The Chinese word for Rugby is 英式 橄榄球 （yingshi gan lan qiu）ie: ‘English Olive-ball game’- obviously because the ball is the shape of an olive.
It has not been a particularly popular game here compared with other Western sports such as basketball, tennis, football (aka soccer). It is mostly played by ex-pats, but is also played by members of the Chinese military who think the game is great for instilling team-work and toughening up the players. When they leave the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) many men and women who have played the game and come to love it have set up their own small Rugby clubs.
Now it has had a MASSIVE boost. The sports division of Alibaba – Alisports, headed by CEO Zhang Dazhong – is ploughing $100 million ( approx £80.5 million) into rugby in China over the next 5 years. This will pay for the training of coaches, referees, players etc…..and the numbers are huge – 30,000 coaches, 15,000 match officials and 1 million players by 2021 is what they aim to achieve!
Why are they doing this? Interesting question. Not being an expert on rugby in China (or anywhere else) I consulted my dear friend Robert Costello who has lived, worked and played rugby in China for a number of years. He told me:
‘..much of this is due to China’s desire to play a greater role internationally in not just the key hard-power areas of foreign policy, military presence and investment but also in soft power areas such as sport. One of the key developments we had was Rugby 7s being made an Olympic Sport for the 2016 Games in Rio this summer and with China still very driven on defining its sporting prowess through the number of gold medals, the Chinese government will want to boost its chances of making rugby another event to add to its medal tally in future Olympics.’