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September 6, 2009

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Sports haven plans even greater growth

The clubs go by exotic names such as "hairy crabs," "twin dragons," "tigers," "sassy shrimps" and "bashers," and their members are the ordinary foreign and local folk of suburban Shanghai who mix a bit of sport and fun into their recreation time.

The entity that coordinates the sport and fun and provides the venue is Shanghai Rugby Football Club and it is, if anything, deadly serious about its business which, ironically, is not about making money.

Its general manager, a long-term expatriate in China named Ashley Jones, has overseen the latest relocation of the SRFC to magnificent green zone space in Pudong and no doubt will display a calm exterior this week as frantic final touches are put on next weekend's 2009 Shanghai Sevens rugby tournament.

Jones is under few illusions about SRFC's purpose in Shanghai and seems passionate and committed to its long-term development, within the mercurial paradigms of city planning, as one of the city's premier sports recreation facilities.

"The membership cost is cheap, the food is cheap -- and people understand it's more about a place to go that's safe and secure," he said in a cafe interview in Ferguson Lane near his family business' new cashmere clothing shop.

"You meet other expatriates at the club but people's primary interest isn't in what they're doing, it's more about how we're going to play, or let's have a beer," he said.

"It's been true since the club's inception that people arrive in Shanghai, they have an interest, let's say it's in rugby, they Google rugby, get Shanghai Football Club, get the telephone number, and on a Tuesday afternoon I'll get a call, 'Hi, I'm Bill from wherever, where's the rugby, can I get a game, what's the story ? '," Jones' practiced patter runs.

"I say come to the ground at 2 o'clock on Saturday, where's the ground, it's on the Website, okay see you there, then three weeks later they've got a network of a group of friends.

"Whether they're here for 12 months or 12 years, that network is always there and it's replicated across all the sports we have," he added.

"We've got the Aussie Rules Tigers, Gaelic football, a frisbee group, touch football, rugby. And with the new grounds, we've got more space to develop more sports, particularly soccer."

The new grounds, indeed. SRFC moved last year for the third time back to Waigaoqiao and close to its original location after a stint sharing facilities at Dulwich College in Jinqiao.

Ultimately it will have grounds of 85,000 square meters, four times those of the college, and plans to build a 3,000-square-meter club house.

But full realization of the grand vision will take fund-raising effort and in the meantime there are up and running with games to be played, such as a recent cricket sixes tournament, Gaelic games, a touch competition and the international rugby.

"The future of the club is to increase our local membership. They will not necessarily be rugby players but social members so the plan is to develop a small fitness center, tennis courts and soccer. But it's just a case of building this edifice that we call the SRFC by bricks at a time," Jones said.

Its current playing area is 43,000 square meters compared to 17,500 square meters at Jinqiao so the difference is already immense.

"Anyone who knows what we used to do and comes to look at the new ground will say 'Oh my god, this is incredible' and straight away can see where it is going," he said.

Its Shanghai International Cricket Sixes tournament, sponsored for the past three years by Coca Cola, is one of the biggest non-professional cricket events in Asia.

"Previously the ground didn't allow any more than 16 teams and now all of a sudden we've got a ground that can take 40 teams," the Brisbane-born Jones said.

"Straight away with that size you know you can do a cricket dinner for 300 people and before you start selling tickets the finances of it all change."

The club's active 800 membership base is drawn from a kaleidoscope of nationalities and local Chinese playing a range of sports and associated activities.

On any given Saturday there can be 400 mums, dads and kids accessing the facilities.

"The beauty of the club is there's a blend across all the expatriate and local populations through different sports. And soccer will add two things -- more Chinese and more expatriates because girls play it and all the schools play it," he said.

"Our plan is to be as inclusive as possible to engage the local population and to give back within the realms of what we do.

"If we can build up the Chinese parents' and kids' user base, it's hard for a non-foreigner to look and say that's just a group of expatriates being exclusive," he said.

The club has donated about 2.5 million yuan (US$366,000) to charities over the years -- "a hell of a lot of money in any currency for a group of expats on the beer" -- which Jones said had helped build a lot of good will.

"And we're leaving a legacy, creating something that's good for a lot of people, which all sounds very altruistic and noble but at the end of the day someone's got to do it," he said.

And Jones' needs are the same as those of any parent with a family of two young children.

"What I want is a place where I can watch a bit of rugby, have a few beers, see my boy run around with a jersey on and that's it."


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