As Japan gears up to host Asia’s first Rugby World Cup, it might give a nod of thanks to Hong Kong for helping make it all possible.
The Hong Kong Sevens has grown from an end-of-season bash to a globally acclaimed festival of rugby, inspiring the World Cup Sevens and World Sevens Series — and tens of thousands of fans, who don outrageous fancy dress and party until they drop.
The territory holds the accolade of being the only two-time host of the Sevens World Cup (1997 and 2005), reward for Hong Kong’s pivotal role in developing the game across the world’s most populous continent.
The growth of sevens resulted in rugby’s return to the Olympics in 2016 after a 92-year absence.
None of that was in the wildest dreams of a group of club enthusiasts when they devised the event, said former Hong Kong Rugby Football Union president Brian Stevenson, who has been involved from the start and was treasurer for the inaugural staging in 1976.
“There had never been a thought about a kind of international sevens. I thought it was a very innovative idea,” Stevenson said.
He described how a capacity 3,000 crowd packed the Hong Kong Football Club to see New Zealand’s Cantabrians win against sides from Indonesia, South Korea, Australia, Tonga, Japan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Fiji.
“Nobody would have expected it to take off as it has. We’ve been most fortunate,” the Scot said. “I always felt it was the nature of Hong Kong and its location. This is probably the most international city in Asia.”
“You think of the timing, 1976. Hong Kong was developing as a financial center. Cathay Pacific was beginning to expand its wings, so there’s a lot of things together that really made it,” he added.
The seed for the Hong Kong Sevens was sown when A.D.C. “Tokkie” Smith, then chairman of the Hong Kong union, attended the Scottish Rugby Union centenary sevens at Murrayfield in 1973.
By 1975 he had plans for an international 15-a-side tournament, but they were met with resistance from the governing body of the then-strictly amateur sport.
“They were not helpful at all,” Stevenson said. “So the way around it was an invitational sevens. I don’t think any of us expected it to take off.”
The success attracted the world’s best players and eventually national teams, or at least some of them.
“The most supportive people were definitely the southern hemisphere,” Stevenson said. “They came to the party quite soon. The [Pacific] islands — Tonga, Samoa, Fiji — were basically here from the word go.”
“But the countries up north, well, that was a different experience,” he said. “I remember visiting the Scots, and them saying: ‘Aye Brian, but that’s not the game, the game is fifteens.’”
“‘OK Sir,’ I’d say, and I’d go back to little Hong Kong,” he added.
Stevenson believes that the willingness of southern hemisphere players to embrace sevens gave them an edge when the game went professional in the 1990s.
Eventually, the north came to the party.
“We had sides from United Kingdom, like the Barbarians, the Penguins, the Scottish Borderers,” Stevenson said. “The key was they came with the best players like [Scotland’s] Hastings brothers. They were hugely supportive and they told their unions, ‘Come on, support these guys and go international.’”
Hong Kong now enjoys a three-day 40,000 sellout of color, costume and top-class sevens in April every year with plans to expand to a new, bigger stadium in 2023.
“It started as a bit of a jolly,” Stevenson said. “But if you go back to the genesis of the whole thing, part of it was to develop rugby in Asia.”
“You always had a New Zealand against Sri Lanka and a 50-0 wipeout or something, but when you spoke to the Sri Lankans, they were over the moon,” he added. “They had played against Jonah Lomu. They had that experience. That was what it was all about.”
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