Try and try again -- China's rugby warrior chief

Dec.13,2016

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Zhang Zhiqiang (Xinhua/Wu Kaixiang)

Beijing is freezing in early December, but a group of college students are warming up on the country' s first standard rugby field at China Agricultural University (CAU).

They are the CAU team that took the championship at the national college rugby sevens tournament in Zhuhai, south China' s Guangdong Province, last month.

Zhang Zhiqiang, an iconic figure in Chinese rugby, is their coach. "The performance of these young players often takes me back to 'my time' ," he tells Xinhua at a training session.

Zhang is considered China's most successful rugby player. The former scrum half captained the national rugby team from 1998 to 2008.

In 2006, he helped the national team take bronze at the 15th Asian Games in Doha, Qatar -- the team' s best ever performance in Asia.

In 2008 and 2009, he was the top point-scorer and try-scorer at the Hong Kong Sevens of the International Rugby Board Sevens World Series All-time Event Records. And in 2015, he was selected as one of world's seven best rugby players at Hong Kong Sevens.

He has also played for Australian and English local teams.

His shining career came at the expense of injuries -- fractures of ribs and lumbar injuries; 15 stitches to his right eyelid; four front teeth all replaced by dentures.

And the bruises were countless. "Rugby is played by warriors," says Zhang.

Preparing for the 16th Asian Games in 2010, he received shocking news - he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer.

His family persuaded him to stop his career and undergo surgery as soon as possible. Zhang was back on the field four months after the operation.

"I felt really threatened by the disease and very nervous at first," Zhang recalls. "But the postoperative recovery was faster than expected, so I decided to play again."

"The competitiveness of sports taught my spirit to be indomitable," he says. But age finally succeeded where cancer failed. He retired from the field aged 38 in 2013 and devoted himself to coaching. That year, he coached the Beijing men's team to bronze medal at the 12th National Games in northeast Liaoning Province.

Now, Zhang is the CAU college coach and also works for a rugby promotion company. He hopes to make the sport more widely recognized in China.

In 1990, CAU established the first rugby team in China. Before that, few Chinese recognized the sport.

And in 1993, CAU selected Zhang at his hometown Zibo, east China's Shandong Province, to train as a rugby player. "The coach thought I had great sports talent," Zhang says, as he had trained in track and field and basketball for several years.

But he was totally ignorant of rugby: "I couldn't tell it apart from American football."

When the team was founded, the players were all college students. Since then, CAU has cultivated more than 100 national players.

"They have switched from amateur to professional," Zhang says.

The university also invited professionals and held training sessions to help other universities organize rugby teams.

The national college rugby sevens tournament is held every year and rugby is now more widely recognized on Chinese campuses.

The sport entered China's National Games in 2013. Then the provinces and municipalities established professional rugby teams.

According to the Chinese Rugby Football Association, China has 1,337 registered players around the country. "Teams of professionals, amateurs, and adolescents number about 160," says Zhang.

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio welcomed rugby, but the Chinese team was not there. Zhang believes China's team could have put on a world-class performance.

Both professionals and amateurs have pushed the development of rugby in China, and commercial backers are coming on board too.

Alisports began a 10-year cooperative partnership with World Rugby in April, promising to promote the "warrior sport" in China.

Zhang expects more children to take up rugby. "Most Chinese parents worry that rugby is such a fierce game for kids," he says. "They don't know that the forms of touch rugby and tag rugby forbid rough and intense physical confrontation."

He has a dream: "Rugby originated in Britain and evolved into American football and Australian rules football," he says. "I dream of 'Chinese rugby' aligned with our physical condition and culture."

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