Rugby in China: The Chinese team will be playing in the 2019 Rugby World Cup

In less than 20 days, New Zealand will be overrun with striped jerseys and empty beer vessels as the rugby world converges for the third largest sporting event on the planet, the Rugby World Cup


20 nations will be competing for rugby supremacy in the Nile River of rugby tournaments.  Yet in China, the world’s most populous nation, the dedicated following of the rugby will be limited to a few smoky expat bars and a handful of committed Chinese rugby heads (most of whom will be supporting the All Blacks)


Chinese rugby fans of the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup. Click here if you’re in China where You Tube Videos are blocked 中国橄榄球的人


Rugby: Banned by the Chinese Government

Rugby was once like a Class A drug in China, the bad boy of sports that was banned by the PRC National Sports Council who deemed “the meeting of sullied bodies in physical contact cannot be approved”.


It wasn’t until 1990 when modern China fielded its first rugby team at the China Agriculture University in Beijing.  But there is still no specific Chinese word for rugby; 橄榄球 or gǎn lǎn qiú means both rugby and American football in Mandarin and literally translates to ‘olive ball’.


Things are improving however.  To toughen up their soldiers, the Chinese Government recently made rugby an official sport of the People’s Liberation Army and Mizuno has just sponsored the national team.

China Rugby Propaganda Cartoon
Possible old-school Chinese propaganda posters promoting rugby in China

1 in every 245,000 Chinese have caught on to the beauty of rugby

By 1991, there were a mere 30 registered players in China, making for a slightly repetitive domestic tournament.  But like everything else in China, rugby player numbers are growing quickly. China played its first rugby union international in 1997, with a respectable 33-3 loss against the ferocious Singaporeans. With a few wins since, China now ranks 63rd on the IRB World Rankings.  An estimated 5,430 rugby players regularly kick around an oval ball in China, growing 13% from 2009-2010.


Most rugby in China is played at universities and in the military.  However things are slowly catching on with some recent successes in tournaments and the Rugby Sevens Shanghai tournament hoping to mimic the success of Hong Kong.  The best thing to happen to rugby in China was the admission of Rugby Sevens into the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which automatically qualifies rugby for Government funding and will raise the profile of the sport in the Olympics-crazed nation.  Although rugby is still in it’s infancy in China, in typical Chinese fashion, its Special Administration Region of Hong Kong created the world’s largest rugby ball.


Young Chinese Girls

Given most Chinese women are built like ballerinas and carry umbrellas on sunny days to save their skin from blemishing, it’s hard to believe that there are a few wanting a little rough & tumble in the mud.   But Chinese girls are showing up the boys on the rugby front.


Since first fielding a side in 2006, the Chinese Women’s Rugby Sevens side has dominated the Asian Women’s Rugby Sevens scene winning the annual tournament in 2006, 2009 and 2010.  It also beat Brazil to take the bowl in the inaugural Women’s Sevens Rugby World Cup in 2009.  Women’s rugby is getting increasingly popular in Asia, with a whopping 30% of rugby players in Singapore and Hong Kong being female.


China’s men’s rugby team are improving as well, swooping into third place at the 2007 and 2009 Asian Rugby Sevens Championships and second in 2010.


China's women's rugby sevens player Liu Yan runs circles around the Korean women's rugby team. Photo: Xinhua
China's women's rugby sevens player Liu Yan runs circles around the Korean women's rugby team. Photo: Xinhua

No Yao Ming’s or Li Na’s of Rugby Just Yet

With almost every international company wanting to crack the fast growing Chinese market, and a relatively small pool of successful athletes on the world circuit, there has never been a better time for successful Chinese athletes wanting to make a little extra cash endorsing products.  30-year-old Yao Ming, the recently retired NBA sensation is China’s youngest billionaire.  Li Na, who won her first Grand Slam title at the 2011 French Open is already the 2nd highest paid women athlete in the world, behind Sharapova.


