Try, try and try again: rugby's attempts to break China

Elizabeth Law
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Rugby has a reputation as a rough sport in China

Children run around a small indoor pitch in southwest China, laughing, zigzagging between cones and tossing around a rugby ball -- then one kid tears up when another fails to pass to him.

"Pass it on, get up and stop crying," coach Zhang Shuangyi instructs, with a dose of tough love from the sidelines at the Simba Rugby Youth Club in Chongqing.

Rugby is going through growing pains in China, where the sport known as 'olive ball' remains mysterious to many and attempts to spread its popularity are stuttering.

While Japan is hosting the Rugby World Cup which begins at the end of next week, the game is struggling for a foothold in China, its giant neighbour to the west.

China's men's team are ranked 80th out of 105 national sides, and were nowhere near qualifying for the first World Cup to be held in Asia.

Even a $100 million offer from Alisports, an offshoot of e-commerce giant Alibaba, to create professional men's and women's leagues failed to produce results. The plan was later shelved.

"Unlike football and basketball, rugby isn't very popular in China. Mostly, people think it's a rough sport," admitted Zhang.

- 'A sort of magic' -

World Rugby cites research claiming the sport has 30 million fans in China, which it says is the world's biggest fanbase alongside the United States.

Neither are exactly hotspots of the game, and in China much of the rugby activity centres on the dozens of amateur teams scattered among the country's mega-cities.

"The good thing about rugby is that there's a sort of magic to it that sucks you in, but it's not just the sport, it's also the camaraderie," Simba's co-founder Xia Jialiang, a former national team player, told AFP.

"This sort of magic with rugby is something that we hope to share with everyone," he said.

Simba was founded by members of an amateur team that had set up a gym in 2009 to help fund the squad's travels.

Eventually renaming themselves the Chongqing Rangers, the players, many of whom discovered rugby at university, then started an academy for older teens.

Now youngsters aged between three and 18 learn the art of passing, scrums, mauls and drop-kicks, three times a week, as well as soft skills like communication and teamwork.

"Many kids these days are only children who don't communicate much with others... which leads to them being more selfish," Zhang said, referencing China's now-relaxed one-child policy.

"But here, we emphasise teamwork and encourage the children to share. Many of them have learnt to communicate a lot better since coming here."

- Star in their eyes -

Parents say their children have also become healthier and more confident, recommending the club to friends.

"Those who don't understand rugby think it's a very rough sport but true rugby is something that is holistic and requires your entire body," said Liu Ying, whose four-year-old daughter Adora attends rugby classes weekly.

"She has become physically stronger, jumps further and falls ill less often now."

At the same time, the Rangers have continued to promote the sport among adults, even travelling to smaller cities for exhibition matches.

"In many cities, you have teams solely made up of foreigners," Xia said.

The team has seen reasonable success: the Chongqing Rangers is top in the region and came fourth in a national competition.

The inclusion of rugby sevens as an Olympic event raised awareness in China, but the support the game receives is a far cry from more popular sports like basketball and football.

The Chinese Rugby Football Association did not respond to request for comment about the sport's fortunes in China.

But back in Chongqing, there remains hope that the city of 30 million could someday produce a rugby star.

"We'll take it step-by-step," said Wang Shengchun, whose four-year-old son Tianyou trains at Simba Rugby.

"Maybe we'll start with him joining the school team, then the provincial team before making it to the national team," he said.