The Race for China – Rugby
Updated: May 29, 2019
In the 1930s rugby was adopted by the Chinese military so as to instil aggression in the soldiers. It is still widely used by the Chinese forces, however, the benefits are considered to be gained from the camaraderie and character building aspects of the modern game.
The first 15 a-side rugby league was founded in 1990 among universities based in eastern China and it was not until 1997 that the Chinese National team came into being. Since then Rugby has spread slightly through China but very much remains a minor sport that most people have not heard of or have much interest in.
This could all be about to change. A big reason for this is the recent inclusion of Rugby 7s in the Olympics. Since Beijing China’s performances have fallen back somewhat causing President Xi to recognise that reliance on the traditionally strong sports is increasingly unlikely to deliver the desired results.
There is, of course, a long way to go before China can compete with the likes of Fiji, but the first steps are now in place. AliSports (the sporting arm of online retail giant Alibaba) is leading the way. In April a deal was struck with World Rugby agreeing on mutual cooperation with regard to growing the game in China. More recently AliSports also came to terms with the Chinese Rugby Football Association, launching the C1M (China 1 Million) program.
C1M gives AliSports the exclusive rights to operation and development of the Chinese National Team and all tournaments that it takes part in. It also means that they will organise and run almost all rugby tournaments held in China as well as investing $100 million into the game over the course of the next 10 years.
AliSports has said that they are committed to growing both formats of the game, however, it will be interesting to see which way Beijing leans. In recent years President Xi has expressed a greater interest in 7s and the Olympics, however, the global attention gained by events such as the World Cup has proven a strong draw in the past.
World Rugby has said that China has ambitions to host a World Cup in the ‘not-too-distant future’, an event which is more likely to reach China before its football equivalent which will not be before 2030. Whilst this would massively help the exposure, a solid support base will be required to have any chance of being awarded the tournament.
In theory, AliSports is a very good candidate to nurture the growth of rugby in China. As an organisation, it has a strong digital pedigree, history of innovation and a background in sales. All three factors will be key in the promotion of rugby to a nation who’s avid sports fans have their considerable attention firmly focussed elsewhere, primarily soccer and basketball. Innovation, then, is likely to play a very large part in their efforts.
Rugby received a huge boost in Asia during the 2015 World Cup due to Japan’s historical performances, including a win over rugby super power South Africa. The 2019 World Cup is also set to be held in Japan for the first time, meaning AliSports will be very keen to establish a base from which to propel the sport forward during the biggest event in the Rugby calendar.
Like boxing, the core values of rugby should play well in China. It has a well-earned reputation as one of the greatest team orientated games and is considered to promote a culture of respect and bravery.
Conversely, success in modern rugby comes from a rare combination of size and skill. Both of these key attributes take time to develop, making it extremely hard to build a successful time in a limited time period. However, if there is a nation capable of rapid growth it may well be China. If a significant sector of the public is inspired by the sport there will be few limits on how far rugby can go in China.