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Rugby World Cup

Rugby on ropes in China: US$100m investment fails to launch as World Rugby and Alisports lose patience

Ambitious project put on hold earlier this year after change in leadership in China rugby – and now partners’ patience with new regime appears to have worn out

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2018, 8:03am

A US$100 million investment by Alisports into China rugby, aimed at producing 1 million players within 10 years, is likely cancelled – reading between the lines of a terse statement from World Rugby.

In 2016, Alisports – the sporting arm of Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post – partnered with World Rugby chief Bernard Lapasset and CEO Brett Gosper in announcing an ambitious programme geared towards making China a giant in world rugby.

However, the project was “put on hold” after a change of leadership at China’s rugby governing body earlier this year.

The China sports ministry launched a clean-up of its sporting associations and one of those affected was the rugby body. World Rugby and Alisports had to sell its idea all over again.

Asked to confirm rumours that the partnership had been cancelled,

World Rugby communication manager Suzi Murray said: “We have no comment to make, for your background our commitment to rugby in China is unwavering.”

Alisports has also declined to comment.

One million Chinese rugby players in 10 years: Alisports and World Rugby join forces to develop the sport in the mainland

It was World Rugby that put the project on hold initially, according to Gosper, and it is likely that the governing body also made the decision to pull the plug given their frustrations at the lack of progress.

Gosper said at April’s Hong Kong Sevens that progress was already at snail’s pace even before the leadership changes.

“We signed an agreement with Alisports to work on developing rugby at grass roots level but also working on staging competitions in sevens and 15s, for men and women. That was the intention,” said Gosper in April.

“I’d have to say it’s been slow progress, the partnership. It’s slower than we would have liked. Things aren’t easy and rapid in China as we would have liked in the areas we are dealing with.

“It’s been slowed down recently by a change in the government’s administrative approach in China and what we have done is put [this programme] on hold for a month or two until we get clarity on who is leading rugby in China.”

What’s to become of US$100m? World Rugby’s Brett Gosper meets China officials but no word on Alisports investment

Gosper and other World Rugby leaders met Chinese rugby officials but there was little progress.

Alisports said it would use the US$100 million – to be disbursed over 10 years – to set up professional leagues for men and women and a national sevens programme.

CRFA’s last Twitter posting

In addition, they wanted to introduce the sport into 10,000 universities and schools in an effort to attract one million new players over the next decade.

They would also recruit and train 30,000 coaches and 15,000 match officials by 2020, while the company’s digital arm would launch a nationwide marketing programme and broadcast rugby on its TV and digital channels.

Late last year the China body was making ambitious plans to recruit talent from the mainland and around the world with an eye on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

However, official Chinese Rugby Football Association social media platforms have been silent since December 2017, mostly likely because of the leadership change.