“Massive” – that’s how China coach Chad Shepherd describes how important it is for them to have regained core team status for the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series 2019.
Shepherd knows that currently his players can only benefit from playing against the world’s best teams across the six rounds of the 2019 series, which kicks off in Glendale, Colorado, this weekend.
And that can only stand them in good stead when it comes to the Asian regional qualifier for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games next year with qualification the target Shepherd has been set by the Chinese Rugby Football Association.
“I think it (core team status) is huge, personally I think it is massive for us because it is being in those high-pressure situations in quality matches and consistently playing against the world’s best obviously, testing ourselves in those situations as well,” insisted Shepherd.
“The team that we have currently got has an average of about 21, so a lot of those players have not played outside of Asia or against these types of teams – physical, the intensity, the speed of the game.
“It is huge for us, obviously for us the big thing is to stay up there next year which is the difficult part but a piece of the puzzle to try and play this year, learn from our experiences and then stay up there next year with the goal of qualifying for the Olympics. Having two years on the series should put us in much better stead for the Olympics.
“The average age is very young and we have got some young players coming through as well, it is about building depth within the squad and obviously, the world series can be quite attritional, so our plan is to have players that are still a bit younger that we can bring but won’t be too much out of their depth.
Olympic qualification the target
“The Olympics is massive over there. We actually just competed in the Asian Games which is the second biggest multi-sport event after the Olympics and of those two the Olympics is the big carrot so everything is essentially directed towards there so a big directive of mine is qualification for Tokyo.
“Then it is about medals and it is about results. They are very Olympic driven and medal driven over in China which is the ultimate, but things like the world series are seen as a stepping stone towards the Olympics.”
Shepherd previously coached Germany’s men’s sevens team for three years before the China role came up shortly after he’d returned home to New Zealand and it proved too interesting to ignore, despite the obvious language barrier.
“There are different challenges in China. It is very provincial, so the provinces have a lot of the say and the professional players belong to the provinces so to speak. That was a challenge and there was the language barrier so through translation just getting my point across in training.
“They tend to get 13-14 year-olds in academies there, they are kind of pigeon-holed into playing rugby and then they get developed through strength and conditioning and skills and what have you and then hopefully move through onto the senior squad.
“There are two main provinces in China at the moment: Jiangsu and Shandong. Jiangsu are the current champions and it was Shandong before that for a while. Before I came along, whoever won the provincial championship would represent China but that wasn’t good for the development of rugby in China because it was almost like a closed shop.
“One thing we have tried to change is to get the best players throughout China not just from those provinces, because you obviously limit your pool if you do that. Because we changed the system, a lot them hadn’t experienced Youth Olympics or Asian Games and stuff until this year.
A learning experience
“But it is a good group, a young group. They are keen to learn. One thing that really stood out when I first came in was their work ethic. They don’t moan about much but I probably wouldn’t be able to understand it if they do!
“We put them through their paces and they just get on with it which is really good. They are like sponges. The difficult thing sometimes is the translation, so I try and keep the messages simple.”
China reached the Cup quarter-finals for the first time when they played as the invitational team at the HSBC Kitakyushu Sevens in April with Chen Keyi making the tournament dream team and captain Yan Meiling leading from the front.
This weekend in Glendale they will face RWC Sevens 2018 champions New Zealand, hosts USA and England in Pool C, three teams that Shepherd knows will challenge his players and show the levels they need to reach if they are to remain a core team beyond this season.
“I think physicality is going to be a big thing,” explained Shepherd. “If you look at the profile of Chinese players compared to the three teams we’re going to face, in New Zealand, USA and England, they are much bigger when you talk collision so we’ve just got to be smart about that and try and play to our strengths and not get sucked in too much into a collision type of game.
“That is easier said than done, because there is obviously a big focus on defence now. That (physicality) is probably the biggest one as well as intensity: getting used to the speed of the game and game-management.
“That comes from experience, which we don’t have a lot of, or the current group don’t have any of in the world series. So it is going to be a learning experience and as long as we take the learnings and improve from day one to day two and from tournament to tournament, then hopefully we’ll be on the right track.”