Tom Innes and his girlfriend Kate Adams travelled to Hong Kong to celebrate their third Hong Kong Sevens, not to mention a 40th Birthday party for his ‘baby’ sister Lucy, who has been based in HK since 2005. He offered to put down a few thoughts on the event – the Sevens not the birthday party – for The Rugby Blog.
Rugby’s an important part of the mix at the Hong Kong Sevens, but woe betide anyone who prioritises it ahead of the other main raison d’être – partying. Just ask the players of New Zealand and Fiji who were ready to start the second half of their semi final, only for the referee to tell them to wait 40 seconds until the PA had finished playing ZZ Top and the 15,000 people in the South stand had put down their air guitars.
It may not have been a vintage sevens on the field, with a lack of any real doubt about the eventual winners. No-one seriously challenged the Kiwis, whose reputation for choking in big events seems limited to the 15-a-side game. But the party was once again without parallel, and the 40,000 fans packed into So Kon Po stadium wouldn’t have chosen to be anywhere else.
The traditional Sevens warm-up features the sibling Tens tournament on Wednesday and Thursday, plus an assortment of dinners and lunches. But fears of peaking too early, not to mention flight logistics, meant we arrived at 8.30am on Friday just eight hours before the first kick-off.
We met our regular Old Freemen’s/ Hong Kong connection Simon Gibbs for some warm-up beers at the East End Brewery that caused us to miss the start. But by 6.30pm normal service had been resumed – the South Stand was full, New Zealand had racked up 50 points against Taiwan, and Gibbsy had been soaked in beer thanks to the unsteady hands of the fan in front of him dressed as a Mexican.
Traditional boo-boys France (a love-to-hate scenario) and Australia (the same thing, but without the love) were given a vocal Hong Kong welcome, but won their opening games, and only Tunisia came close to causing a surprise, losing 26-21 to the US.
We encountered a group we knew from Nuneaton RFC, biennial visitors to the Sevens, doing some prodigious early drinking and trying to work out the correct seating plan for their O-N T-O-U-R letters on the back of their shirts. The six of them were joined by four more, L-A-D-S, on the Saturday morning.
Taking a one-day breather from the South Stand on Saturday, we took up our bird’s eye positions in the East Upper just in time to see England brush aside Sri Lanka. The change of seats worked fine, apart from the fact that the stewards who stop fans bringing booze to their seats in this part of the ground had worked out that Pimm’s was alcoholic.
Saturday’s games were more exciting than on the opening day: China beat Scotland and the Australians squeezed past France – the crowd didn’t know who to support.
We sat behind ‘Statto’, a friendly bearded chap who had attended all 33 HK7 tournaments and recorded in his notebook not just the scores, but the number of airings for keynote songs such as La Bamba, the Hawaii 5-0 theme, I’m a Believer and One Step Beyond. I was reminded by my girlfriend not to turn into Statto when I was older. She doesn’t like beards.
The finest game on Saturday was the penultimate one in the pool stages, England squeezing past holders Samoa in an agonising 14 minutes. Ahead 7-5 with a minute to go, England withstood a length of the field break, conceded possession on the final whistle, only for Samoa’s ‘winning try’ to be ruled out for a foot in touch. A very tight squeeze indeed, for which England’s ‘reward’ was a rematch with their opponents, the second seeds, the following afternoon.
Sunday dawned cloudy and humid, and we made the schoolboy error of neither getting a good breakfast down prior to arrival nor bringing something with us. Unable to leave the South Stand for fear of not getting back in again – it’s one-in, one-out after it fills up – we had to endure the South Stand catering that was on the cusp of unpleasant and inedible.
The organisers ha a few teething problems of their own first thing on Sunday: when the announcer took up the mic for the first time he asked the crowd if they were ‘Alright Now’, but the song of the same name wasn’t cued up and there was an awkward silence. Then Zimbabwe took the field for the first match at 9.45am with no opposition, Taiwan entering stage right a minute later to ironic cheers.
The fans’ fancy dress efforts reached their peak for Sunday, everywhere you looked there was another more outrageous set of costumes: cowgirls, Super Mario Brothers, smurfs, Hula babes, sailors, 28 blokes from Melbourne dressed as Steve Irwin, they were all here. We took our seat alongside the Nuneaton ‘LADS’, although the original six had ruled their shirts too smelly to wear for a third day running.
The day may have built slowly but the joint was jumping by the time New Zealand and Wales contested the first Cup quarter final three hours later. The jugs of Pimm’s, Guinness, Sea Breeze and VRB were beginning to kick in.
After the narrow win on Saturday, not to mention a contentious quarter-final victory in 2006, England’s luck ran out against Samoa – this time a foot that might have been in touch was ruled inside the line and a 3-2 try win was sealed.
England’s defeat disappointed many in the crowd, and even more were aghast to see Hong Kong dumped out of the Bowl competition by the quick hands and legs of Zimbabwe in the very next match.
Thereafter it is fair to say that matters off the field were of more interest to most than the various games being played on the pitch. We were entertained by some wag throwing a wooden spoon at the Scottish team as they passed, had a rendezvous with Gibbsy – very well-refreshed by this point – and joined the traditional crowd rendition of Sweet Caroline.
Our new friend Chantal arrived and introduced herself. Resplendent in a red cowboy hat, but very hung over, she told us about her romantic liaison the night before with a 25-year-old gentleman, young enough to be her son and dressed as a tennis player. Love-all at first sight.
The rugby was somewhat predictable – South Africa beat the Samoans but were no match for the Kiwis in the Cup final. Russia took the Bowl for the eight lowest-ranked teams, while of all teams France were the Plate winners. Boos would have been guaranteed in any event, but they were especially loud when the Gallic villains sealed their win over Argentina by ‘dropping’ a penalty goal in sudden-death extra time.
The final finished at 6.45pm and it was time for fireworks and the presentation before revellers headed off to the tented Sevens Village or the bars of Wanchai and Lan Kwai Fong to keep the party torch, burning annually in Hong Kong since 1976, burning for a few more hours.
The final word went to bagpiper John Simpson, attending his first Sevens and playing live in the stadium. Quoted in the South China Morning Post, he likened the event to “a sci-fi convention crossed with a sports event.”
“I have no idea what rugby has to do with men getting about in miniskirts and crop tops,” he said. “But it seems to work.”