Chinese take away rugby tips
One of the first things that strikes you about the visiting group of Chinese rugby sevens players is not their size or speed.
Nor is it their rapid use of Mandarin. No, it's the intensity they bring to the training paddock. They are here to learn. That is abundantly clear.
Sixteen of the emerging superpower's best female players have been joined by 15 men's players and a 10-strong management team, including doctors, chefs and coaches.
After being given a day to get over their jet lag, the group has been locked in an intense schedule of training, as well as numerous lessons on tactics, nutrition and recovery since arriving in Taranaki on November 23.
Time out is not in their psyche, to the point those tasked with providing the majority of their tutelage have picked up that these players do not look forward to having an afternoon and morning off.
One of the men charged with providing that tuition, Taranaki Rugby's elite development coach Clark Laidlaw, says their desire to rapidly improve has been challenging.
"It's certainly testing the coaches and our ability to communicate because we've had to learn to use white boards and markers pretty quickly, as well as adapt to using translators."
Besides Laidlaw, Taranaki Rugby staff members Willie Rickards (a former national sevens rep), head coach Colin Cooper, academy and development management Jono Phillips, and trainers Iain Cleland and Blair Mills are all passing on their skills to the group from Beijing Technical Sports College who are paying a low-six-figure sum for the privilege.
Laidlaw, who was Gordon Tietjens' skills coach as New Zealand marched to another world series title last season, initially wondered if the Chinese were even getting much out of each session.
However, that changed three or four days into the month-long programme as each side began to understand each other. Not literally, they simply found out how to get their message across and became more comfortable with using translators.
"We're building relationships with the players and coaches and we soon learnt the Chinese culture meant the players were used to just being told something and never asking any questions," Laidlaw says.
"They just want to train and we also found out they were doing training at night, on top of everything we were doing with them, just to get better. They have got a huge work ethic and they've got a huge appetite for learning. They don't like down time."
In between the on-field training, the classroom lessons and the gym work, the squads are transported back and forth to their hostel at Witt where their two chefs have prepared whatever meal is next on the agenda.
Laidlaw has been impressed with the players' basic skills and ability to pick up ideas quickly but the acid test, he says, would come when they were put under game pressure.
While physical testing showed they were in reasonably good shape, they were below the levels the Taranaki sevens teams were producing.
"Saying that, we've run them hard and done a lot of repetition work and there is never any moaning and they keep coming back for more without complaint," Laidlaw says.
Everything the coaches do is recorded by the group's managers who will take the video footage back to Beijing and have it translated and used for reference.
"The big thing we are trying to show them is the New Zealand way," Laidlaw says. "We use the same warmups, we use all the same recovery protocols like ice baths and try to stick to the same nutritional plans. They are treated very much like professional athletes and so they should be."
Women's captain Liu Yan, who led her team to qualify for the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Russia next year after their second placing at the Asian Women's Sevens Champs last month, is the most experienced player in the squad after taking up the sport eight years ago.
Speaking through international liaison officer Wei Guo, she said she got into rugby because she believed it was "a gentleman's sport that looked very interesting" and she wanted to be "involved in the development of sevens" in China.
The 26-year-old hopes to lead her side to the Rio Olympics and saw the training camp in Taranaki as a vital step along the way.
"The coaches here in this union are a much higher standard than the Chinese coaches and we can learn a lot more details from Taranaki rugby coaches," she says.
"We know a lot about New Zealand rugby and we know that they are the top of the world, have very good physical condition and are very knowledgeable."
Yan believes their squad has already grasped a great deal in the short time they have been here.
"They were quick to correct some of the mistakes we were making, so yes, we are learning a lot," she says.
Accompanying the Chinese group is a man described as the "father" of rugby in China, Professor Zheng Hongjun.
He is credited with introducing the game there 23 years ago and says, again through Guo, that the game has largely been self-taught up until recently.
"Before rugby became part of the Olympic games, not too many people were interested in the game, only university students," he says.
"Since then, in the last two years, a lot more people are interested. It has grown really rapidly.
"Every level of government is now putting a lot of emphasis on it because of its new status."
Zheng says New Zealand's reputation was at the forefront of their decision to head here instead of Australia or South Africa.
"Taranaki rugby is a very professional organisation," Zheng said
"We are very interested in learning from such a long history.
"Although it's only a few days, we have learnt a lot already, a lot of fresh things to digest.
"All the coaches here have been very professional and welcoming, including Jono and Clark and Colin. They have been wonderful."
As for the partnership becoming a long-term one, Zheng remains hopeful.
"Definitely. This is only the first time, the beginning and we are happy to try and be part of Taranaki Rugby's high performance programme."
Taranaki Daily News