John Bruce

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 March, 2004, 12:00am

It was the late '80s when stories of partying and Polynesian playmakers started filtering back to the players and clubs in the UK. Somebody knew somebody who had been in Hong Kong and it had been magnificent. There were 'six-foot-six Fijians who ran like wingers' and 'all-night parties with the players afterwards'. We heard of John Jeffreys, the man who drop-kicked the Calcutta Cup through the streets of Edinburgh, playing for Wales and then displaying a farmer's drinking skills in this legendary city of the Orient.

It was, however, all a fantasy. I was an auditor at the Channel Tunnel project, playing for Enfield Ignatians in Middlesex Division One at the weekends, seeing 10-minute highlights of the tournament on Rugby Special and dreaming of my tour to the Isle of Man or Blackpool at Easter. However, fate may be capricious but fortune occasionally favours the foolhardy as much as the brave and, in March 1995, I landed at Kai Tak, jobless, on a Tuesday and, unbelievably, had my tickets for the weekend's tournament 24 hours later. Thus started my love affair with the Sevens and with rugby in the territory and much

of Asia.

Having given up my Saturday ticket, in the interests of feeding myself for an extra week, I was accosted that night with tales of a 'Kiwi winger who was bigger than any prop and ran round, rather than through the opposition'. I knew my acquaintances were drunk and arrived the next day convinced that no such phenomenon as Jonah Lomu existed anywhere in the world, never mind on a rugby pitch.

Drink will dim many a memory and enhance many others but my first sight of Lomu will live with me, undimmed and in need of no embellishment. Rugby was re-invented that day, and the sight of that behemoth convinced me that I had been correct in mentally hanging up my boots as I boarded that eastbound plane. I resolved to stick by my decision and I have no idea who the grey-haired buffoon who trundles about the pitches of Asia impersonating

me is.

As tournaments have come and gone, my appreciation of the rugby tourist's 'Week to end all weeks' has only increased.

The whole period around the Sevens is now a playground for rugby. The weekend before, players from all over the world descend on the Manila Tens and some even play rugby. I have attended a few times and my abiding memory is of an ex-Hong Kong international, current at the time, who played the whole two days of the tournament, for two different teams, and consumed at least a jug of some noxious, rum-based concoction between each game.

Back in Hong Kong, Aberdeen rugby club host the 'Country of Origin' tournament, Football Club hold perhaps the best tens tournament in the world and other fun tournaments and games are played every day in the lead-up to the main event. With the huge success of the Football Club event, Kowloon rugby club have in the past two years held a tournament to cater for the less professional tourist teams. Hong Kong is, at this time, a rugby player's dream and the word is spreading fast.

This is a city of entrepreneurs and many a scheme has been hatched to cash in on this event with varied results. Who can forget the man who made up 1,500 'Sevens Survival Kits' containing 'all that a man could need' and resolved to sell them all at the Sevens and rake in a huge profit. Having been found unconscious beneath the South Stand midway through Sunday and carried out by a well-wisher he awoke, on a pavement, on Monday surrounded by 1,498 unsold survival kits.

Then there was the decision by the organisers to allow jugs of Australian rum to be sold, one fateful year. By midday the South Stand resembled a bombsite and angry mothers were writing letters to the press. That may have been the year of the first Sevens World Cup but I partook of the rum and hence cannot guarantee the accuracy of my memories.

That same year saw me inviting my friend Mark Hudson over to have a week of fun and I felt like the stranger when I wandered around the stadium with him. Mark had played in the mid-80s for Wellington, Auckland and the New Zealand Maoris. Every second person we met knew him. Mark had been an outstanding athlete and an even better party animal and had headed off to the UK in 1989. One memorable greeting was 'My God Huddy, I thought you were dead'.

That sums up the sevens in that you will always meet rugby friends from all corners of the globe. However, as ever, there is a salutary tale. Huddy arrived with a bundle of ?0 notes that would have lasted six months in London. He was here for a week and phoning the bank after three days! Hong Kong Sevens; come with cash, come with courage but most of all come for the company.