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In China the game of rugby has the poetic name ‘English olive ball’. Alibaba’s acquisitive chairman Jack Ma has taken a punt on the sport in a new venture and inked a “development and sponsorship” deal with World Rugby. The agreement was announced, fittingly enough, during the Cathay Pacific/ HSBC Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament last weekend, with Alibaba’s sports division, Alisport, committing to “a long term multimillion US dollar investment in the development of rugby in China”.

Under the deal, World Rugby and Alisports will work together to help China host more international rugby events, whilst Alisports will retain exclusive international rugby broadcast rights, for a channel it hosts online. World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset said, “This deal will ensure an unprecedented platform for rugby to reach, engage and inspire new participants across China.”

But this week the central government also unveiled its long-term plan for developing China as a powerhouse for football – an ambition close to football-fanatic Xi Jinping’s heart, and no doubt of interest to Jack Ma, who owns half of Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC. The plan aims to see China become the dominant soccer nation in Asia by 2030 and host and win the World Cup by 2050. The government wants there to be 50 million people playing football in China by 2020. Rugby will have a tough time competing with that…


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