The Chinese want to become a force in world rugby which can only be good for the sport. But they’re listening to an advertising executive and media company about how they should go about doing this. It would appear that the secret of success in rugby will be, at least according to Brett Gosper, chief executive of World Rugby, primarily based on getting people to watch it on television.
The Age reports that: China determined to take on the rugby world. Discussions were under way between World Rugby, the Chinese government and AliSports, the sporting arm of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, over investment in the country’s rugby structure. For World Rugby and AliSports, such negotiations offered scope for a dramatic expansion in a new market.
‘‘We sat down with the Chinese government department [the Multiball Games Administrative Centre of General Administration of Sport],” said Brett Gosper, chief executive of World Rugby, “to go through some of the targets and the ones we had fixed were not as ambitious as the ones they ended up fixing,’’ says Gosper. ‘‘We said to them we want a million players in the next 10 years. They said make it five. We will also have 30,000 coaches and 15,000 officials in China by 2020.’’
There is confidence the interest is there, as evidenced by 44 million people in China watching sevens at the Rio Olympics.
And all of this is going to be achieved by getting people to watch international teams competing on television.
So let us get some perspective on this.
Forty-four million Chinese watching the Sevens from Rio means that it had 0.03% coverage. Hardly the basis for optimism about the popularity of the sport.
If you want to look at a sport that China does really well, it’s table tennis.
Chinese players have won the men’s World Championship 60% of the time since 1959; in the women’s competition, Chinese players have won all but two of the World Championships since 1971. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Olympics, China won all possible gold medals.
China took gold in all four table tennis events at the 2016 Summer Olympics, meaning it has won 28 of 32 gold medals since the sport was introduced in 1988.
Ten million people play competitive table tennis in China and 300 million play recreationally and 300 million play recreationally.
Chairman Mao made it a national sport some 70 years ago.
Mao Zedong playing ping pong, 1963.
So in terms of international success, Chinese table tennis is a bit like New Zealand rugby.
And both countries start them early.
This little guy doesn’t turn into this by a series of lucky accidents.
Richie MacCaw began playing rugby when he was six and was playing international Ruby by the time he was 20. In 2005 and aged 18 Dane Coles was part of the New Zealand under-19 team that travelled to South Africa.
Sonny Bill Williams represented New Zealand in both rugby union rugby league and Brad Thorn player in the league for Australia and New Zealand.
These guys have been playing rugby for twenty-five years, much of it at international level. They are the product of a system that has taken decades to refine.
So is MA Long, 2016 Olympic Games Gold Medalist who has to be better than 10 million other players just to get to the Games.
So there are some things that Brett Gosper isn’t telling the Chinese, although they almost certainly know that he is primarily a bull-shit artist and snake oil salesman.
The first most important aspect of continuous production of world-class athletes is the nature of the system that supports them.
In New Zealand, kids (both boys and girls) start playing rugby for their school and a local club. The first step from there is to play in the National Provincial Championship, the Mitre 10 Cup.
From there, the very good ones will have already graduated to international rugby in the Schoolboy and Junior or Under-19 All Blacks.
The next stage is the international Super 15 competition between New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina. It is from this competition that the all Blacks are chosen So the players who are in the national side have had a huge depth of experience and have demonstrated their abilities against some of the best players in the world.
The other remarkable aspect of this system is that there is an accepted philosophy amongst provincial and Super 15 sides about the way the game is played. This means that when players come to the national side, they have a very clear idea of what is expected of them and what they can expect from their team-mates.
It takes years of hard and well-coordinated work to produce a system like this. You don’t certainly produce rugby players who will the ability to challenge the All Blacks in less than a couple of decades. There is no doubt that the Chinese will become competitive in Rugby as they have in all the other sports.
It just isn’t going to happen as quickly as Brett Gosper is telling them