Tom Fearon

Professional communicator in Canberra

Fever Pitch Fun

Oct. 21, 2011

By Tom Fearon

They might be thousands of kilometers from the hallowed turf of Eden Park in Auckland, but Beijing's fledgling rugby community has ridden every ruck and maul of this year's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. United by their passion for the sport, the diverse group of players from the Beijing Devils rugby team gathers to watch every match at the squad's favored bar near Workers' Stadium, The Den.

With players hailing from more than 20 different countries, emotions at times spill over between teammates cheering on their countries at the tournament. Sunday's final between France and New Zealand has divided the team's three Kiwis and five French players, with more than just pride at stake.

Camaraderie in competition

Men's team captain, Josh Kernan, 27, joined the Devils shortly after moving to Beijing in late 2007. The front rower hails from Hampshire in the south of England and was lured to lace up the football boots in Beijing for its social benefits.

"It was my first time living the expat life and I was looking for a way to meet people. The major thing that makes rugby stand out from other sports is the camaraderie," said Kernan, who works as an events manager at the Hutong cultural exchange center.

"Even though we belt each other on the pitch, friendship is at the essence of the sport. It's been great getting together to watch the [World Cup] games."

The team, founded in the early 1990s, trains twice a week and offers half-price membership to Chinese players. However few have taken advantage of the incentive in a country where the sport is viewed more with uncertainty than enthusiasm. 

Allez Les Bleus

Jean-Claude Herbert, or "JC" as he's affectionately known among teammates, is Kernan's partner-in-crime in the Devils' front row. The 21-year-old French student at the University of International Business and Economics has passionately cheered on his country's national team throughout the Cup, sometimes at the jeers of his British and Kiwi teammates.

"Hopefully, we can improve on last time and win the final," he said optimistically, referring to France's disappointing fourth placing at the 2007 tournament.

"Rugby is a way to meet a lot of motivating and interesting people. I have been playing since I was six years old and love the sport," he told the Global Times.

English teacher, Jon Christie, joined the Devils as a way to "meet a good bunch of lads who play seriously, but know how to have a laugh." The 27-year-old winger from Leicester in England began playing rugby league when he was 11, but made the switch to union after coming to Beijing. He closely followed England's campaign at this year's World Cup, despite blaming their quarter-final loss to France on "some dodgy decisions."

"Next World Cup we'll be alright," he assured. "We've got some fresh blood in the side and this year's experience will serve those younger players well."

Tackling stress with rugby

The Devils' other winger is the team's sole Chinese player, Wason Liu. The 38-year-old engineer's love affair with the oval ball game began in 1994 as a student at northeast China's Liaoning University of Petroleum and Chemical Technology. Liu, who joined the Devils 10 years ago, admits he still gets odd stares from his Chinese friends when he tells them he plays rugby and seldom has much success in getting them interested in the game.

"Most of them think it's not a sport Chinese people should play. My friends confuse it with American football," the Jiangxi-born player said.

"Sometimes I have friends who are willing to give it a go, but after a couple of games they don't play again. For me, playing rugby is a great way to release the pressure of my work life. I can't imagine any other sport that is so challenging both physically and mentally. That's why I've played for such long time."

Popularity with women

But rugby in Beijing isn't solely the roughhouse domain for testosterone-filled blokes. The Devils also has a women's team, which this weekend heads to Seoul eyeing their sixth victory in the Yellow Sea Cup. The competition involves two other Chinese teams - the Shanghai Hairy Crabs and the Xiamen Typhoons - along with South Korea's Seoul Sisters.

Interest in rugby has grown in China in recent years, especially since the national women's team qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where Rugby 7s will debut.

"In our first game we lost heavily, but now we are one of the most competitive teams in Asia," said women's team captain Jeannie Ivanov, who hails from Bradford in north England and works in online marketing.

"Only four girls showed up to our first training session, but now we have 38 players. It's certainly unusual explaining to Chinese people that we play rugby, but there's no real stigma [as women] playing the sport. There's a lot of respect for the girls."

The Devils women's team boasts three Chinese players, some who previously played sports such as basketball before trying rugby. Among the stars of the team is versatile utility back and national team player, Song Midi.

Charlie Surridge, 27, teaches English at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and joined the Devils shortly after arriving in the city about a year and a half ago. The Essex native plays lock, but had never played rugby before arriving in Beijing.

"I found other sports were not as well organized when I first came here," she said. "I tried other sports, but they didn't have the same camaraderie."

See the original article here.