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22 Mar 2013

Week in China: Must try harder

Twickenham, the Stade de France, Murrayfield and in the future perhaps Zengcheng too? According to the People's Daily, officials in this satellite city of Guangzhou have ambitions to establish Zengcheng as a "city of rugby" and to this end they're currently building a new stadium. On completion, the ground will hold 30,000 spectators, an admittedly modest size by the standards of the sport's international stamping grounds (the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, for example, holds about 95,000). But could the move still signal a new seriousness about the sport in China?

Week in China

'English olive ball' – as rugby is known in Chinese – is becoming higher profile in the country, says the Oriental Morning Post, after its inclusion as an Olympic sport. Rugby will be played at the Rio games in 2016, albeit not the standard format (of 15 players) but as sevens, which tends to be higher-scoring, faster-moving and generally a little less violent.

Sevens rugby (so called because it features seven players) will also make its debut as a medal sport at China's national games in Shenyang this August. Any sport which makes it onto the roster at the national games is immediately flagged as one the Chinese sports authorities intend to cultivate – with a view to eventually becoming a contender for an Olympic medal.

At the forefront of this drive is Zengcheng, which plays host to 200 female players later this month in a 12-nation tournament. In October Zengcheng will also hold an international men's sevens tournament too. Senior officials from the county-level city told the People's Daily that their investment in the sport will "enhance the visibility of Zengcheng internationally".

Certainly it will be the first time that many of our readers will have heard of Zengcheng (although a few might recall a riot there in 2011). But for China (and by definition Zengcheng too ) to emerge as a rugby powerhouse is a heavyweight task. Many parents object to their children playing rugby at school, believing it too dangerous (the Yangtze Evening News quoted one father as saying it was "the sport of barbarians").

Nor does it help that the game has a very limited heritage in China, in no small part because the Communist Party banned it in 1949. (It regained lawful status in 1997 when China played its first international rugby match, losing 33-3 to Singapore.) All this has had a predictable outcome: there are only about 3,000 players nationwide.

Zengcheng now hopes to launch 68 teams, which would be a major boost to the rugger population. Currently there is only one professional team in China – part of the People's Liberation Army – and just two amateur squads (China Agricultural University boasts one, and Shanghai University of Sports the other). Nine provincial-level teams are now being formed too.

The talent pool is currently thin: the national squad has just 100 players to draw from, says Zhang Zhiqiang, who represented China in the sport at the East Asian Games. Zhang says the state only gives its national rugby players RMB20 (USD3.21) a day to live on. Little wonder then that China ranks a lowly 66th in the rugby world. And also not much of a surprise that China failed to qualify for this weekend's Hong Kong Sevens, which is jointly sponsored by HSBC and Cathay Pacific. One of the great events in Asia's sporting calendar (it's been running for 38 years) the tournament brings the best sevens teams from around the world to the city (16 play in the main competition, and 12 in a separate tournament).

In a research report published last week, HSBC's analysts had some fun predicting the likely winners (the top pick was Fiji) as well as coming up with some unexpected correlations. For example, the quants found that Japanese equities soar whenever Fiji beats New Zealand in the final. Business confidence in the US rises most in years when Samoa wins. And the only time that productivity in the UK has shown signs of improvement is in the same year that the event is won by Australia.

How about indicators linked to China? How about the bizarre fact that year-on-year growth in the country's forex reserves has been negative in all six of the years that Fiji has won since 1995.

The tournament is always an exciting weekend and the competition is intense. Five different nations have won the most recent five tournaments on the international sevens circuit. Fiji won the opening event of the HSBC Sevens World Series in Australia, while Samoa won in Dubai, New Zealand won in South Africa, England won in New Zealand and South Africa triumphed last month in Las Vegas.

Picking this year's winner looks tough. Picking the year China might eventually win, tougher still...

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