China have it all to do in Langford and Biarritz if they are to retain their place on the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series as a core team, but new coach Sean Horan is taking a more long-term view.
Two close defeats to Spain in Kitakyushu last month helped consign China to an 11th-place finish and left them in the same position in the overall standings, three points from Fiji – and safety – above them.
Having been drawn in Pool B at the HSBC Canada Women’s Sevens this weekend, alongside England, defending champions New Zealand and Russia, China’s task is not an easy one.
Horan is more used to operating at the other end of the standings, having led New Zealand to three Women’s Sevens Series titles, Rugby World Cup Sevens success and a silver medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, but he was not lured to China by the promise of instant success.
On the contrary, the New Zealander was convinced to take the reins just six weeks before the tournament in Japan because it offered him an opportunity to build something new.
“[China] knocked on my door at the beginning of December. I said I’m keen but only if I can help grow the programme not just coach the team,” he said.
Laying a foundation
“My philosophy has always been, similar to what I did with the New Zealand team and with the Bay of Plenty Steamers years ago, was to create a foundation for growth and you go through the learnings and all those sorts of things.
“But it is about understanding what an environment is [in order] to be able to create something that’s pretty special and that’s what we want to do with China.”
Horan had walked away from the Black Ferns Sevens following Rio 2016 to spend more time with his family, and the next two years proved tough as he lost his mother to cancer and cared for his widowed father.
He agreed to coach the Bay of Plenty men’s sevens side in 2018 before being approached by China.
Despite only being in the job for two months, Horan has identified one particular area where he feels he can help make improvements.
Steps to success
“[Where] they are similar to some of the teams that go up and down is they haven’t really invested fully into a national programme, they have either relied on a province or a club or other things to help them grow,” he explained.
“Until you really take ownership and invest properly, and you build a foundation upwards and you lay that properly, then I think they’ll go.
“What I have taken from China is we don’t really have a strong foundation, we have been living off the provinces and not a normal structured international team. With that you have your challenges along the way.”
China missed out on Rio 2016, finishing behind Japan, Kazakhstan and Hong Kong in regional qualifying but with the hosts assured of their place at Tokyo 2020, there is real hope Horan’s side can join them.
"It is very exciting where we are now, and you just think to yourself – what is it going to be like in five or 10 years’ time?"
And the New Zealander is well aware of the importance of an Olympic spot to his hopes of turning China into an international force.
“The Chinese Olympic Committee say it’s in the Olympics and if we do this well, if we can qualify for Toyko, which we would love to, and then we build the programme,” Horan said.
“There is 1.5 billion people; their focus is really growing the game. I’ve been taken back a little bit by [the Chinese], they are very diligent and if they say something, they’ll get it done.
“If you are able to qualify for the Olympics there is huge potential among those billion and a half people. I think so and I think sevens could suit them.
“You don’t have to be an historical rugby nation to go well.
“You’ve got New Zealand and Australia at the forefront but what I am loving at the moment is seeing Japan go well, seeing Spain go well but also Ireland with sevens and the USA and the French, they are athletes and they are getting more skilful and more professional and the game is just ramped up.
“You are not just having to rely on the rugby ability. It is very exciting where we are now, and you just think to yourself – what is it going to be like in five or 10 years’ time?”
To get China to where he wants them to be Horan is drawing on all his experience, especially with the Black Ferns Sevens, although he is keen to grow a culture that feels natural to his players.
“I learnt a lot from the New Zealand team,” he said. “I had never coached women before and I came from a men’s environment and it really is a trust factor of a family environment and of having fun in what you are doing and laughing.
“Females are a little bit different to males as we know, so there are those challenges, and I walked away from Rio thinking what can I do better and what can I learn.
“It has been cool and the girls have really immersed us and opened themselves up.
“It’s a different culture and what we are trying to do is instead of just instilling a New Zealand culture living in China, which I don’t think would work, we’re combining both.”
Since Horan stepped down as coach, New Zealand have built on his work, adding a further Women’s Sevens Series title, in 2016-17, and are six points clear of Canada ahead of the final two rounds of this campaign.
“What I am very proud of is that we created a foundation where they have taken on and taken it to another level,” he said.
“That’s what you want to do, it’s like Graham Henry leaving the All Blacks, they’ve taken it to another level. That’s all you want for your players and staff that have stayed behind.
“The experience that I got is definitely that. I enjoy building programmes; I enjoy building an infrastructure that will create a high-performance system eventually.
“It has been exciting, it is going to be challenging. I have a young family still at home so I fly in and fly out but, as we know with technology these days, it is pretty special.”