Colonial era lives on in HK Sevens heaven

For three beer-swilling days a year, Hong Kong hosts one of the biggest rugby parties in the world—its Sevens tournament—and lapses into a hangover from a colonial era that ended a decade ago.

Over the weekend, more than 40 000 rugby fans drank beer all day and spilled out of bars at night, while “Tai-pans”, the heads of some of Hong Kong’s oldest trading houses and investment bankers wooed clients in the stadium’s 150 corporate boxes.

After lunch with former British prime minister John Major, assistant England sevens coach Phil Greening said his players enjoyed Hong Kong because of its British feel.

“For England, it’s our home tournament,” Greening, who has won 24 England caps, told Reuters.

“The national anthem here is sung louder than at Twickenham. And people we meet in the street are wishing us well. It makes it special,” he said.

But there was no rendition of God Save the Queen this year as England’s four-year winning run ended in a 26-0 defeat to New Zealand.
Samoa, with three tries by Mikaele Pesamino, lifted the trophy after a 27-22 victory over crowd favourites Fiji.

The Sevens game was adapted from the usual 15-aside format by a butcher in Melrose, Scotland, which hosted the first competition in 1883. The Hong Kong event began in 1976 and the city has hosted two World Cup Sevens, in 1997 and 2005.

“It’s great to know we’ve brought the game around the world,” said former Scotland captain Gavin Hastings, who played in Hong Kong in 1991.

“But like England with football, we’re now useless at it.”

Scottish ties to Hong Kong go back to early colonial days. Many governors were Scots, including Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation founder Thomas Sutherland.

Jardine Matheson, a Scottish trading house, started the tea and opium trade that created Hong Kong’s original wealth and still employs one in every 150 people in the city.

“Scotland has huge historical links and we’re a very popular side here,” Hastings told Reuters. “We should send the best players to give the crowd something to cheer, but sadly those days are over.”

The Sevens is mainly an expatriate event, although the number of Britons living in Hong Kong has nearly halved to around 17 000 since the British government handed over the city to China in 1997. United States citizens in Hong Kong now outnumber Brits at 26 550.

The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union is trying to encourage more local participation. This year it gave tickets, which can change hands for triple their face value of HK$880 ($112,6), to 5 000 students for one day to boost future interest.

“I think it’s great because it shows Hong Kong is not just a business centre but can be fun too,” Uhi Hui, a public relations consultant and Hong Kong native said of the Sevens.

This year a man in a penguin costume crashed through the barricades and ran the length of the pitch, before guards tackled him on the goal line.

But corporate networking is as big as the japes and rugby.

Credit Suisse has been a major sponsor since 1997. Around 21% of the 22 000 people who travelled to Hong Kong for the Sevens in 2006 also held business meetings, according to the tourism board. Rugby visitors spent HK$10 000 ($1 280) each over the weekend, more than double the average.

“The corporate bit very much leads the Sevens,” said Allan Payne, executive director of the Hong Kong RFU. “Some people think we’re selling our soul, but no way. They kept us going for the last 10 years and through the bad times.”

Attendances fell when the 1997/98 Asian economic crisis sent many expatriate workers packing. And in 2003, during an outbreak of the Sars respiratory disease, the Argentina team withdrew and organisers dished out bandanas for people to cover their mouths.

But what Hong Kong’s 19th century colonial masters might have called “bad joss” has passed, and the tournament is thriving as it attracts some of the best up and coming players.

Future England stars at this year’s Hong Kong Sevens included Jack Forster, Danny Care and Charlie Amesbury. Ex-internationals Ieuan Evans, David Sole, Francois Pienaar, Greening and Hastings were drawn back this year for a chance to party.

At a rowdy barbecue held by a local rugby club, Hastings told of an investigation launched after a Scottish team dinner because he threw a grilled pepper which inadvertently landed on the chief executive of sponsor the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Greening provoked howls of derision from a Welsh contingent with a speech littered with references to sheep, before the former England hooker headed for the Wanchai area where bars, night clubs and massage parlours were pumping up their prices.

“It’s still mad and still Hong Kong,” he reflected. - Reuters

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