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No team enters Silicon Valley 7s this weekend shrouded in more mystery than China. This will be the nation’s first major 7s tournament outside of Asia since Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, in partnership with World Rugby, announced a little over a year ago that it would be investing $100 million over 10 years to boost rugby across the country.
That figure would even make the RFU blush. The announced plans were to start men’s and women’s professional 7s leagues, build up the national teams from basically whole cloth and place the sport into some 10,000 universities and schools across the country in the aim of attracting a million players.
Ambitious, for sure, just like China jumping into the deep end of the pool that is elite competition at Silicon Valley 7s. The Chinese are fresh off the three-tournament Asia 7s Series, having played in Hong Kong, Korea and Sri Lanka in the last two months.
They went 7-10-1 in that stretch, finishing fourth twice and seventh once. Each tournament included the same national teams, and China posted wins over Malaysia (2), Philippines, Sri Lanka and Chinese Taipei (3). They also lost to Sri Lanka and the Philippines once each, too, in addition to tallying losses to Hong Kong (2), South Korea (3), and Japan (3).
Their games against Japan, the one common opponent China shares with pool rivals Australia and Fiji, haven’t been particularly close – 40-5 in Hong Kong, 45-7 in Korea and 26-12 in Sri Lanka. And Japan was the cellar dweller of the HSBC Sevens World Series last season, having finished last amongst 15 core teams to earn relegation. Fiji and Australia finished third and sixth, respectively, so it’s reasonable to conclude China will be a significant underdog.
But that’s part of why it accepted the invitation to compete – to measure itself against the world’s best, and maybe reverse its luck against its continental rival, too.
“We’re excited to hopefully get a crack at Japan, but the main reason we want to participate in this tournament is to see what World Rugby is like at this high level, to see what it really takes to get our program to that level one day,” Chinese captain Ma Chong told Rugby Today, as translated by teammate Joseph Krassenstein.
“This is the highest level of competition that China’s been able to participate in. We’re very excited to see how we face against other world powers in rugby. With the women’s team qualifying for the upcoming World Cup, we’re hoping just to raise the level of Chinese rugby around the world, and we’re very grateful for this opportunity.”
China will get that first crack at Japan in the opening match Saturday. The fact that the most recent clash was the closest provides reason to hope China might actually get a win over the Brave Blossoms.
“Japan has a lot of foreign players that are imported and usually does quite well in the Asian rugby circuit, so we are a bit further behind Japan,” said Chong. “In terms of competing against Japan, we want to perform better against Japan because we play them so much regionally.”
Most of China’s team hails from Shandong Province, which is situated in the northeast part of the country. It sits between Beijing and Shanghai and just across the Yellow Sea from Korea. That's where rugby is most dense currently, but there is a large number of expats from rugby-playing countries living in the larger cities that sandwich Shandong who have helped elevate the Chinese game.
The players in San Jose, except Krassenstein, are all professionals paid by the sporting administration, a governmental entity. At age 16, talented athletes are funneled into sport-specific schools, and that’s largely when the players suiting up for China this weekend will have started playing the game. Just recently, China made the decision to start accepting Chinese-eligible athletes from abroad, which is how Krassenstein made his way into the team.
The son of an American father and Chinese mother, Krassenstein has lived all over the world, but did his elementary schooling in New Jersey before moving to Shanghai at 13-years-old, which is where he picked up rugby. He returned to the USA for college, attending Southern California, where he walked onto the Trojan football team as a punter and played center for the rugby club. He's currently working in Los Angeles and playing for Santa Monica, and he's China’s 13th man this weekend with hopes of earning a spot in the national team setup back in China.
Chong says his team moves the ball really well and can pass quickly. He he likes to think they’re a smart bunch, and he added their biggest area for improvement is the contact zone. He also said that, regardless of his team’s record at the end of the tournament, he hopes they gain some respect for Chinese rugby.
“We’re hoping to invite the support of the rugby community in boosting Chinese rugby,” he said. “We want the world to know that China does have strong rugby players, we work hard, and we’re really excited for this opportunity.”