One Sunday afternoon in March 1976, I strolled down to the old Football Club stadium in Happy Valley, bought a ticket at the door, and watched Hong Kong’s first ever Rugby Sevens tournament. It will give you an idea of the impression that experience made on me that I have been to every single Hong Kong Sevens since.
Through the years, the event has developed to such an extent and in so many ways that it is no exaggeration to say that it has had a profound global impact.
Start with the level. In the mid-seventies, this was basically a club competition organised by a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs. Both New Zealand and Australia sent their top club sides to participate, and many of the “national” sides from countries like Indonesia and Bahrain, indeed Hong Kong itself, were derived from small groups of keen expatriates working in those places. Now every country sends a fully-fledged national team. Then there is the scale: an event that initially did not fill a 10,000 seat club facility now sells out the 40,000 seat government stadium and there is great demand for tickets.
Many years ago, it was the 15 a side version of rugby that dominated the sport worldwide and all rugby eyes were on the then five nations tournament between the so called home countries (England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland) plus France. In the southern hemisphere rugby was mainly of interest to the former British colonies of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. A Lions team combining the best of the home countries would from time to time tour the south, while a team from one of the former colonies would on occasion reciprocate. Now the 7 a side format has leapfrogged over the traditional game and indeed has become an Olympic event.
It was after watching the Hong Kong Sevens tournament one year that the International Olympic Committee voted to admit the event to the Games. The atmosphere in the stadium as 40,000 energised spectators roared on their team was exactly the kind of excitement the IOC was hoping to incorporate in the Games themselves. Moreover at some point in the intervening years, sevens rugby had become a truly global sport with teams from every continent participating at senior level. There was something about the style of play engendered by wide open spaces, fast running, and short bursts of play (seven minutes each half instead of the traditional 40 minutes) that people found exciting and it captured the imagination of a much wider audience. A recent game in the United States drew an audience of over 70,000 spectators.
From having been a largely amateur sport, sevens rugby now has a professional international circuit with multi-million dollar commercial sponsorship. The game is truly global now and we can be proud – we should always remember it was the Hong Kong event that set the pace.
Socially the Hong Kong Sevens has had a similar if more subtle impact. In the early days, rugby was seen very much as an expat sport – a barbarian game in the view of many locals. But as time went by the perception shifted. More and more local Chinese children began to play, albeit to the horror of their parents (especially mothers) either because they came into contact with the sport at an international school based here, or because they had been sent overseas for secondary education and picked it up at school in a foreign country.
Now the situation in Hong Kong has been transformed again, probably in part because of rugby’s Olympic status. Local schools have started to produce competitive teams. Keen volunteers also teach mini rugby to children as young as five years at various sports centres around the SAR. Every Sunday, many thousands of children of all ethnicities can be seen, sponsored shirts on their backs, boots in hand, heading off to play rugby.
The final stage of the evolution has also arrived: girls now play in numbers fast approaching the same level as boys. Famous local girls’ schools such as Heep Yunn now field teams in inter-school competitions. Cheongsam and ballet shoes for one lesson, rugby kit and boots for the next. Nor is it a soft touch game. I recently saw the Chinese national team play the Japanese ladies team in full 15-a-side format. It was not a game for the soft hearted. Crunching tackles went in from both sides, tall sturdy runners at full speed were brought crashing to the ground – it was not a game I would have wanted to play in!
The Hong Kong Sevens is the one sporting event held here which can claim to bring in tens of thousands of visitors from all around the world, and to boost Hong Kong’s image wherever followers of the game congregate which nowadays is just about everywhere. It all seems such a stretch from those early days. They say that great oaks from little acorns grow. This weekend we will see the proof of that aphorism once again.