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Hong Kong: The Greatest


In Hong Kong in 1976, as at Melrose 93 years earlier, 7s were chosen for logistical reasons: it was a lot easier to bring in twelve 7s' teams than twelve 15s' teams.

The inspiration behind the Hong Kong Sevens came from Ian Gow and Tokkie Smith; it was Gow's idea to bring in teams from rugby nations throughout the world for a tournament in Hong Kong; Smith's suggestion that, logistically, sevens would be a far more workable solution than 15s. Furthermore, the scope of the proposal was, to begin with, narrowed to Asian and Pacific nations, in contrast to the global approach originally proposed by Gow.

It was just about this time that the commercial world was beginning to take an interest in rugby, and the Hong Kong organizers were certainly fortunate that, from the first, the tournament found committed corporate sponsors, in this case Cathay Pacific Airlines and Rothmans' Tobacco, the latter eventually replaced by the Hongkong Bank.

Right from the start, all the Asian rugby playing nations were willing and eager to send national teams to Hong Kong: the 10 that participated were Fiji, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Tonga, and Malaysia.

Of the countries represented in 1976, Only Australia and New Zealand did not send national teams, being represented by the "Wallaroos" and the "Cantabrians," respectively. The Cantabrians, a New Zealand club side, won the tournament by defeating the Wallaroos 24-8 in the cup final.

The first Hong Kong 7s also featured separate competitions for the winners and losers of the opening bracket rounds: the top four teams went on to the Cup championship, and the bottom eight participated in the Plate round. The Plate winners of 1976 were the host team Hong Kong, with a 19-16 win over Tonga.

In the second year of the tournament, Australia sent over a team under the national banner (as they have ever since), but New Zealand refused to follow suit: they sent their provincial champion -- in 1977 it was Marlborough -- instead. Fiji established its reputation in 1977 as not just an exciting team, but a great one as well, defeating both Australia and the New Zealand side, 15-4 and 28-18, to win the championship. Tonga made it an all-island championship year, defeating Indonesia to win the Plate.

In 1978 the list of nations was expanded to 16 as Western Samoa, Bahrain, Papua New Guinea, and the first American representative, Hawaii, were added. Fiji again won the championship by defeating the New Zealand representative, in this case Manawatu.

From 1978 through 1980 the list of teams remained at 16, although additions from outside the Asian/Pacific regions were made, often at the expense of the original participants. Canada was added in 1980, as were the Co-Optimists, representing Scotland. The Co-Optimists were the first representatives of any of the Home Countries, none of whom were willing to send a national side to Hong Kong.

More additions were made in 1981. In order not to lose many of the Asian teams that were the reason for the Hong Kong Sevens' existence, the field was increased to 20, with the top 16 advancing to either the Cup or the Plate.

1981 marked the first appearance of the American Eagles, a full US national side, at Hong Kong. The Home Countries' second representative, the Barbarians, also appeared in 1981, when they became -- and remain -- the only team outside of Australia, Fiji, or New Zealand to win the championship.

In 1982, Hong Kong made the decision not to invite New Zealand unless it sent a national team, which it did not, resulting in no New Zealand representative for the only time in the tournament's history. By 1983, however, New Zealand was playing in the Hong Kong Sevens as New Zealand. Now only the Home Countries' arrogant attitude remained to mar the image of the World's greatest rugby tournament.

By 1984 Hong Kong was ready to expand its tournament yet once again, to 24 teams. There was now a full complement of "invitational sides" from the Home Countries, as Crawshay's Welsh, the Public School Wanderers, the Irish Wolfhouhds, and the French Barbarians were added, and the British Barbarians returned in 1989. But still no national sides: although all the Home Countries except Ireland had participated in the Sydney Sevens during the 1986-89 period, they were not willing to show the same deference to the non-IRB colony.

Many of the original teams, displaced during the previous years, were re-invited to Hong Kong. Taiwan, unable for political reasons to compete as a nation, was represented by Kwang-Hua Taipei.

In the following years, other European teams such as Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy were added, sometimes at the expense of one of the Home Country teams. They brought an enthusiasm and excitement to the tournament that more than made up for whatever the Home Countries brought in terms of name recognition. In both 1989 and 1990 the Bowl was won by European teams: the Netherlands and West Germany.

