07 Apr 2017 - 21:40
Rugby can rival football in China: Chief
Hong Kong: Rugby can grow from a niche sport to be as big as football in China and eventually rival the cash-rich Chinese Super League in popularity, the head of the sport in the world's most populous nation said.
Wang Liwei, head of the Chinese Rugby Football Association, said China's President Xi Jinping was a rugby fan and Beijing had thrown its weight behind the drive to popularise what is known as the 'olive ball game'.
Although China has only a small number of players, e-commerce giant Alibaba plans to plough $100 million into rugby over the next decade, setting up professional men's and women's leagues and expanding the playing base to one million in just five years.
Wang, speaking through an interpreter at this week's Hong Kong 10s, where China's CRFA Gladiators were competing, admitted it would take "years" to build rugby in China but he said there was great potential.
"We are still at the initial stage. We hope... we can make rugby more popular in China -- of course as big as the Super League," said Wang.
A top-level push to turn China into a football superpower has prompted massive investment by the country's clubs and conglomerates, attracting elite players and coaches.
Whether rugby, which lacks football's traditional following and club structure in China, can tread a similar path is open to question.
The country of 1.3 billion has just 1,000 registered players and rugby will face competition from other sports, including American football's NFL, which are also trying to establish themselves in China.
Wang said China would make fast-paced rugby sevens a "priority" after its successful inclusion in the Olympics, although the Chinese failed to qualify for the event at last year's Rio Games.
China are also absent from this week's Hong Kong Sevens but Wang said China would host a series of sevens competitions this year in cities including Shenzhen, which sits on the border with semi-autonomous Hong Kong. Despite the emphasis on sevens, Wang insisted China would not "give up" on the 15s version of the game, adding: "We will learn from other countries to set up professional 15s clubs."
But he admitted there was no firm deadline for establishing a men's professional 15s league, with the CRFA only aiming for at least four clubs from 2018. China's rugby fanbase is small, Wang said, with foreign fans and university students set to provide the bulk of support. He said World Rugby's 'Get Into Rugby' project would help build interest among schoolchildren, and hoped that one day, homegrown rugby players would become popular heartthrobs.
Wang said Chinese parents were increasingly willing to let their children play the game, despite concerns about injuries on the field.
"Even though they maybe have a little concern about the strong confrontation between the players, (parents) hope through the game and competition children can build up the spirit of teamwork and make friends," Wang said.