But there are a few up-and-coming almost famous names in Chinese rugby including Zhang Zhiqiang “Johnny Zhang” who played for the Leicester Tigers club in England and the promising young Chinese bullet, Li Yang, who runs 100m in 10.6 seconds.  No list of Chinese rugby greats would be complete without mentioning, 53-year-old Zheng Hongjun.  The spiritual leader of rugby is the coach of the successful China Rugby Sevens teams and a PE teacher at the original rugby school, China Agriculture University, who grant the Chinese national side US$78,000 per year.


Chinese Rugby Stats and Facts

Played in China Since 1990
Number of registered rugby players in China in 2010 5,430
Growth in Chinese rugby players 2009-2010 13%
First China International Rugby Match 1 Nov 1997, vs. Singapore. Lost 33-3
Largest Chinese International Rugby Win 5 Nov 2007, vs Malaysia. Won 56-6
Largest Chinese International Rugby Defeat 9 Sep 2006, vs South Korea. Lost 100-3
International Rugby Matches Played 34. Won = 16, Lost = 15, Drawn = 3


My Prediction: There will be a Chinese rugby team in the 2019 Rugby World Cup

China has an impressive track record of making things happen quickly – think about the 1,300km (800 mile) high speed train line connecting Beijing and Shanghai built in just 3-years.  With an increased emphasis and funding for rugby following it’s inclusion into the Olympics, the 2019 Rugby World Cup being hosted by their Japanese neighbours, and an increasingly worldly and wealthy population who are getting stronger by drinking milk, there will be a significant increase in rugby clubs and rugby players in Mainland China.  I’ve seen some big boys in China and with some ball skills, they could be the next Yao Ming of rugby.


So I’m picking in 2019 across the straight in Japan, there’ll be young team wearing red shirts with amber sleeves representing China in the 9th Rugby World Cup.  By 2022, there’ll be a Chinese-born player in a Super 15 team (Super 18 by then), helping the Wellington Hurricanes to their sixth consecutive title.


But that’s some time away.  The rugby prediction of the hour is who will win the 2011 Rugby World Cup.  Look at it this way, the All Blacks have had Graham Henry coaching for two World Cup campaigns (think Clive Woodward) and have never lost a World Cup on New Zealand soil.  And they have Richie MacCaw.  Go the All Blacks, make New Zealand proud and be an inspiration for those budding Chinese rugby players!


Where to from here for China rugby? Click here for my views and strategy…

8 thoughts on “Rugby in China: The Chinese team will be playing in the 2019 Rugby World Cup”

  1. Hi Tanner,my name is Jia,I came from NZ almost two years, I oganised a rugby team in Fuzhou city which is locate my home town, I have been NZ 9 years and I love NZ and all blacks,I saw your funny DV at,thx for sharing, plz do contact me,I am a big fan of AB,i just wonder any funtion during world cup in shanghai maybe i can came join you guys.all the best for all blacks,GO BLACKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Tanner,

    It seems that your prediction regarding a team in the world cup is true in a way. The People’s Liberation Army will be sending a team to Australia for the inaugural International Defence Rugby Competition. Their opening game is against the Tonga Defence Service team in Canberra on October 1st. They are considered an unknown going into the tournament, but the strength of rugby in the PLA cannot be underestimated. You can follow their progress on our facebook page or on twitter (@idrc2011). Their progress in this tournament might be a good indicator of the overall strength and growth of rugby in China!

  3. Im a kiwi now living in China. Ive read all of this and apart from the outlandish prediction about the Hurricanes (who can’t win six successive games let alone six titles) China moving up the rankings given the population is not unlikely

  4. Very interesting information about china rugby. I have been watch rugby world cup on fox sport here in Australia and the compotators have mentioned that china has asked NZ for 3000 rugby coaches. Is this true or is it just a beat up to make sound more global.

    1. I’m not sure about the 3,000 coaches, but I am aware of at least one former NZ Sevens international coaching over here. Rugby diplomacy – breaking down borders!

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