Tucked away, in an almost hidden corner of South-West China, there’s a gigantic village of people whose lives were touched by both WWII and Walt Disney - interestingly, more or less at the same time.
This place has a small but thriving rugby community
Owing to the balance of sub-tropical latitude against a roughly 2000m altitude, the location is known regionally as the Spring City. Residents typically enjoy moderate, spring-like weather throughout much of the year. Aside from the rainy months of July and August, it’s hard to imagine a climate better suited for year-round sporting exploits.
There are rumoured to be many training areas in the nearby towns which host Chinese Olympians and other athletes who compete internationally.
How big is it?
Holding a population of roughly seven million people, it’s actually a small city by Chinese standards. As such it doesn’t attract as many Western students or expatriates as might some of the larger, coastal cities or even Beijing to the north. It would be a little surprising how active the small rugby community is in Kunming if you didn’t account for a few key individuals driving the team to compete effectively in a quasi-national league.
You’d also have to account for the unique qualities rugby’s culture enjoys, both on and off the pitch.
The success of the current iteration of the Kunming Flying Tigers RFC is perhaps best attributed to the efforts a few young men and now even some young women. They who donate their time and attention to the promotion of the sport.
It's obvious that passion for rugby inspires some to motivate others. There’s also certainly, a curiosity among newcomers to China to simply try something out – but there is no doubt in my mind that the magic of rugby has a big part to play.
Why the Tigers…?
In tribute to the American Air Squadron which was based locally to Kunming and which operated during WWII, campaigning further south. A logistic nightmare, pilots would brave “The Hump” and deliver resources over the Himalayas.
Walt Disney is said to have designed the unit's emblem.
The Tigers wouldn’t be about today if it weren’t for the personal dedication of the long-standing captain, a mad-for-it Kiwi by the name of Tristram. Likewise, what’s a local team without pub sponsorship? The growing chain of expat-run Irish pubs, O’Reilly’s, has been another large contributor to the team’s recruitment and home-base for rowdiness.
If you're after a bit of a friendly social the next time you're in Yunnan, visit one of the O'Reilly's pubs
I myself sought the team out on my retirement from the armed forces, when I had first arrived in China in the pursuit of language study. I had never touched a rugby ball before but felt compelled to try it out - I was hoping to keep fit and make some new friends.
I would go on to stay for three seasons, the Tigers were kind enough to let me have a go at leading the fitness training for two of them.
Heard of Yao Ming?
Basketball enjoyed a great increase in popularity in China after Yao Ming’s entry to the NBA, the NFL is rumoured to have great interest in expanding their brand into the billion-plus Chinese marketplace.
Enthusiastic locals seem to enjoy both the on-pitch action and the off-pitch atmosphere. I’d guess the number fluctuates, but 5-10% local participation is probably about right for Kunming.
That’s not the same standard across the league, however. There are other cities which even boast multiple teams, including some which feature only Chinese players, such as the Guangzhou Rock.
Kunming’s Tigers have enjoyed several great seasons during the last couple of years, fighting their way to semi-final matches and competing against the likes of Chengdu, Chongqing, and larger First-Tier cities such as Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing.
The coastal city of Xiamen holds not only the oldest rugby pitch in China, but also a brilliant one-day tournament each spring. It’s become so popular in the sport's national circle that there’s a waiting list to compete. Even international development firm Swire fronted a team of ringers in 2014!
There are certainly paid players among some of the larger teams, but competitors typically pay their own way. It is again the passion that drives participation, but also coordination as getting any group of people together for sport in their non-native country can be a challenge.
Many people have day-jobs or are involved in study – such as the Xiamen women’s captain, Emily, whose primary role is in the conservation of endangered animals and promotion of ocean sciences. As liaison for the breeding program to thwart extinction of one of earth's rarest animals, the Yangtze giant softshell turtles (Rafetus swinhoei), Emily works on a breeding program by day and moonlights in tournament-coordinating excellence.
While I’m certainly not paying homage to many of those who deserve the recognition, the fact remains that other sports may not enjoy the same willingness from participants, let alone effort in coordination around the country.
Rugby, while fiercely competitive, is based in courteous, gentlemanly behaviour. Respect for the referee alongside the discipline to actually listen to one’s captain are both virtues that sometimes seem absent from other sports.
There's also the fun and games of hanging it aaaaall out during the post-match rituals. These are so intrinsic to the sport's culture and which spread far beyond the pitch.
It will be interesting to see how the environment grows, it isn’t yet clear to me what might spark a sudden evolution in interest and garner a higher proportion of Chinese enthusiasts.
What about the kit, China produces everything, don't they?
Finding decent mouth guards and uniforms in the land of modern manufacturing is no drama, but getting a decent pair of rugby boots in sizes over US10/EU42 can prove frustrating to the point of hilarity.
Many expats opt to shop when out of country, including at the Hong Kong 7s!
Between the revolving door of local support and the constant changes to China's inbound/outbound web policing, it might be hard to picture a future for rugby in China.
But if you've played before, you'll know how much like the travel bug a little rugby can be...