40 Things You Never Knew About the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens

As the Rugby Sevens turns the big 4-0, we’ve dug into the nitty gritty of the city’s greatest tournament. From boozy beginnings to saucy streakers, Kate Springer uncovers 40 things you never knew about the Hong Kong Sevens.

Pitches of the Past

1-6. Ohhh, so that’s how it all kicked off…

1. A Morning Meeting
The concept of Rugby Sevens dates back to the 1800s, but the idea for our very own was born at the Hong Kong Club, where ADC “Tokkie” Smith, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman, and Rothman’s tobacco company executive Ian Gow met for a pre-lunch tipple. Gow floated his big idea: a rugby tournament in Hong Kong.

2. Starting Small
Originally, the pair planned on a 15-a-side tournament, but the scope was overwhelming: the then-infant Hong Kong rugby scene couldn’t manage accommodating and organizing all the players, coaches and officials. It had neither the sponsorship nor the space. Smith and Gow met for another drink—this time to discuss a smaller, more manageable seven-a-side tournament.

The Cantabrians lift the 1976 cup. Photo: HKRFU

3. Money Honey
It might not be its best-known accomplishment, but the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens was actually one of the first tournaments in the world to introduce commercial sponsors, a big step in modernizing the sport. The inaugural sponsors at the 1976 games were Cathay Pacific and Rothmans’ Tobacco Company—back in the day when cigarette promotion was totally kosher—and Cathay is still a main sponsor today.

4. The First Try
The first Rugby Sevens in Hong Kong was held on March 28, 1976, featuring just 10 national teams and two club sides: Hong Kong, Indonesia, Tonga, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Fiji, the Australia Wallaroos and New Zealand Cantabrians. It was described as the “most colorful day of international sport I have ever seen” by co-founder Tokkie Smith.

The most exciting game of the tournament actually wasn’t the final—it was the game between Fiji and Australia: “the ball flashing like a cannonball from player to player,” writes legendary SCMP reporter Kevin Sinclair in his book celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Hong Kong Sevens. The match went into sudden-death overtime—three times—until finally the Australians wrested out a win. They moved onto the finals, where the Cantabrians took home the first-ever Sevens Cup.

5. Wet ‘n’ Wild
Many of the early-day tournaments suffered from volatile weather, including torrential conditions in 1978 and 1980. By 1978, the tournament had expanded to include 16 teams competing across the entire weekend. The weather that year was not kind: “The churned earth and trampled grass could not be seen beneath the lake-like surface, pitted by incessant rain,” wrote Sinclair. Sounds like last year!

Photo: Robin Lam/SCMP

6. Size Does Matter
The popularity of the Sevens quickly surpassed the capacity of the original Hong Kong Football Club Stadium, where the first games took place. The tourney moved to the 28,000-seat Government Stadium in 1982, but the spectators quickly outgrew that one too. In 1994 the HKRFU expanded the Government Stadium into what is now the 40,000-seater Hong Kong Stadium. As popularity continues to grow (and tickets get harder to find), there’s talk of yet another stadium upgrade by 2019.

Photo: HKRFU

Birthday Balls

7-11. What’s new for the big birthday bash?

7. Opening Ceremony
Immediately following the Women’s Cup Final on Friday night, the opening ceremony will be packed with quintessentially Hong Kong performances—think traditional Chinese lions, as well as some flying dragons. Yes, flying!

Photo: Martin Chan/SCMP

8. Kung Fu Rugby
Aside from the usual revelry, there’s something extra special this year: Kung Fu Rugby! Which is exactly what it sounds like: legendary sifu Yeung Pan-pan has trained a group of martial artists in the mysterious art of Kung Fu Rugby. We’re expecting some graceful scrums, and Stephen Chow to be sitting on the sidelines taking notes.
Mar 29, 1:10pm.

9. Village People
Break out your best “Macho Man” fancy dress: the Village People are in town to rock your world. All together now: “Y-M-C-A!”
Mar 28, following the March Past parade.

