Kick­ing up sup­port for ‘olive ball’ ex­pan­sion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SPORTS - By AN­GUS MCNEICE in Lon­don an­gus@mail.chi­nadai­lyuk.com

Brett Gosper, CEO of World Rugby, didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate the speed at which things can move in China un­til he ex­pe­ri­enced it for him­self.

Last Oc­to­ber, Alisports, an arm of e-com­merce gi­ant Alibaba, signed a $100 mil­lion part­ner­ship deal with Dublin­based World Rugby that was aimed at grow­ing the sport in China.

Gosper and his team set them­selves the ag­gres­sive tar- get of re­cruit­ing 1 mil­lion new play­ers over the fol­low­ing 10 years.

Both the Chi­nese Rugby Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion and Alisports ar­gued that the tar­get could be achieved in half the time.

“Al­ready, in the space of a year, we have seen player par­tic­i­pa­tion num­bers at least dou­ble in China, go­ing from a base of about 75,000, where it had been for a few years, to adding about 100,000 play­ers,” Gosper said on the week­end.

In­vented in Eng­land, “olive ball”, as rugby is known in China, has his­tor­i­cally been played most widely among ex­pa­tri­ates.

Gosper said the ad­di­tion of rugby to the Olympics for the first time last year made the sport more le­git­i­mate in the eyes of the Chi­nese pub­lic.

He said na­tional cam­paigns run by World Rugby and Alisports are be­gin­ning to bear fruit in the na­tion where bas­ket­ball and soc­cer are the most pop­u­lar team sports.

“Alisports is look­ing to drive the sport­ing mar­ket, in terms of par­tic­i­pa­tion, con- tent, and e-com­merce across the Alibaba plat­form,” Gosper said. “They see rugby in China as a growth sport. They also be­lieve, along with the govern­ment, that rugby can help im­prove the health of the pop­u­la­tion.”

The part­ner­ship’s grass­roots mass par­tic­i­pa­tion “Get Into Rugby” pro­gram has de­liv­ered equip­ment and spread the game in prov­inces around the coun­try. Dur­ing the past six months in China, 30 schools and four uni­ver­si­ties have added rugby pro­grams.

Hold­ing high-level rugby events in China is also a core part of Gosper’s strat­egy.

The 24-team HSBC World Sev­ens Se­ries is the top com­pe­ti­tion in the Olympic ver­sion of the game, in which teams field seven play­ers in­stead of the usual 15.

Gosper said World Rugby is plan­ning a high-level com­pe­ti­tion in Oc­to­ber in Shang­hai that will fea­ture the world’s top six or eight teams com­pet­ing for big prize money.

“That has be­come the fo­cus of most of our ef­forts at the mo­ment, and a lot of the fund­ing from Alisports would go into pro­vid­ing a bud­get for that tour­na­ment,” Gosper said.

“We think that would pro­vide a driv­ing cat­a­lyst for every­thing else.”

Part of Gosper’s op­ti­mism that the sport will catch on stems from the fact rugby is a truly global game, with many coun­tries com­pet­ing at the elite level.

As is the case with soc­cer, Chi­nese author­i­ties are ea­ger to sup­port sports that have a global ap­peal.

AP FILE

At­lanta Hawks’ Tim Har­d­away dunks against the Washington Wiz­ards in At­lanta in April. Har­d­away of­fi­cially re­turned to the New York Knicks last week­end.

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