Sean Horan believes China has “woken up to rugby” since the country’s women clinched qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

The head coach masterminded China’s victory in the Asia Rugby Women’s Sevens qualification tournament on home soil in Guangzhou in November as his charges won all five of their matches, including a 33-0 defeat of Hong Kong in the final.

Having missed out on a place at Rio 2016, success sparked celebration in the Asian nation and the story was picked up by the state broadcaster, CCTV.

Horan and China will compete as the invitational team at this weekend’s HSBC New Zealand Sevens in Hamilton – round four of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2020 – and the former Black Ferns Sevens coach believes the future for the squad is bright.

“It’s woken China up to rugby. For two months there was a whole lot of celebrating going on,” Horan told World Rugby when asked about the impact of Olympic qualification. 

“The [players] are starting to believe in themselves, and that’s probably the biggest thing that we’ve really had to break is that self-belief. 

“And the self-belief is that if we do things right, do it well and we’re patient, but we enjoy every day being here with a smile on our face, we’ll love it. And I’m seeing girls who are truly loving it. 

“It’s hard for them because they’re away from home a lot but I’m truly seeing that they’re loving what they’re doing and that’s probably the big difference is they smile a lot, they laugh a lot, they’re cheeky.”

Learning lessons

China have spent the last four weeks in New Zealand in preparation for the tournament in Hamilton, and the squad and support staff spent Christmas with Horan and his family in Tauranga.

During that time the team has enjoyed training sessions with both the Black Ferns Sevens and Brazil, and Horan revealed the former played a pivotal role in their Olympic quest.

“We’re lucky enough because I get on well with the New Zealand outfit,” said Horan, who led New Zealand to three series titles, a Rugby World Cup Sevens title and Olympic silver medal during his time as coach.

“We came out and played against them in October before our qualification [tournament] and they beat us up, and they really taught us a lesson. 

“That was awesome for us, and we went away with the old cliche of a shed-load of learnings and a lot of self-reflection of what do we want to be? 

“That was when I probably saw a turning point in a lot of the players, that was really cool to see. They turned and they really decided what they wanted to do, and that helped us for qualification.”

Aspiring to be better

Only two of the 12-player squad that represented China on the team’s last appearance on the world series – a seventh-placed finish in Biarritz last June – remain in the group in Hamilton.

Horan has turned to a few new faces while some older players have returned to the fold as the New Zealander attempts to build a programme capable of becoming a consistent core team.

If all goes to plan then Horan believes that target can be achieved within the next five to 10 years.

“Every day we’re just aspiring to be better,” he said.

“It’s going to be a bit of a journey for us, I don’t expect us to [wave a] magic wand – ‘boom’.

“But I do believe in the side that we’ve got. I believe in the staff that we do have and the programmes that we’re trying to establish in China.

“If we do it, do it right you know, in four or five years if we continue on the same trajectory that we’re going on, we’ll go long.”

China’s players will show their support for the Pink Ribbon Foundation, a breast cancer charity, in Hamilton by wearing a specially designed kit.

“We’re trying to change opinions, both on and off the field,” Horan said.

“We’re a women’s team that represents an amazing country that’s trying to inspire the change, and I think that’s just a great representation of who we are. 

“So, that was the main reason for it and it was kind of like, well, we’re on the world stage, what a great way to actually do that and actually put it out there and say ‘Look, we support the foundation’.

“They do amazing work, everybody at some stage around the world in their life gets touched by cancer and there’s no better way for us to show our support.”