History of the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens

History of the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens
Former UK Colony Hosts IRB Sevens Tournament

Ted Bell

Hong Kong Rugby Sevens

It was a weekend full of sportsmanship and partying, well, mostly partying. The highly anticipated Hong Kong Rugby Sevens was held in late March to great cheer and fanfare. People from around the globe made their way to Hong Kong to watch Sevens rugby matches between teams of all caliber. The 3 day event was a boost to the city and to the sport, which seems to grow in popularity every year. Even the Americans (who worship their pathetic idea of ‘football’).

Tickets for this event were sold out within a few hours of going on sale which is, hopefully, a good sign that the world economic crises is making its much hoped for exit. All the seats were filled, and the spillover filled the restaurants and bars outside the stadium.

How it all got started

Although Sevens tournaments have been held since the game was invented in Scotland in 1883, Hong Kong came about much later. In 1975, the Chairman of the HKRFU, A.D.C. “Tokkie” Smith met with Ian Gow, a tobacco executive who was looking to sponsor an international rugby tournament. Within a year, the first Hong Kong Sevens was held.

Hong Kong Rugby SevensThe entrants in the early days were mainly national teams from South East Asia, supplemented by non-representative teams from New Zealand and Australia. The tournament grew quickly, both in rugby terms and in supporters. It soon outgrew its home and moved from the Hong Kong Football Club to the bigger Government Stadium in Happy Valley. This iconic setting, with a backdrop of steep wooded hills topped with skyscrapers, proved to be a perfect location for what was to come.

Waisale Serevi, Jonah Lomu and the Golden Age of Sevens

The late eighties and early nineties saw Hong Kong at the center of the emergence of a golden era of Sevens stars. The tournament, dominated by New Zealand and Fiji saw some immense battles at this time, cementing the legend of the Hong Kong Sevens.

A stream of extravagantly talented Kiwis competed for New Zealand including Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen. Fiji boasted the likes of Vunibaka, the huge striding wing and the incomparable Waisale Serevi. Serevi, generally considered the greatest Sevens player of all time, played at Hong Kong 16 times, making the final 14 times and winning the Player of the Tournament award on four occasions.

Hong Kong Rugby Sevens
The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens is much more than Asia’s biggest sporting event, the annual arrival of the tournament to town signals city wide celebrations, it is the nearest thing Hong Kong has to mardi gras. Inside the stadium, fans dress up, drink, and, if there is time, watch one of the rugby world’s best tournaments. Outside, pubs, bars and restaurants offer special Hong Kong Rugby Sevens deals to lure in the thousands of fans who could not squeeze inside the stadium.

South Stand Party and Sevens Action

While play on the field got faster and more skilful, the spectators were also upping the ante. The Sevens had established itself as the hottest ticket in Hong Kong and was seen as a serious party weekend. Fans, many in fancy dress, arrive early to ensure access to the South Stand, which is now considered so raucous, that entry is restricted to ages 18 and over!

The legendary South Stand is home to the most boisterous supporters; and the singing, shouting and Mexican waves are generally kicked off by the South Stand crowd. South Stand supporters also doll themselves up, donning costumes from Ghostbusters to cheerleaders, as they cheer their teams along. If your team is not making an appearance, you will be encouraged to pick an adopted country and shout them through to the final. Be warned; the South Stand is also the headquarters for the tournament’s most dedicated drinkers, and while convivial, the atmosphere can be a little too raucous for some.

Immediately outside the stadium is the rugby village, where, for a small fee, you can enjoy a big screen view of the action while within earshot of the cheers of the actual stadium. Wan Chai’s pubs and bars were packed during the tournament and will feature rugby Sevens’ games on TV, as well as prizes, competitions and cut-price deals.

Sevens, with its short sharp bouts of action, had always leant itself to being a good day out, but Hong Kong has taken it to the next level. Spectators do not need to leave their seats to queue for a drink. At the start of the morning, a jug of beer and a glass can be bought, and when empty, a shout of ‘San Miguel’ or ‘Heineken’ will bring a barmaid running, armed with a refill.

The free-flowing rugby, booze and rock music that blasted out between games made the Sevens a weekend to remember. Television coverage started to draw British rugby fans’ attention to the tournament and the burgeoning sports travel industry started to bring large numbers from the UK, increasing the tournament’s popularity even further.

By the mid ‘90s, the tournament had again outgrown its home, and a new 40,000 seat stadium was built on the site of the old venue. This is the stadium used to host the Sevens today.

What is Sevens?

Sevens is a cut-down, speeded up version of traditional rugby. Far quicker, higher scoring and with less rules, Sevens has a far wider appeal than the original fifteens version. The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens is the main event in the larger Sevens tournament which tours the world, with the ultimate champions decided on points earned from all of the tournaments. The Sevens game is often used as a training ground for players to prove themselves before moving onto fifteens. Two of the finest players to grace the Hong Kong tournament have been Jonah Lomu and David Campese, who fine-tuned their game in several years of Sevens’ tournaments before going on to dominate world rugby.

Do I need to be a rugby fan?

Hong Kong Rugby Sevens

While rugby is undoubtedly first-class, much of the crowd turns up for the booze and the atmosphere, and not the rugby. The fun of the fast and furious Sevens game is that is lasts under fifteen minutes anyway, and most of the time in the stadium is dedicated to getting into the carnival atmosphere. Even if you are not a rugby fan, attendance is still highly recommended.

New Hong Kong knock-out structure

The final day of this year’s Hong Kong tournament was restructured to bring it in line with the other Sevens’ events on the Series.

While the winning Cup quarter-finalists proceed to the Cup semi-finals, the losers now proceed to the Plate semi-finals where they will still have the chance to play for 16 Series points, compared to the 8 points on offer under the previous scoring system.

“The new structure creates 3 additional matches involving some of the top teams. As an example, last year’s losing Cup quarter-finalists were Argentina, Australia, England and New Zealand. This year, we also had the extra added bonus of an additional Shield final, which certainly ramped up the excitement of ‘Sevens Sunday’ in Hong Kong even further,” said HKRFU Tournament Director Warrick Dent.

Hong Kong Sevens inspires a global sport

Today, rugby Sevens appears in the Commonwealth Games, the fifth Sevens World Cup was held in Dubai recently and a global series of tournaments is run by the IRB. Kenya, one of the countries to emerge through the Sevens circuit, will this year host the Junior World Rugby Cup and rugby Sevens has become an Olympic sport, with medals being awarded in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Who is playing?

This year, the tournament was fronted by the 12 core teams in the IRB Sevens World Series – Argentina, Australia, England, defending Hong Kong champions Fiji, France, Kenya, New Zealand, Samoa, Scotland, reigning IRB champions South Africa, USA and Wales. They were joined by Canada, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Tonga and Zimbabwe.

Russia marked its first return after back-to-back Bowl wins in Hong Kong in 2007 and 2008, while Italy returned for the first time since 2007.

Hong Kong Rugby Sevens

Hong Kong also invited six teams from around the region; with China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong qualifying through the new Asian Rugby Sevens Series established last October.
Thailand has returned to the Hong Kong Sevens for the first time since 2004. Big congratulations should go to the players and coaches of Thailand’s rugby team for receiving the recognition and honor of being asked to the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. Thailand takes great pride in their sports.

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