10. Light Show
The 490-meter-tall ICC is putting on an extra special light show to celebrate the Sevens’ 40th birthday. “Hong Kong’s Rugby Spirit” aims to capture the cornerstones of the sport—determination, teamwork, respect and pride—in all their high-voltage glory. How is that done through the medium of a skyscraper? We don’t know either.
Best viewed from Tamar Park, IFC terraces or Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park.

11. YRock Concert
Need a break from the action? Head to the mini stage in the Upper East Concourse to check out Hong Kong’s top local musicians. Community project YRock, a performing arts platform for teenagers, is organizing the lineup this year, and you’ll be able to catch budding young talents as well as indie darlings like ska kids the Red Stripes and alt-rockers Seasons for Change.
Mar 27, 7pm; March 28-29, 9:30am-4:30pm.

A Numbers Game

12-26. Didn’t you watch “Moneyball”? Numbers are everything.

The number of people who attended the very first Rugby Sevens in 1976. In 1980, the tourney drew a crowd of 9,000. This weekend, there are 120,000 spectators expected across the three-day weekend.

The number of pints of San Miguel, Löwenbräu and Carlsberg sold at the 1984 Sevens. Compare that with 200,000 in 2009, according to a Bloomberg report. And “a few hundred thousand pints” in 2014, according to a reluctant informant from an anonymous supplier.

Photo: HKRFU

The price of tickets to the first Rugby Sevens back in 1976. These days, you’ll have to shell out $1,800 for a three-day pass. If you can get one, that is…

The number of Hongkongers vying for one of the 9,000 tickets allotted to the public. That’s compared with the 37,000 tickets allocated to rugby clubs, ticket agents, teams and sponsors.

The number of cups that Fiji has to its name, making it the most successful team in Hong Kong Sevens history.

Photo: Felix Wong/SCMP

The total prize money this year that’s split between the Cup Champions (US$100,000), Cup runner-up (US$25,000) and the two semi-finalists (US$12,500 each).

The number of times the Rugby World Cup Sevens has replaced the Rugby Sevens—in 1997 and again in 2005. To date, the HKRFU is the only international rugby union to have hosted two Rugby World Cup Sevens, the biggest event on the annual calendar.

The percentage of spectators in 2014 who were from Hong Kong, according to a survey commissioned by the HKRFU. Among overseas spectators? The UK brought in 24 percent, Australia 20 and Singapore 10 percent.

Total points scored (in just eight appearances) by Ben Gollings, of England, who is the highest scorer since 2000.

Photo: Dickson Lee/SCMP

The number of games taking place across the entire weekend.

Total points scored by New Zealand—the highest scoring team since the inception of the World Series in 2000. Fiji is the second-highest scoring team, with 2,343 total points.

Score of the Scotland vs. Singapore match in 2006—the biggest winning margin to date. Ouch.

The number of cups dear old Hong Kong has to its name. Though to be fair it has won three plates, six bowls and one shield.

Photo: Antony Dickson/SCMP

The number of nations who have participated in the Sevens since 1976. The 57th nation is Belgium, which makes its debut in Hong Kong this year.

The year rugby Sevens will make its debut in the Olympics—thanks to an International Olympic Committee vote in 2009 to include the sport.

Power Sport Images for HKRFU

Spectator Sport

27-33. Sunshine, streakers and the notorious South Stand…

27. A Close Call
The Sevens has never been outright cancelled since kick-off 40 years ago. The closest we’ve come to skipping the tourney was in 2003, at the height of SARS. After careful deliberation the HKRFU decided to go on, with the exception of mini and youth rugby. For those who didn’t want to risk it? The HKRFU refunded their tickets in full.

28. Child’s Play
Kids were actually allowed in the South Stand ‘til 2007—now the mess is restricted to those aged 18 and over. I think we can all agree that’s probably for the best.

