Hebei province. 'I feel weaker than before but there is no strong bad feeling. I've put on weight, about 10kg, because I'm not getting the exercise,' he says, shaking his head ruefully. Sitting on the bed with him is his mother, Wang Runting, who has been looking after her son day and night since he was diagnosed with leukemia on October 5. She is fiercely proud of his sporting abilities and reckons his fitness and strength could help him through this ordeal. 'His health was always good, he seldom even caught cold. After he hurt his leg during a tournament with South Korea and Japan, it took a long time to heal. And then the coughing symptoms began,' said Wang. His health didn't improve and his mother took him to hospital. A bone marrow test followed and his readings were low. Now Niu's mother will donate bone marrow for a transplant for her son. They're a good match and the doctors say the diagnosis is an optimistic one, according to his coach Zheng Hongyun, who is taking as strong a personal interest in helping his protege recover from this illness as he did in getting him to build himself up to be a contender for the national pack. The first priority is to stabilise his situation with chemotherapy and then, depending on how the treatment goes, the bone marrow transplant will follow. 'If he responds well, it could be very soon. If he needs more treatment, it could be the end of April. He's responding well to the treatment so far, no strong negative reaction. He's an athlete,' said Wang. 'When I heard Niu Jian had leukemia, I immediately rang his coach as the team were en route to Hong Kong. The coach was crying worse than I was, I had to calm him down. He had such high hopes for Niu Jian,' says Wang. 'The coach told him about it during a team meeting, and Jian's first comment was: 'Don't tell my parents, I'm their only hope'. He never shed a tear, I have such huge respect and love for him,' she says. She is clearly worried about her son's plight but she's a strong person, and spends a lot of time thanking people for all the assistance they have been giving her and her son. And they need the help. The cost of the treatment is not cheap, even in China where many of these procedures cost less than in the west. The cost of the transplant and other operations that Niu needs is estimated at around 500,000 yuan. Niu's fellow rugby players in China and Hong Kong have set up a fund to cover the costs. So far they have around half the money they need. The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union hosts two All-Stars games today at Hong Kong Football Club to boost the fund. Welshman Mark Thomas is one of the driving forces behind the fund to help pay for Niu's hospital bills. A coach of the Shanghai side, O'Malley's Hairy Crabs, who runs his own sports marketing business called S2M Group, he first heard about Niu's situation from a fellow enthusiast during a visit to Beijing. 'I'm a big rugby man. It's my passion and what I've played most of my sport at. I asked if there is anything I can do,' said Thomas. 'I know his coach. I know his side through playing rugby here for 10 years. So I said I'd be technical director of the fund,' said Thomas. 'He seems to be responding well and he's got every chance of pulling through because he's such a strong person. He's seen as a strong prospect. If he recovers he's got the ability to play for China. He's still young and remains a definite prospect.' In the cramped hospital room, which has two other patients, Niu is well aware of his situation but is not letting it get him down. He has to leave the hospital soon because someone else needs his bed - the hospital has a great reputation for its work in Asia. But it's still the things beyond the hospital walls that he loves to talk about, like calligraphy. 'I've loved drawing Chinese characters since I was seven years of age. But I haven't had enough time since the rugby started,' he said. Ah yes, the rugby again, of course. Becoming a rugby player in a country where many have never even heard of the sport, let alone played it, is hardly an automatic choice. Niu started playing as a way of getting into university. 'In middle school, I was a basketball player - rugby is not very popular in Chinese schools. When I graduated from there I heard that you could qualify to get into CAU in Beijing if you played rugby. The coach thought I was good, and I passed all the tests. 'I gave everything I had, it took a lot of effort. With basketball, your manual skills are very important, rugby is much more about the whole body. I put on 15kg soon after I started playing and got very fit.' Niu switches between hooker and second row, but at 1.85 metres, he's happier behind the props. He loves to throw the ball and spends a lot of time practising lineouts. To get into the mindset of the game he watched a lot of World Cup matches and Six Nations games. His favourite teams are England, recent form notwithstanding, and New Zealand. He's keen to get into sevens rugby but his main discipline is still the 15 or 10-man game. And like all Chinese sportsmen, he is optimistic about the future for the sport in his homeland. 'Chinese rugby has been improving these past couple of years. The problem is we are limited by capital as we don't have the money. If rugby is in the Olympics in 2008, then everyone will have to play, it would be great for the game. China has very few players so I'd definitely have a chance,' he says modestly. 'Maybe I'll have to join the backs, rather than stay with the forwards. I'm not as strong as I used to be.' he says, smiling.