New Zealand won its first Hong Kong championship in 1986, a year in which they took the sevens' world by storm, winning all three international tournaments--Sydney, Hong Kong and Cardiff--by scoring 30 or more points in each of the finals. New Zealand's commitment to take the 7s' game as seriously as 15s was to drive the standard of international sevens a notch or two higher.

The US finally got an international rugby championship under its belt in 1986, defeating Canada 24-18 in the finals of the Plate.

1986 also saw the inclusion of the first team from a black African nation, Kenya.

In 1987 the Penguins, an invitational side based in London, were added at the last minute after Malaysia suddenly withdrew to protest New Zealand's inclusion of two All-Blacks that had toured South Africa. The Penguins, consisting of players from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, became the first truly international side to participate in Hong Kong (whether that's good or bad is debatable), and made it to the semi-finals in both 1987 and 1988.

1990 was a watershed year in that Wales became the first home country to send an official national team to Hong Kong. Despite a scare against the host nation, Wales was rewarded for its decision with an upset victory over 5-time champion Australia. 1990 also marked the return of Fijian dominance, their first victory since 1984.

The Event

There is no question in the mind of anyone that has been there, that the Hong Kong Sevens is the greatest rugby event in the world. In fact, the Hong Kong Sevens is probably one of the greatest sporting events, of any sport, anywhere in the world. Kevin Sinclair's description bears repeating:

Question: Who plays in the Hong Kong Sevens?

Answer: Almost everyone.

Question: Who goes to watch the games?

Answer: Everyone who isn't playing.

Or so it seems. . . .

The Sevens are the closest thing Hong Kong has to a Mardi Gras. It's a friendly, extroverted, gathering of the Hong Kong clans, a fiesta of fun as well as football. Although Hong Kong is a big city of 5.5 million people, it is crammed into a small area and the Sevens sometimes seem more like a village fete where everyone knows everybody else rather than a major international tournament. This mixture of local carnival and world competition gives the weekend a unique flavour.

So does the presence of the extended international rugby family. For the world rugby community, the Sevens are also a rare chance for a convivial get-together. Usually, meetings of rugby players are one-on-one occasions. All Blacks may see Lions during a tour of Britain. Frenchmen talk to Australians when they go Down Under. Tokyo RFU officials can swap anecdotes with Welshmen during a tour of Japan. But when do Canadian rugby lovers get to talk to Tongans? Or Sri Lankan forwards to Korean backs. Or Scots to Samoans, Americans to Malaysians, Irish full-backs to Singaporean forwards?

Nowhere except at the Sevens.

And what other figures ever get to talk to the keen players from the islands of the Solomons, the fanatical backs from the hills of New Guinea and the Thais, who seldom go on tour. Never?

Except in Hong Kong every Spring.

The appeal of the Hong Kong Sevens is not limited to rugby "nuts," however. Geoffrey Leeds wrote in the March 1990 issue of Town and Country of men that

shared an enthusiasm for the event that seemed

somewhat overblown. They waxed poetic about the tournament's true Olympic spirit . . . ; raved about the fast-moving, explosive play and the good sportsmanship of the players, and grew misty-eyed over the friendliness of the crowd that imbued all of Hong Kong with its enthusiasm. These men I spoke with were not schoolboys, collegians, or Monday morning quarterbacks; they were bankers from Boston, sophisticated board chairmen from London and San Francisco, and jaded attorneys from New York and Toronto.

For some of the Hong Kong power brokers there is, as might be expected, more than rugby involved. As Leeds explains it:

Then the play began, and so did the shuffling in the taipans' boxes, for despite their obvious enthusiasm for the sport, the taipans' function is to make deals, whether at Rugby or the racetrack. At the end of the day, the score they tally is the number of deals made.


Over the years, traditions have built up at the sevens, traditions that one particularly appreciates on the second visit there.

One of the most persisting traditions is that the crowd boos the Australians on every possible occasion. Very few people even remember why it's done (apparently it stems from an incident involving fists and boots, between the Aussies and the Fijians, back in 1976), but they all enjoy partaking in the ritualistic booing of the Aussies. Actually, the booing now remains as a good-natured ritual only: none of the fans really dislike the Australians, who annually provide some of the most exciting moments of the tournament. Still, it's amusing, walking with the American Eagles during the parade of nations, to hear the load cheers for America and Argentina change rapidly to raucous boos as the Australians march by right behind.

