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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: November 29, 2010 NO. 48 DECEMBER 2, 2010
Rugby Sevens on the Map
Despite losses at the Asian Games, rugby variant set to rise in popularity in China

FIERCE COMPETITION: A Chinese rugby team member (in black) plays against South Korea in a preliminary match on November 22 (XU JIAJUN)

The sport of rugby sevens aroused cheering and excitement among spectators during the Guangzhou Asian Games.

Although Chinese teams on both men's and women's sides could not win a title, the Games still witnessed the rise of the sport in China, said Jiang Xuming, coach of the men's rugby team of China.

Rugby sevens is a variant of rugby union in which teams are made of seven players, instead of the usual 15, with shorter matches.

The men's sevens was included at the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1998 and the women's made its debut on November 21 at the Guangzhou Asian Games.

In China, the sport is still unfamiliar to most people but that will not be an obstacle to its growth.

On November 23, in front of more than 30,000 fans, the finals took place at the University Town Main Stadium in Guangzhou, south China's Guangdong Province.

"I've never seen this many people cheering for us before. All of the players are thrilled," said Liu Yan, captain of the Chinese women's team.

Chinese male player Zhang Zhiqiang agreed with Liu. "The biggest surprise we got from this Games was the fans at the stadium. Rugby is not a hot sport and when we were playing in Doha four years ago, there were only 200 people watching. But here, wherever we go, either in Athletes' Village or in the venue, we can hear people say 'Go China,'" he said.

Unfortunately, the Chinese men's team failed to win a bronze medal after they lost 14-21 to South Korea.

The men's title went to Japan who defeated their rivals from Hong Kong.

On the women's side, Chinese rugby players were one step away from the Asian crown after losing to Kazakhstan 14-17.

China went through to the final without conceding a single point in the competition.

Kazakhstan's gold medal win came despite China appearing to have won on the final play of the match.

Chinese player Sun Tingting crossed the line for what would have been the winning try but forgot to bend her knees as she grounded the ball and it slipped out of her hand to the crowd's dismay.

After the match, Chinese women players left the pitch in tears.

Despite losing the games, the excellent performances should spur more young Chinese to consider picking up the rough-and-tumble sport.

"It is a great opportunity for the sport to be recognized in China, so more people can start to play," said the 24-year-old Liu, who described her introduction to rugby as a case of love at first sight.

"People have so many misconceptions about girls playing rugby in China. They think the sport is violent and not suitable for women," she said. "But the truth is that we try to avoid body contact as much as possible by picking our tactics carefully and playing at a quick pace. It's as much about brains as it is about brawn."

There are fewer than 30 women playing rugby at a professional level on the mainland, compared to 10 times that number in Hong Kong.

Nine of China's 12 national team members hail from China Agricultural University, which established the country's first women's team in 2004.

With rugby sevens set to join the Olympic roster at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, Liu's team managed to secure funding and training equipment to assist its progress. Teams have also been set up at the provincial level in China to scout more talent for the national side.

"The biggest problem is that we don't make any income playing rugby. We need to hold down full-time jobs to support our dream," Liu said. "There are many talented students who can't juggle both and have no choice but to quit when they find a job, even though they are passionate about the sport and would love to keep playing."

Zhang Xiaoning, Chairman of the China Rugby Football Association, said rugby's popularity at the Asian Games has grown consistently since 1998.

"The highly competitive, non-stop action has proven a hit with fans and broadcasters across Asia," he said.

When talking about players, Chinese coach Jiang said the physical strength and speed of the Chinese players are in the top level of Asia, but they lack experience of playing in big matches.

"The current players are mainly from China Agricultural University and an army school. With some senior players, like the 36-year-old Zhang, tending to retire, we need more players for rugby," he said.

Player Zhang says she thinks more good players will emerge with the popularity of the sport. "With more financial support and competition experiences, I believe China's rugby can develop to a world-level power in five to six years," he said.

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