It’s known as ‘English olive ball’ in China to differentiate it from American football. And while rugby remains very much a minority sport – with just over 5,000 players scrumming down on a regular basis, most of them university students or soldiers – the decision by CCTV-5 to air the Rugby World Cup has sparked interest in the game.
China is 67th in the World Rugby rankings, but the inclusion of sevens rugby in the 2016 Olympics means more resources are being channelled into the sport as China chases more medals in the international arena.
That partly explains why the current World Cup is being broadcast on CCTV-5, the main sports channel. The coverage is designed to be educational, with pundits layering the commentary with descriptions of what is happening, and why. “The foul is given because he knocked it forward. The two people in the middle of the ruck are the numbers four and five,” explained one commentator, before digressing as to why a player is sin-binned for 10 minutes following a yellow card.
Aside from the rules, there was context and perspective too. “It hasn’t been a flowing game – this is a French second-string team as France are much better than Romania,” another commentator confided during one of the more one-sided matches.
The Chinese terms for the sport can be a little difficult to work out. For a while WiC’s roving rugby correspondents thought that mao’er was the name of one of the players until we realised that it described a maul. La ke is a ruck and sikelan is a scrum.
A trawl through some of the comments on social media shows that many Chinese see rugby as a rough game for people with strength but little intellectual ability. And it also seems those hard-working commentators will have quite a job making the game better understood, despite their efforts to explain what is going on. “I have watched three games this weekend, but I still haven’t understood the rules yet. It’s so complicated and a bit brutal,” wrote one netizen on weibo.
Before the 1949 revolution, there were rugby clubs in Shanghai, but they were closed in the 1950s when the National Sports Council reportedly banned the sport, saying “sullied bodies” should not be allowed to make physical contact. In 1990, rugby made a tentative return at Beijing Agricultural University, when a professor organised a game. Since then it has mostly been played by expatriates, especially in Shanghai, although other cities with significant foreign populations have fielded teams too.
Online wags have quipped that the Chinese might become more of a force in future, because its young people are drinking more milk and eating more meat than ever before, and thus could get big enough to compete with the bulky foreigners contesting the World Cup.
Often a sport needs to be an Olympic event to garner greater interest in China, and while the 15-a-side game featured in the 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games, there has been no rugby at the games in over nine decades.
In fact, it is the sevens game that is more likely to thrive than the 15s if China’s interest in rugby continues to grow. The announcement that Rio de Janeiro will see the Olympic debut of rugby sevens next year has encouraged the sporting authorities to direct some its young athletes to play this variety of the game (it’s faster and a lot less violent).
In fact, the focus on the shorter format may have damaged China’s prospects at 15s, according to the best player it has produced so far, Zhang Zhiqiang, who lined up for the Leicester Tigers and is now coach at China Agricultural University. “Our national system is geared towards an Olympic strategy, and sevens, as one of the Olympic events, gets more attention,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “From 1990 to 2005 when we played 15s, we were among the top three sides in Asia. Our best world ranking was 37. But later, we turned to sevens and our performances in 15s got worse,” he said.
Another potential factor in stirring Chinese interest in the game is Japan’s prominence in the sport. It will host the next World Cup in 2019 and its current team flabbergasted the rugby world with a 34-32 victory over two-time champions South Africa last month.
Sure enough, the general line on weibo was that China’s rugby team shouldn’t expect to get good enough to take on the European sides, or New Zealand or Australia, but instead focus everything on beating the Japanese…
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