The Arabic headdress worn by the representatives of the Gulf nations, as well as their supporters, is another tradition that is repeated annually. In fact, each year more and more groups have taken to adorning themselves with bizarre headpieces; these are seen scattered throughout the crowd -- and sometimes are worn by the players themselves in the parade.

The parade itself is a great tradition of the Hong Kong Sevens. Held on Sunday, before the Cup Quarterfinals (but after 8 teams have already been eliminated from the competition), and after the annual Mini-Rugby exhibition, the parade resembles a mini-Olympics as each nation's players parade in front of the crowd. The entire procession is led by a Chinese bagpipe band; each nation is preceded by a banner held by one of the Mini Rugby participants.

Most of the teams parade simply in their playing gear, although some also sport special touches: in 1988, for example, the Dutch paraded in wooden shoes, and the Spaniards wore bullfighter's capes and hats. In 1987 the Canadians wore boxer shorts adorned with maple leaves.

One of the Samoan players in 1988 removed his jersey, revealing an entirely tattooed body from the chest down; the tattooes continued below his shorts to his knees. As he paraded, more or less with his team, he performed a native dance all around the stadium. The crowd loved it.

Even the referees take part in the parade. In a rare moment of candor (just kidding, Sir), they carry white canes as they march.

As might be imagined, another great tradition at the Sevens is beer consumption. Sinclair writes:

"The thirst of the spectators is as formidable a part of the Sevens tradition as the Fijian pack in full cry down the field. In 1984, vendors at the stadium sold 25,000 pints of beer. Not to mention 12,500 glasses of wine. For those with a taste for the harder stuff, whisky, gin and mixed drinks are also on sale.

But there is little problem with alcohol at the Sevens. The quantities consumed may be considerable, the thirsts rivalling those of camels after a trans- Sahara trek, but the behaviour is almost invariably jovial, friendly, affable.

It's a time for enjoyment for all.

Yet another tradition of the Hong Kong Sevens is the after- tournament banquet. All teams participate, plus a few very lucky nonparticipants, and each year about a third of the teams are selected to perform skits.

Whether it be the American Eagles doing a semi-transvestite version of "California Girls" or the Spaniards performing a bullfighting skit, or the Fijians singing their own native songs with a quality that remind one somehow of Welsh hymn singing in its beauty and sincerity, the party represents all that is good about the intermingling of peoples from around the world.

At my first trip to Hong Kong I was particularly impressed with one episode at the party. The band was playing "We are the World," which slowly, then more quickly, turned into a truly universal performance, with players from all countries on stage, rocking back and forth, arms around each other, prolonging the song into a beautiful exhibition that made one think, if only for a moment, "What if . . . "

It's not just the fans and the players, however, that love the tournament: to quote Kevin Sinclair once again, "nobody loves the Sevens more than the press." Speaking of New Zealander Peter Bush, who he considers to be "the doyen of the world's rugby photographers," Sinclair states that nothing in Bush's career has excited him as much as the Hong Kong Sevens.

The Greatest

Finally: despite all the fun aspects of the tournament -- and it is fun!! -- the Hong Kong Sevens would have no basis for success without the consistently high quality of the play itself. For any sporting event to sell out a 30,000-seat stadium for more than eight hours on a Saturday followed by the same amont of time on Sunday, there's got to be some good stuff happening on the field. That good stuff is exceptional rugby -- the best in the world.

Jim Hoehn gave his own description of the Hong Kong Sevens:

Simply labeling the Hong Kong Sevens as a "rugby tournament" . . . is just a bit like calling a Ferrari "just another car."

He wonders why "anyone who's ever played rugby doesn't make at least one trip to the Hong Kong Sevens in his or her lifetime."

Anyone who's ever been there will agree.

Hong Kong Champions:

Cup Champions Plate Champions Bowl Champions

1976 Cantabrians (NZ) Hong Kong

1977 Fiji Tonga

1978 Fiji Bahrain

1979 Australia Papua New Guinea

1980 Fiji Japan

1981 Barbarians (UK) Tonga

1982 Australia Korea

1983 Australia Korea

1984 Fiji Australia Sri Lanka

1985 Australia Tonga Hong Kong

1986 New Zealand American Eagles Papua New Guinea

1987 New Zealand French Barbarians Hong Kong

1988 Australia American Eagles Kwang Hua-Taipei

1989 New Zealand Tonga Netherlands

1990 Fiji Hong Kong West Germany