A team photo of the Nanjing Rockets (SAGA MCFARLAND)

The Nanjing Rockets; How HNC Students are Representing Nanjing Across China

in SAIS Life
A team photo of the Nanjing Rockets (SAGA MCFARLAND)
A team photo of the Nanjing Rockets (SAGA MCFARLAND)

Saga McFarland
Video Editor at SAIS Nanjing

Two years ago, Will King, a first year certificate student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, and some of his study abroad classmates decided to start an informal, amateur rugby team in Nanjing. Today that team, the Nanjing Rockets, has grown into a thriving institution with around 60 players, both Chinese and foreign. The Rockets are the only team in Nanjing not affiliated with a school and, despite being comprised of mainly foreign students, have become Nanjing’s de facto rugby representative in tournaments throughout China.

King, one of the team’s founders and regular players, is modest about the achievement, saying that the process was not much more than a couple of guys getting together to play once a week.

“Anyone can put together a team,” he said. “We just get in touch with other teams across China, and surprisingly there are a lot of them.”

The Nanjing Rockets in action against the Shanghai Crabs. (SAGA MCFARLAND)
The Nanjing Rockets in action against the Shanghai Crabs. (SAGA MCFARLAND)

The Rockets, together with teams in Wuhan and Hangzhou, have formed the Yangtze Delta Division League, and are playing in various tournaments around the country. Including non-league games, the Rockets average around one game per month. King says each year the team starts off weak as new players learn the ropes but he finds that they quickly improve. Already the Rockets are holding their own against some of the best teams in the country from Shanghai.

The success and sustainability of the team has attracted the attention of local government officials who are talking to the team about becoming the official Nanjing team and helping the government promote rugby, now an Olympic sport, in the city.

“The government has been keeping tabs on us and looking at us and they see that we are a legitimate organization,” King said. “They want us to be the Nanjing team and they want us to be bigger than Shanghai.”

So far, however, the level of interest by the government is still unclear and King acknowledges that nothing is set in stone and it is hard to predict what will come of these talks.

“As with anything with the government you can never be sure,” King said. “It could be that one day they say ok here you go, you’re our team, here’s a million RMB. Or they could just lose interest.”

Despite the increased responsibility the team could be taking on in the future as Nanjing’s official representative, King and other teammates say that the main point of the team is to have fun, meet more people and interact with the community. Kevin Bond, a first-year master’s student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center says he joined the team after seeing a flyer King had put up that read, “Get fit, play rugby, drink beer.”

“I thought, ‘those sound like two of my favorite things, let me see about the third one,’” said Bond, who had never played rugby before joining the Rockets in September. His first game was rough. “During my first solo tackle I felt all my ribs crack and I was terrified for a second, but I just got back up.”

However, the social bonding that the team provides is what makes it worth it for both King and Bond. Having played other sports like soccer and basketball, King thinks rugby is unique in that there is the tradition of a “third half,” where players from both teams go out after games for food and drinks.

“You spend the whole game basically trying to destroy the other players, knocking them over and then you go have
a beer together afterwards,” King said. “There are never any issues.”