- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

SHANGHAI (AP) - The international rugby federation is set to tackle the Chinese market, supporting a local push to attract 1 million players over the next five years and create professional leagues.

World Rugby on Wednesday announced a $100 million commitment by Alisports, a division of e-commerce giant Alibaba, to develop the game in China over the next decade.

“World Rugby’s strategic mission is to grow the global rugby family,” World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said. “China is central to that mission.

“We are confident that we can build a strong and sustainable platform from which to ensure that China is in the best possible position to become a major force on the international stage with strong men’s and women’s sevens and 15s teams, sustainable leagues, model development and participation programs and real major event hosting potential.”

Asia is a growth market for rugby union, which went professional in 1995 and has been dominated by New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and France at the highest level in the traditional 15-a-side format.

Japan has contributed heavily to the growth on the continent, with a long-established professional set up and growing strength on the international scene. Japan caused one of the biggest upsets ever at a Rugby World Cup by beating two-time champion South Africa last year in England, and will host the 2019 World Cup.

Japan also left its mark on rugby’s return to the Olympics, when it upset New Zealand in the men’s rugby sevens competition in Rio de Janeiro. Fiji won the men’s gold medal - the country’s first ever Olympic medal - and Australia won the women’s gold, the first ever awarded in women’s rugby or in the abbreviated seven-a-side format.

At the 2014 Asian Games, Japan beat Hong Kong for the men’s gold medal in rugby sevens and China edged Japan 14-12 in the women’s final.

Rugby’s growth in Asia has been driven by sevens in recent years, but the development in China is targeted at both 15s and sevens and using school and university programs to expand the sport.

The Chinese Rugby Football Association said there were 30 registered players in China in 1991, when the sport re-emerged from a dormant period in the country at a university in Beijing. That has grown into the thousands as rugby became an official sport of the military.

Rugby is a great Olympic team sport with strong values, which is why we are so excited about its undoubted potential in China,” Alisports CEO Zhang Dazhong said in a statement. “We will work tirelessly to promote the development of rugby in China with a goal of inspiring one million new players in five years.

“We believe that rugby in China will take off as an attractive, inclusive mass-participation sport of sportsmanship and character.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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