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Rugby sevens makes its debut at the 2016 Summer Olympics. It’s a fast-paced, often high-scoring version of the game, with seven players a side, not the usual fifteen. Reporter Charlie Schroeder visited one of the world’s biggest "sevens" tournaments in Hong Kong and shared his experiences.
I’m in Hong Kong Stadium’s South Stand. Everywhere I look I see drunk people dressed in silly costumes: there’s a group of 13 escaped convicts, oodles of cartoon characters and then there’s die-hard rugby fan Hugh. I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be, so I ask him to explain his outfit, please.
“Creepy looking man wearing Chinese clothes and fanning himself with a gigantic fan,” said Hugh. “Carries cardboard box with severed head of blonde woman in it, covered in blood.”
The severed head isn’t real, obviously, it’s a mannequin and an homage to Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in the movie "Seven." Get it?
“It’s Hong Kong Seven!” said Hugh.
Hugh and his three friends couldn't get tickets to the 39th Annual Cathay Pacific HSBC Hong Kong Sevens Tournament, so they did what any group brimming with liquid courage does, they snuck in. His wife, who’s dressed like Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man — yeah, they’re obsessed with her — told me how they pulled it off.
“It’s always best to be bold," said Hugh’s wife. “Don’t try and sneak. Just do it bold.”
When we talk about just how hard it is to get tickets to the Sevens, Hugh references the stadium’s many empty seats.
“The most popular stand for anyone not on corporate invitation is the South Stand. Look at the huge crowd of empty seats around you and what does that tell you? Clearly there are too many tickets offered to people who aren’t going to make the best use of them.”
The Hong Kong Sevens Tournament is the city’s biggest sporting event, and a really hard ticket to score. Most seats are reserved for corporate sponsors and rugby club members, leaving just 8 percent of the stadium’s 40,000 seats up for grabs in a ticket lottery. The chances of getting tickets are so low, in fact, most fans don’t even bother trying. This year ticket applications were down 50 percent from 2013. Brian Stevenson, the president of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, says the lack of available tickets for the general public is the result of the stadium’s limited capacity.
[sidebar title="Mixed Gender Basketball League Debuts" align="right"]A new league is hoping men and women playing basketball together will be a draw.[/sidebar]“We face the capacity constraints on the stadium for years, as you know, it’s very difficult to get tickets. We apologize for that,” said Stevenson.
Stevenson’s apology came during his opening remarks at the “HK FanZone,” a six-day festival held during rugby week. The event gave shut-out fans the chance to watch the tournament live on Jumbotrons and lured in non-rugby fans with musical acts like hip hop trio De La Soul.
Antony Phillips is head of events and sponsorship for the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union. He hopes that young people who may not know anything about the sport will be encouraged to try sevens because of the event.
"[I hope they] see the rugby on in the background and, who knows, in three [to] five years we find our next Hong Kong player because they experience the sevens down here at the HK FanZone,” said Phillips.
It's an exciting time for rugby in the territory. Last year the Rugby Union won access to the Hong Kong Sports Institute, an elite training academy for Olympic hopefuls. Acceptance means the team now has access to government funds, about $650,000 a year. For the first time in the sport’s history, national team members can play full-time.
“We were playing international rugby here in Hong Kong and we were playing against teams like Japan, who have full-time professional leagues, and our guys sat in the office all day,” said Phillips. “Fourteen hours in the office, and then going home and training and then having to work in the morning of an international match and various things like that.”
The majority of Hong Kong’s professional rugby players are Western, but thanks to Rugby Union efforts, more locals may rise through the ranks. As Phillips told me, 80 percent of all Hong Kong’s mini-rugby players — that is, players under the age of 13 — are local Chinese.
“Parents are now seeing that as well as academics being important there are other things that are important, and sport is one of those things to help give their children a rounded experience of life,” said Phillips.
Hong Kong’s Rugby Week starts with a two-day amateur Rugby Fives beach tournament on the island’s affluent south side. While there, I spoke with the Avengers, a team of local Hong Kong women who play the sport at club level. Leui Sang says she loves the game because it’s challenging, unpredictable and requires good teamwork.
“And you have to trust your teammate and they trust you as well,” said Sang.
While more locals may be playing the game at a younger age, Avenger Lau See Wah says most Hong Kong parents still think rugby is a horrible sport.
"Yeah, no parents would like to us for the Hong Kong people for playing rugby because it’s really foreign and they always get a bruise, injury and also go to hospital always," said See Wah.
Safety concerns aside, the Avengers make it to the finals, where they square off against the Meerkats, a team made up of Western women. As Lau See Wah tells me, the Avengers are at a disadvantage to the Meerkats.
“Because they are really big. We are really skinny,” said See Wah.
From the opening whistle, the game is an intense, violent and defensive battle. And with less than a minute left, the Avengers trail the Meerkats 1-0. That is until Hau Hoi Lum picks up a loose ball and breaks free from the pack.
Hau’s thrilling 30-yard run ties the game temporarily. The Meerkats score on the last play for a nail-biting 2-1 victory. It’s the most exciting game I see all week and by the cheers reverberating through the grandstand, the crowd feels the same way.
Then again, maybe they’re just happy to see rugby. After all, it’s easy to get tickets to this tournament.
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