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Give the game a try, urges HK rugby boss

By HE QI in Hangzhou | China Daily | Updated: 2023-09-28 09:26
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Enthusiastic crowds and swashbuckling action at Hangzhou Games seen as big boost for sport's future in Asia

Robbie McRobbie, CEO of Hong Kong China Rugby

As well as the huge returns for his side on the field at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, what impressed Hong Kong China Rugby CEO Robbie McRobbie the most was the passionate crowds who turned out to watch the sevens tournament.

After three days of competition, Hong Kong's men retained the Asian Games title that they won in Jakarta five years ago, defeating the Republic of Korea in the gold-medal match on Tuesday.

The Hong Kong women, too, enjoyed success, securing their first Asian Games rugby sevens medal, taking bronze after beating a highly favored Thailand team 7-5.

"I am absolutely delighted for our men's and women's teams, and hugely proud — they are a credit to Hong Kong, and deserve all the success in the world," said McRobbie, who has promoted rugby in Asia for years.

"But what was beyond my expectations were the big crowds, which were very enthusiastic, passionate, and seemed very knowledgeable," said McRobbie.

"From previous experiences at the Asian Games, and also from other rugby tournaments around the region, rugby still does not enjoy a high level of popularity, so I was very surprised to see so much enthusiasm," he added.

Hong Kong prop Nardoni Alessandro said the atmosphere at the matches had given him and his teammates a big lift during the heat of battle.

"The crowd was amazing. It felt like we were playing at home. They were cheering us on and giving us extra energy, all throughout the tournament since the first day, they were super loud. It was an amazing atmosphere," Alessandro said.

McRobbie pointed out that one of the reasons why this year's rugby sevens was so eye-catching was because the women's team of Chinese mainland performed well at the previous two editions of the Asian Games — beating Japan in the 2014 final and finishing runner-up behind Japan at the 2018 edition. In a further boost, Team China also qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.

Since it began hosting the rugby sevens invitational in 1976, Hong Kong has been a strong team on the international stage and became a window through which more Chinese got to know about rugby.

In 2022 Hong Kong was crowned Asian Series champions for the fifth time in 10 years, after triumphs in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2021.

In the 2022 series, it won finals against Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United Arab Emirates to claim victory at all three tournaments, hosted by Thailand, the Republic of Korea and the UAE, respectively.

The steady development of rugby has provided fertile ground for Hong Kong's victory, but what really makes the team stand out in Asia is its level of professionalism and the fact that they have been playing together for a long time, McRobbie pointed out.

It is hoped that rugby's profile at the Hangzhou Games will offer a wider level of recognition and will encourage greater participation in the sport.

At this year's Asian Games, about 13 National Olympic Committees participated in the rugby sevens competitions, the highest number in the history of the tournament.

"The countries where it first started in Asia were Japan, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. And if you go back about 100 years, there were regular games between Hong Kong and Shanghai, so it's got a long history in Asia, but with limited participation. I think it has only been in the last 10 to 20 years that it has grown in popularity, and now more than 30 Asian countries have established teams," said McRobbie.

He added that more than 12 provinces in China have professional men's and women's teams playing rugby sevens in regular competitions across a wide range of cities in China.

In addition, the rise of local rugby and flag football community clubs has indirectly attracted more attention to the game.

"There are lots of rugby clubs like the Beijing Devils, the Shanghai Rugby Football Club, and the Chengdu Pandas, so for them it's not about winning medals, it's about the fun, the friendship and the social inclusion," explained McRobbie.

"The more people that are involved in rugby will ultimately see more players aspire to compete at the highest level," he added.

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