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March 16, 2012

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Rugby coach sets high goals for manly game

JOHNNY Zhang is China's best rugby player of all time, still holding the scoring record of the Hong Kong Sevens, he also coaches the Beijing team and China's National Team.

Right now 37-year-old Zhang Zhiqiang (Johnny) is training with the national team in Guangzhou, preparing for the premier rugby sevens tournament in Hong Kong from March 23 to 25.

A solid ranking in the 2012 Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens will enable the Chinese team to play any team in the world next year. So a lot is riding on the matches.

Meeting the challenge

But Zhang is used to challenges and overcoming difficulties with seemingly miraculous strength and determination. In 2010 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer - similar to that of cyclist Lance Armstrong who recovered and went on to victory. Zhang - known as China's Armstrong - underwent surgery and radiation therapy and was determined to play in the Asian Games in November. He rejoined the team in September and was in regular training in October.

"We had the same disease and when I was in hospital, Armstrong was participating in the Tour de France after surgery," Zhang told Shanghai Daily in a recent interview. "I knew the same thing could happen to me as well and I told myself there's going to be no problem and I can recover."

So he did. He inspired the sports world. China placed fourth. It was his last game but it led to coaching.

The determination that saw him through is evident today.

Since sevens rugby will make its Olympic debut at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, China is paying more attention to the sport and trying to get up to speed. Rugby is still very new in China, where it was first played just 21 years ago.

Zhang is optimistic.

"Compared with other teams around the world, China's rugby may still be an infant. But the team has been progressing," Zhang said. "No one had ever expected any goals from us before but we surprised the world when we beat Italy in 2006, Canada in 2007 and Scotland in 2008 (when Scotland was world No. 6). "It was really big. A lot of Asian teams had never won such honor for so many years," he said.

Zhang is familiar overseas. He played for four years in Hong Kong and two years at Brisbane in Australia's Sunny Bank Rugby Club. He had a two-month stint with England's Leicester Tigers.

Johnny Zhang recently sat down and chatted with Shanghai Daily.

Tanned, well-muscled and smiling warmly, he doesn't look like a typical Chinese man turning 38, since many men let themselves go. Even though Zhang has been retired since the end of 2010, he works out every day and unlike most coaches still trains with his team.

"Actually, rugby is not as wild as most people would believe," Zhang said. He has probably said this a thousand time to Chinese people who think the sport is too rough with all that tackling and men crashing into each other. "If you knew more about rugby, you'd know each move is the result of long-time training, since such an intensive game requires players to be of top quality."

"It's not easy to train a good player but it's easy to destroy one in physical contacts on the pitch," Zhang added. "If one plays dirty, no one will play with him since he is not responsible."

"Rugby is a real man's game and it depends so much on teamwork," Zhang said. Rugby is also the official sport of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.

Farm boy

Born in an ordinary farming family in eastern China's Shandong Province, Zhang learned martial arts from his father, who coached martial arts.

"Practicing martial arts gave me a strong body and the balance and flexibility needed in any sport," Zhang said. "Maybe I was destined to play rugby since the founding date of China's first rugby team (December 15, 1990) is also my birthday."

In high school he played basketball and picked up rugby after entering the China Agricultural University in 1993.

He was a natural and soon became the best player.

"There is no sport like rugby that combines sportsmanship, integrity, courage, fair play and respect," he said.

The CAU college team was the basis of China's first national rugby team. After Zhang joined, the team made the national championships every year.

After graduation, Zhang stayed at CAU to teach sports for a year and then joined the rugby league in Hong Kong.

"When I started, the most popular sport in China was football and a football player earned much more than a rugby player. But I didn't envy that," Zhang said. "Obviously, it's more manly to play rugby."

The team used to train in the same stadium with the national football team and the powerfully built rugby players made the smaller footballers uncomfortable. "When we entered the weight room, they would leave immediately because we could lift much heavier weights and they didn't want to be embarrassed," Zhang said.

His performance led to Zhang's invitation in 2000 to play for Sunny Bank Club in Brisbane, and he played in the Australian league for two years.

In 2002, he returned to the Hong Kong league and played for four years.

"Everything is good in Australia - nice weather, good environment and nice people, but I realized I love the Chinese environment more and I had got used to the crowds," Zhang said.

From 1998 to 2008 Zhang was the captain and assistant coach of the Chinese National Team. He helped China reach the Bowl's finals in the Hong Kong Sevens in 2001; they won the championship in the sevens tournament in Thailand in 2003, the Bowl's championship of Hong Kong Sevens in 2006 and the bronze medal in the Doha Asian Games in 2006. In the Hong Kong Sevens in 2008 and 2009, Zhang's scores and touchdowns were ranked above all players.

Zhang's greatest personal challenge was his comeback after surviving testicular cancer in 2010, gaining him the title of the Chinese Armstrong, referring to American cyclist Lance Armstrong who overcame advanced testicular cancer.

Zhang was injured during competition in 2007, but didn't get a check up until 2010 when cancer was diagnosed.

But Zhang, then age 32, was focused on the coming Asian Games. "I asked the doctor, 'Is it that serious?' I couldn't afford surgery and I had to play in the Asian Games in November."

Cancer battle

Surgery was necessary - four months before the Asian Games. It seemed unlikely Zhang would play, but he drew inspiration from Armstrong. He started recovery training while radiation treatment was underway. He recovered quickly, miraculously, it seemed, and resumed full training in October.

Although China only got fourth, Zhang inspired the sports world. It was also his last game.

He had planned to retire after that game, but he still wept in the locker room, knowing that he would never play competitive rugby again.

"It was the last game of my 17-year career. I fulfilled my mission, paving the way for rugby," Zhang said. "But I will stay on as a coach. We have so many talented players and the team and the sport will grow."

After the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010, he was named coach of both Beijing and the national team.

Since 2008 he played for three years as both player and coach. For Zhang, it was a smooth transition to full-time coaching.

Unlike most coaches, Zhang trains with his players and is ready to get back onto the pitch.

"I'll play if necessary," Zhang said confidently. "I'm still one of the team's most competitive players."

Zhang pays tribute to role models Eric Rush, a famous New Zealand rugby player, and Waisale Serevi, a player from Fiji.

"Both of them played to age 37 or 38 before retirement and I should learn their spirit," he said.

As preparation for the 2016 Olympics, sevens rugby has been included in China's National Games in 2013 and it's gaining in popularity.

More than 13 provinces have started training rugby players.

"Only a few people played rugby before, but the times have really changed," Zhang said.

Today there are more than 30 rugby teams in Anhui Province alone, Shandong has around 20 teams, mostly training in New Zealand and Jiangsu Province is about to send teams to New Zealand as well, he said.

But right now Johnny is looking forward to the Hong Kong Sevens next weekend.

"There's no specific goal," Zhang said. "We'll try our best to win. The more we win, the more we can play, and the more we play, the more experience we gain."


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