Chinese kids getting in touch with rugby
The introduction of a less physical version of rugby is boosting the game’s appeal among Chinese youngsters.
While the traditional format features heavy tackling among teams of 15 players, touch rugby, in which players defend by tagging an opponent’s body instead of tackling, is catching on with entry-level juniors.
“I knew nothing about the sport nor ever saw an oval ball before I was picked to the varsity team by my coach four years ago,” Gao Yongzong, a sixth-grader from Qingdao Liuting Primary School said on the sideline at the recent Beijing International Touch Tournament at China Agricultural University.
“Now I practice six times a week at school and it’s become part of my daily routine. My dream is to join the national team one day and be able to compete at the Olympics,” said the 12-year-old.
At the tournament, which saw 48 teams from across the nation competing in seven categories, the enthusiasm of young players like Gao in the eight-squad U12 mixed discipline stole the spotlight.
And an expert from rugby’s holy land has reached out to help the Chinese game.
Daniel Wards, a 24-year-old youth trainer from New Zealand, was hired by the Sharks Rugby Football Club in Qingdao, Shandong province, last year to coach juniors from 10 local schools which have introduced touch rugby as an extracurricular activity.
“They are really enthusiastic about the sport. For me, it’s pretty easy to coach as they want to learn new things all the time,” said Wards, who visits different schools every day to train the students.
“This game is great because everyone can play, including the girls. It’s quite simple (in rules) without much physical challenge, so it’s a great way to introduce rugby to the country.”
The Qingdao Rugby Football Association has been organizing regional school tournaments since 2010 and now boasts a 10-team amateur league to enhance the game’s appeal in the Eastern China city, said association director Wang Xiaokun.
“Just the basics, just get the simple things done over and over again, building up slowly. They’ve got speed and pretty good skills but it’s an experience thing and it takes time,” Wards said of the improvements needed.
Thanks to rugby’s return to the Olympics, youth development is now prominent on the governing body’s agenda.
“As well as focusing on nursing the national squad, we hope to invest more in grassroots programs by mobilizing social clubs and working together with schools to involve more children,” said Cui Weihong, director of the rugby department of the multi-ball games center of the General Administration of Sport.