Opinion Sport

The Rugby Sevens: A unique expression of Hong Kong’s soft power, and cross-cultural charisma

Sitting on concrete steps in a persistent drizzle, a doughty curiosity of local rugby fans were watching Hawaii play Bahrain in the Plate semi-final. This was in April 1979, the fourth year of the Hong Kong Sevens. No one in the 1,534 crowd – I counted them – was to know this dull, sodden 4-0 victory (one unconverted try in ‘old money’) to Hawaii was to be the lowest score in the, now long, history of international sevens.

The Sevens the next year, again at the Hong Kong Football Club, took place in a biblical deluge. Play was suspended as the fire brigade were called in to pump water from the pitch, to little avail. With a blistering wade down the wing, the Fijian, Taniela Ralumu, scored the clinching try in the final. All those many years ago, it was impossible to sense that the sevens format would develop such as to be now met with wild enthusiasm in cities like Las Vegas and Vancouver and indeed become an Olympic sport.

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Parisian Jonathan R. Spencer (R) and Chloe Le Pichon (2nd R) cheer with a group of French rugby fans as the French team plays against South Africa at the Hong Kong Sevens 29 March. The French bowed to the South Africans after an extension 19-24. AFP PHOTO/Manuel CENETA (Photo by MANUEL CENETA / AFP)

So how did this happen? The embracement and sanction of sevens as a stand-alone sport by the International Rugby Board (IRB) and the support of HSBC is a large factor in modern expansion. Yet Hong Kong was undoubtedly the incubator of international sevens through an amalgam of first-rate organisation and chance.

In 1982, the Sevens moved to the Hong Kong Stadium, then a tin-roofed relic of a venue, but with a capacity of 16,000. We rattled around in there at first but the event began to take off and numbers swelled. Fans were flying in for the weekend action, Kiwis mainly. Contemporary future stars of fifteen-a-side rugby began to turn up. As the decade went on, and into the next, the Hong Kong event introduced us to the one-name stars of rugby: Campo, Serevi, Jonah. And Christian Cullen.

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In the stands, a real buzz and camaraderie started to develop. The propagator of this was, I believe, an accident of event origins. There is no designated seating so, once through the gates, spectators can join established groups coalesced around a traditionally preferred spot in the ground.

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A political coup in Fiji in 1987, rather oddly, gave impetus to the Sevens game internationally. And, again, Hong Kong was the progenitor. Post-coup unrest in the Fijian Islands caused the national rugby coach to take up a similar role in Hong Kong. George Simpkin was to live here for 16 years and found, from the beginning, our city to be an ideal place to broadcast his innovative rugby thinking about how the sevens game is played.

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Twenty years ago, we’d watch Saturday pool games (no Friday afternoons then) where a score of 69-0, would not be unusual. The team conceding the try would take the restart. Local post-match reports in those days loved such sevens-centric clichés as the imperious Fijians, the plucky Sri Lankans. Plucky? The Lankans in one game never even touched the ball. Simpkin lobbied for a change to the kick-off rule and it was to be adopted worldwide. The team scoring the try restarts. Another Simpkinian tweak: conversions now can only be drop kicks, never place kicks as were prevalent back then.

By the early 1990’s, I was a mini-rugby coach up at Stanley Fort and therefore involved in the Sunday march-past. It was from this perspective that I first fully subscribed to the, then, nascent notion of ‘only at the Sevens’.

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It might have been 1995. We were standing in the tunnel waiting for our mini-rugby cohort to be chivied onto the field. A man mountain of a Western Samoan reached down to a Chinese girl who played for our under-8s. He swung her up onto his shoulders and she was understandably nervous until we emerged from the tunnel and the Samoan and his extension were caught on screen to a roar of crowd approval. Chan Sui-mai waved to the full-house feeling ten-foot tall.

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Small foam rugby balls were thrown into the crowd by the players. The crowd had the sudden, shared urge to lob them back into the two tubas of the marching band. The tuba players scowled above bloated cheeks but remained immaculately instep.

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Completing the circuit, we move to the two rows of bagpipers, junior local policemen in kilts. The band was playing the Elvis classic Wooden Heart. A player from PNG was much taken by the tune and removed his shirt to reveal full-body tattoos and danced and weaved in amongst the pipers; extraordinary spontaneity that the celebration of the Sevens implicitly encourages. These were just three indelible memories in one year, in one hour, of the Sevens.

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The event, with its cross-cultural and international crowd charisma, is perhaps the last vestige of our claim to be Asia’s World City. It remains a unique expression of Hong Kong’s soft power.

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Captains of teams competing in the annual Hong Kong Rugby Sevens pose with the winner’s trophy (C) in front of a view of the skyline in Hong Kong on April 3, 2019, during a promotional event ahead of the tournament. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

I’ll be there this year at the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens, now only doing the Saturday jug-guzzling shift in the North Stand, back row. It’ll be my 40th consecutive Hong Kong Sevens.

The Rugby Sevens: A unique expression of Hong Kong’s soft power, and cross-cultural charisma