Power Sport Images for HKRFU

29. Drinks on You
Carlsberg wasn’t always flowing non-stop at the games. At the first few tournaments, you could pack your own snacks and drinks, sit on the stone steps and drink out of your cooler. A finer, more refined, much cheaper time—today beers are going for $62/$230 (20oz/2L).

30. A Streak in Time
Streaking is practically par for the course at the Sevens. The most famous is Mark Roberts, a serial English streaker who raced across the pitch buck-naked in 1994. As of 2013, Roberts’ streak count tallies 518 wobbly runs all over the world.

Photo: Robert Ng/SCMP

31. Lady Parts
Another notable streaker was an attractive young South African woman who caused a stir in 1993. After she was ejected from the games, apparently the press photographed her circling the stadium hanging out the window of a taxi—still topless. And there’s always some odd pitch invasion, like 2011’s “furry streaker” who sprinted across the pitch in a bunny costume and climbed the crossbars. He got a few dance moves in before security caught up with him.
32. Women to Watch
The first women’s International Rugby Union Sevens didn’t take place in Hong Kong until 1997. Club teams from New Zealand not only took home the gold that year, but for 10 years IN A ROW. Catch this year’s Women’s Finals on Friday at 5:24pm.

Photo: Power Sport Images for HKRFU

33. March to It
Forget the March Past parade. In the old stadium, there used to be a track around the pitch. “Young ladies dressed in their finery wandered around all weekend and were admired by the players on the pitch,” recalls Peter Burbidge-King, a long-time HKRFU tournament director and team manager.
“So they called that ‘the parade.’”

Rugger Buggers

34-40. Don’t hate the players: love the game.

34. Fair Game
Every year since 1980, one well-behaved Sevens competitor has earned the Leslie Williams Award for best and fairest player. Who’s the fairest of them all? Fiji’s Waisale Serevi is the only player to have won the trophy three times. Goody two shoes!

Photo: HKRFU

35. Closed Quarters
The original home for the rugby players was the Hilton Hotel, which stood in Central until it closed down in 1995. It wasn’t a sponsor, per se, but it housed the teams for years before finally getting the good ol’ Hong Kong property redevelopment treatment.

36. Malt Masters
The coveted Hong Kong Sevens Cup is technically a “quaich”—a traditional vessel used to taste Scotch. The Gerry Forsgate Quaich, as the trophy’s called, is named after Gerry Forsgate, HKRFU president for 23 years from 19772000.

37. Song and Dance
It’s a long-time tradition for teams to perform a little song and dance if/when they win the finals. The most famous—and the most fun—must be the Kiwi’s Haka challenge. But most teams have their own rituals: like the Fijians’ “cibi” war dance and the Tongans’ fierce “Sipi Tau,” usually accompanied by drumming.

Photo: Martin Chan/SCMP

38. Food For Thought
HKRFU Tournament Liaison Manager Lorna Meads is responsible for making sure the 28 teams have everything they need throughout Rugby Week, including a huge amount of food. Here’s an idea of what the 450 players consumed during last year’s Sevens weekend:

39. The After-Party
One of the longest-running traditions of the tournament is the “Players’ Dinner” Banquet, where all of the competing teams celebrate together. “Back in the day, these players were amateurs juggling full-time jobs who weren’t paid much more than a small stipend, so they looked forward to the free beer and food,” says Peter Burbidge-King, who also MC’d the event for a decade. “Plus young girls would come around to dance with the boys, there was a disco, comedians and all kinds of entertainment.”

40. Rush into It
Burbidge-King was the MC in 2005, the year that New Zealand Sevens legend Eric Rush retired. He recalls the banquet. “[Waisale] Serevi arranged a farewell Haka for Eric, and it was absolutely amazing,” he recalls. “Every South Pacific islander, regardless of which team they were on, got up and did this farewell dance. There must have been nearly 100 players out there. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”

Photo: Power Sport Images for HKRFU


This article originally appeared as an HK Magazine cover story, in print and online.