If, on a Saturday afternoon around lunchtime, you find yourself up in the northern reaches of Longquan Road, you can take a left at a non-descript traffic light, carry on for about two kilometers up a steep road that takes you to Chang Chong mountain, and you'll find the Kunming Flying Tigers rugby teams at practice on their home turf.
On the pitch, you will likely find Tristram Barker, the long-running captain of the club. As one of the original Flying Tigers he can tell you about the club's history.
Flying Tigers taking off
When asked about the beginnings of the rugby club he says:
The very brief story is that after the World Cup 2011, me, one other Kiwi (Nick Garrity) and one American (Ethan Spann) sort of dreamed up the Kunming Flying Tigers Rugby Club in Salvador's. But then Nick went home for a long time. Ethan was moving to Beijing shortly after, so I sort of picked up the reins from there."
Tristram also mentions the first club president — American Jeff Fuller — who,
"using his army background, streamlined the club and helped the Tigers fly."
The club's name is derived from the original Flying Tigers, the heroic WW II pilots stationed in Yunnan.
Touch and go
Arrive early enough up the hill and you'll make it just in time for a fitness session led by Bryce Pearson. After a run around the pitch, stretching and that day's fitness program, the club will start to divide itself. Some players will join Teddy Bowers — the chairman of the club — and Tim Verplancke — social chair — for touch practice. This newly formed touch rugby team is a mix of men and women who have been practicing since Spring this year. The team follows international touch rules.
Unlike Rugby Union, the sport played by contact teams around China, touch rugby involves no contact or tackling. In lieu of tackling and breakdowns — known as "rucks" — touch players must simply touch a member of the opposite team to stop their advance down the pitch. Touch the opposite team six times, and possession of the ball is yours. While this might sound easy in theory, touch rugby involves near-constant running, sprinting and side-stepping. In fact, when asking seasoned contact players about their first touch tournament experience many were surprised by just how long the twelve-minute games could seem.
On the other side of the pitch, you'll find the men's and women's contact teams. Depending on the skills being practiced that day, it will either be a joint practice or one separated by gender.
Contact rugby in China follows Rugby Union rules. Depending on the tournament, the number of players on the pitch for each team will either be seven, ten or fifteen. Game length also varies according to the number of players on the field. While sevens is a faster game and fifteens has more contact, all matches guarantee a lot of tackling, rucking and the occasional maul, where a group of players uses their body mass to march the ball down the field.
It is due to the high level of contact and fear of injuries that the Kunming team has decided to open a touch team. The touch team allows people who are interested in the sport but worried about injury to stay involved in the China rugby community.
The Lady Flying Tigers
Leading the women's contact side is either Lily Anderson or Liz Witcher, with the help of long-time women's captain Marta Verplancke. Marta has been a devoted member of the Flying Tiger's rugby since 2014 and very much committed to the organization, women's contact, men's contact and touch.
China Women's Rugby is unique in that most of the players had never played rugby, or even known about the sport, before moving to China. As such the threshold to join is low, and the women's team welcomes anyone to come and try their hand at contact.
After a long day in the sun, the club can frequently be spotted at one of the O'Reilly's Irish pubs, sharing a bottle of Jaegermeister. O'Reilly's has been a sponsor of the club since they opened and bought them their first team uniforms. Another big sponsor is SWIRE Coca-Cola YN. The clubs sponsorships help to keep membership fees and tournament costs down.
At the pub upcoming tournaments and afterparties are discussed, as the camaraderie between teammates and other members of the larger China rugby community is just as an important part of rugby off the pitch. Teams will choose a tour theme and come dressed to impress to the tournament afterparty.
Becoming a Flying Tiger
One thing to know is that the Flying Tigers welcome all to their club, no matter their fitness level or their previous experience with the sport.
In fact, Lily Anderson, the current leader of the women's team, joined the club and attended her first tournament without even having the proper footwear. Marta lent her a pair of cleats in her size to start training properly for the annual Xiamen women's tournament, which she is using to this day.
Marta herself joined:
"because of the fitness sessions they were running before (one of my classmates at Keats was actually in charge, so he invited me). I liked it but wasn't too enthusiastic about rugby since I had never played sports in my life and wasn't too sure about being a team player. Then I met Tim and made friends and played my first tournament in December 2014, and loved it."
Nothing, however, illustrates the welcoming nature of the Flying Tigers more than hearing Teddy's first encounter with the Flying Tigers.
"I joined the rugby team basically as soon as I came to Kunming in August 2012. I walked into O'Reilly's and Tristram was there and he actually invited me to his stag do the first or the second night I met him."
Indeed, the spirit of the club is best summed up by captain Tristram:
"We believe that we are more than just a sports team. Over the years the club has welcomed hundreds of men and women young and old, experienced and new to rugby, and representing every continent on earth except Antarctica. Games have been won and lost but lifelong friendships and relationships have also been forged."
All are welcome to join the teams or come out and cheer on our very own Kunming Flying Tigers Rugby teams.
This season, the club will host a home tournament here in Kunming. On October 26th, competitive mixed touch, men's contact and women's contact games will be played against opponents from all over China.
The women's contact team will travel to Xiamen for the 6th annual All-China Women's Cup on November 9th and the men's contact team will travel to Wuhan for a sevens tournament on November 16th.
Go Flying Tigers Rugby Club!
Weekly Practice Times
Tuesday 5:30PM until sundown at the Finance University North Campus
Saturday 1:00PM - 3:00PM at Chang Chong Shan
Anyone interested in joining or learning more about the Flying Tigers: find them here