Hitting with the heavyweights: China women join Sevens World Series elite after stunning South Africa
Victories over South Africa in the final of the qualifier and old foes Kazakhstan in Hong Kong show the team have what it takes to prosper on the world stage
China warned the rest of the world they are now a force to be reckoned with after their stunning unbeaten run at the HSBC Women’s Sevens World Series qualifiers in Hong Kong.
China booked their place with the elite after thumping current Series outfit South Africa 31-14 before more than 34,000 fans at Hong Kong Stadium.
The team had won all six of their previous matches in the tournament, handing defeats to Kazakhstan, Hong Kong, Brazil, Papua New Guinea and Belgium.
“We never imagined it would be this easy, we were prepared to face hardships,” said full-back Wang Wanyu, 21. “We were aiming for the trophy so we are thrilled.”
“Beating South Africa – rugby heavyweights – and our old foes Kazakhstan really bolsters the team’s confidence,” said winger Chen Keyi, who scored three tries in the final.
Chen, from Sichuan province, made the switch from track and field to rugby at age 14 because a rugby coach thought she would excel in the sport.
She is thankful for the sport’s recent spike in attention and looks forward to riding the rugby wave.
“There have been a lot of improvements, from the coach to players and facilities,” Chen said, adding that the team had recently hired a coach from New Zealand.
Born in the Jiangsu countryside, Wang was first introduced to the sport when a rugby team recruited her in middle school. Wang’s parents initially opposed the “brutal” sport, fearing she would get injured or fall behind in her studies.
“My mum would cry when she saw me playing,” Wang said. “For a long time, I didn’t dare to show my parents the games I played in.”
But after seeing their daughter jump from city level to provincial and eventually to the national first team, they have learned to support her.
Rugby still remains a relatively unknown sport in China. It has gained momentum over the past few years, driven by fresh policies and investment from government and private businesses.
Local governments have set up at least 10 provincial teams – and many more city-level teams – since 2009, the same year the International Olympic Committee decided to introduce it to the Summer Olympics.
In 2016, e-commerce giant Alibaba announced it would pump US$100 million into the sport over the next decade.
Alibaba (owner of the South China Morning Post) also co-organised the qualifying matches for last year’s China National Games, a major national sports event held once every four years. The Games started to include rugby in 2013.
While China perform well on the Asian circuit – winning the 2014 Asian Games and runners-up in 2010 – their emergence in Hong Kong is testament to the nation’s desire to perform on the world stage.
It also shows clear proof that the mainland’s investment in rugby is already reaping the benefits.
On top of government support, fans and enthusiasts have also mobilised themselves to create a better environment to foster the sport’s popularity.
Wu Lusheng, an investment banker who founded Fujian province’s first rugby club in 2010, said the game had experienced “exponential growth” in development over the past few years.
Wu’s club is the first founded in Fuzhou. There was a team founded in another Fujian city that predates them.
“When we started we couldn’t find other teams to play with, but now our schedule is packed throughout the year,” said Wu, who travelled to the Sevens with eight Chinese friends.
Fuzhou Tigers Rugby Club now has over 300 members and 50 players – all with full-time jobs – devoting their time to the sport they love.
Among the near-30 rugby clubs across China, Wu said the team was the only one founded by a Chinese person. The rest are run by expats, according to Wu.
In November last year, China created two national-level teams based in Jiangsu and Shandong provinces in an attempt to increase opportunities within the nation.
Women’s sevens head coach Lu Zhuan said increased competition in the country would help make Chinese players stronger.
With a core Series spot in the bag, a delighted Lu set his sights on defending the Asian Games in Indonesia in August.
“We are always looking to improve with each performance – non-stop improvement,” he said. “I look forward to taking this team to new heights.”
Springbok coach Paul Delport said: “Congratulations to China, they were definitely the most consistent team over the two days.
“I feel for the squad because it was not due to a lack of effort. We were beaten by a better side in the final.
“It is tough because we really wanted this, and unfortunately we came up short at the same stage last year.”