Letter from London|The Unlikely Rugby Capital

Published (HKT): 2021.04.10 09:41

Frank Wilson

I noticed a sports news item recently. The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens for 2021 has been rescheduled for November this year. It brought back a host of memories – of both working at, and partying at, the world-famous tournament. I also pondered the old question. How did Hong Kong, at a time when it was a small British colony in Asia, develop into such a global centre for an essentially Western European game?

The tournament had an inauspicious start. Back in 1976, before I had even arrived in Hong Kong, a bunch of expat rugby fans had the ambition to set up a regional event. Although ignored by the international rugby playing nations of the day, they went ahead inviting Asian nations and club teams. Held originally at the old Hong Kong Football Club in Sports Road, Happy Valley, it was an immediate success, attracting a mainly expat crowd of fans, who decided from the start it was not only a good sport to watch but an opportunity to party for the weekend. The first time I attended, the Club pitch was mostly underwater thanks to an inconvenient typhoon, but this didn’t deter the organisers, players or fans. The Fire Brigade was called in to pump out some of the lakes, after which the teams just splashed, slid and aquaplaned through the flood and mud regardless.

Within a few years, more international teams began to take the event seriously and in 1982 demand was such that it transferred to the old Hong Kong Stadium in So Kon Po, which could then hold thirty thousand spectators. It was full from day one. At this stage, it was still predominantly an expat fiesta, but during the 1980s this changed, as more local Hongkongers began to take notice and rugby caught on as entertainment and activity. Financially underpinned by headline sponsors Cathay Pacific and the Hongkong Shanghai Bank, who recognised the growing marketing value of a compelling sports event attracting media from around the world, it became a global event. National teams from the top rugby countries, such as England, France, New Zealand and South Africa, among others, came to play alongside the Asian minnows such as Singapore, Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong itself.

I had the good fortune to work on the event for a few years in the 1980s, as a member of the publicity and promotional team. A sports fan myself, I found it quite thrilling to work closely with journalists from around the world, and with the star international players who were by then competing. On the other hand, while everyone else on the terraces was singing, cheering on their teams, drinking lots of beer and socialising, I had to work soberly and frantically over the entire weekend, from Thursday to Sunday night, with little sleep or rest! Even in the early 80s, the event was drawing over three hundred journalists from around the world, including over a dozen TV crews. Our job was to keep them fully briefed with up-to-the-minute news of results, team formations and general happenings around the stadium. In addition, we set up a non-stop schedule of interviews with players and coaches.

And if that wasn’t enough, we also ploughed on until the early hours of the morning, producing an overnight newsletter, that found its way onto every single seat each morning before the fans arrived.

By the end of that decade, the tournament was hosting visitors from around the world, so that an overspill facility had to be organised in the fields next to the stadium, where fans could follow the action on huge screens. This popularity was one incentive to re-build the venue and the new facility, the Hong Kong Stadium, able to accommodate forty thousand spectators, was duly completed in 1994.

Another result of the success of the Hong Kong Sevens was that the international rugby authorities, up to then rather dismissive of the sevens game, began to take serious notice of the format. Eventually, in 1993, the Rugby World Cup Sevens was launched in Scotland and has since developed into a worldwide event. Hong Kong fittingly hosted the tournament in 1997 and again in 2005.

People typically remark on Hong Kong’s outstanding success in the fields of manufacturing, trading and finance, but the Rugby Sevens event demonstrated that the ambition and innovation of the place extended equally to the sporting arena. The impact on the international scene was unexpected and spectacular, as was the popularity of the game in Asia and in Hong Kong itself. I remember watching with delight young Chinese boys and girls, their ponytails flying in the air, play touch rugby in Happy Valley. Who would have thought it a decade earlier?

The group of fans and business supporters who launched that first modest tournament back in the 1970s should be justifiably proud of their achievement, turning Hong Kong into the unlikely source of a global sporting phenomenon.

(The writer lived in Hong Kong for more than twenty years, arriving soon after the death of Mao and leaving after the handover of the territory to China. He experienced the seismic transformation of Hong Kong on its journey from plastic flowers and T-shirts to global front runner in trade and high finance.)

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