When the world comes to play – the Hong Kong Sevens

08/04/2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit sporting events hard, all around the world. In 2020, the organisers had to cancel the scheduled Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament for the first time since its inception.

With the pandemic still prevalent, and international travel limited, the organisers have taken the decision to postpone the 2021 event to later this year.

The Hong Kong Sevens normally takes place around this time of year, so now is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of what we are missing, and what we can expect to look forward to later in the year.

To set the scene, let’s start with a quote from legendary rugby commentator, Bill McLaren, who wrote this about the Hong Kong Sevens in his autobiography.

“The Hong Kong [Sevens] event encapsulates all the really good things that the game has to offer–splendid organisation, wonderful sporting spirit, universal camaraderie, admirable field behaviour, the most enjoyable crowd participation, the chance for emergent rugby nations to lock horns with the mighty men of New Zealand [and] Australia.

“There is, too, scintillating running and handling which is what the game is supposed to be all about.

Sevens rugby – from Melrose to Causeway Bay

The earliest records of seven-a-side rugby suggest that it was first played in an organised form at the Melrose club in Scotland in the 1880s. It’s still popular at a club level in the Borders region, with Melrose themselves holding a successful annual tournament.

In the UK it’s very much an “end of season” game, with clubs putting a sevens team together from their usual squad of players to enter tournaments with other local club sides in their area, usually in May.

The game is probably most popular on the Pacific islands, such as Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga.

Apart from one tournament held to celebrate the Scottish rugby centenary in 1973, no international games were played until the first ever Hong Kong Sevens, in 1976.

Variations on a theme – the laws of the game

The laws of sevens rugby are effectively the laws of rugby union itself, with eight amended sections. The amendments reflect the reduced number of players, but also the objective of keeping play flowing as much as possible.

The games last for seven minutes each way with two minutes for half-time.

Unlike variations of football, which are played on reduced sized pitches, sevens rugby is played on a full-size pitch.

This obviously means players have far more space in which to play, and therefore makes for an open, fast-flowing game. The key player attributes are obviously speed and stamina.

Play up and play the game

As we’ve already pointed out, sevens at club level is very much seen as a serious but entertaining diversion at the end of the season. At international level, however, it’s far more serious.

Countries will tend to keep their sevens organisation separate from the full 15-a-side team.

Sevens international players will usually either be young players trying to make an impression at international level before moving on to the full squad – Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson from England’s 2003 World Cup winning side cut their international teeth in the England sevens squad in this way – or specialist sevens players.

When the world comes to play – the history of the Hong Kong Sevens

Since it was founded by a group of British expats in 1976, the Hong Kong Sevens has quickly established itself as a key event in the Asian sporting calendar.

Originally, nations were represented by either individual club sides, or from scratch teams put together from different clubs specifically for the event. Gradually, however, nations started to develop their own sevens structures and to send representative teams to the event.

Boosted by the presence of such rugby legends as David Campese and Jonah Lomu, it rapidly grew in popularity. In 1994 the event moved to a new purpose-built venue with a 40,000 capacity in Causeway Bay, its current home.

From the twelve teams at the original event, the Hong Kong Sevens has grown to accommodate the twenty-four national sides who competed in 2019.

The tournament is seen as the most prestigious leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series that has developed over the past 20 years.

The spectator experience

The Hong Kong Sevens takes place over three days – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – in late March or early April.

Four trophies are competed for each year. As well as the main cup, there are plate, bowl, and shield tournaments, creating a hectic schedule of competitive rugby.

The different tournaments means that play is pretty much continuous over the three days. As players leave the field at the end of one game, they are immediately replaced with the players for the next game. After the minimum of fuss – a handshake between the opposing skippers – the new game kicks off.

The 40,000 spectators will move in an out of the stadium during the day. It’s normal to stay at your seat to watch a few games, then head back out to the continuous party going on around the arena.

Once the games are finished for the day, the party continues long into the night, before everyone makes their way back to their hotels to rest up before starting all over again the following morning.

See you there?

As you may have realised by now, I am quite a fan of the Hong Kong Sevens and have many great memories of my time at the event – though some memories are a little hazy!

My recommendation is that if you get the chance to go, then you should make every effort to do so. You don’t have to be a rugby expert to enjoy it. It’s incredibly easy to watch and understand.

The food, drink, hospitality, and party atmosphere – not to mention the international quality rugby on display – all go to make the Hong Kong Sevens a totally unique and unforgettable experience.

I’ll leave the final word to a veteran rugby fan in the UK. Returning to his club in South East London after attending the 2017 Hong Kong Sevens, he said:

“I’ve been to a load of rugby events. Sevens tournaments at Twickenham, international weekends in Paris, Rome, Dublin, and Cardiff, and on Lions tours to South Africa and New Zealand. The Hong Kong Sevens is better than any of them.”

If you’re coming to the Hong Kong Sevens this year, have a great time and stay safe.

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