A decade on, and handover fears for the survival of the tournament under mainland sovereignty look so quaint
A 'great' and 'resilient' event that is guaranteed to end in a 'hangover' - that's how a cross-section of Hong Kong's movers and shakers summed up their feelings about how the world's most-famous sevens tournament has coped, adapted and survived almost a decade on since the handover of sovereignty from the UK to the mainland on July 1, 1997.
The happy rhyme of 'hangover' and 'handover' is no coincidence, agrees Noel Smyth, managing director of Delaney's pubs, which are closely associated with local rugby. 'It remains the one event on the sporting calendar that guarantees each and everyone the ultimate in sporting entertainment,' says Smyth. 'Sadly, the only downside is the hangovers and that's also guaranteed.'
There were plenty of doom and gloom-mongers willing to paint the bleakest future for the event as the handover approached. These party- poopers predicted the annual shindig would be consigned to the dustbin of history once all the gweilos had departed along with the last governor, Chris Patten.
The late South China Morning Post sports writer, Robin Parke, was among them. In a column preceding that 1997 tournament, he wrote: 'Just how much longer will the Sevens as we know them last?' And he questioned whether the Sevens could 'sail on unchallenged by the changes' that were coming.
How wrong he and the many other doubters have been, chortles InvestHK's director-general Mike Rowse, an avid spectator every year. Rowse says: 'Those who thought Hong Kong's way of life was going to be radically altered post-handover only need to come to the stadium in late March every year to witness how mistaken they were.'
Yes, there were worried faces in 1998 and 1999 as the event failed to draw full houses. But these had nothing to do with the tournament losing its lustre. Rather it was caused by a downturn in the economy, hard hit by the Asian financial crisis and also the first bird flu outbreak. Sponsors Peregrine pulled out in 1998 after being taken for a bad ride by an Indonesian taxi company in which they had invested. Just days before the scheduled kick-off, the tournament was saved thanks to Credit Suisse/First Boston stepping in. 'Those two years after the handover were really challenging. But this tournament is nothing if not resilient,' says Beth Coalter, IRB tournament operations manager.
The union breathed a sigh of relief in 2000 as a sold-out stadium watched New Zealand unveil a new star in Karl Te Nana and go on to win the 25th anniversary event. In 2002 England became the first northern hemisphere side since Andy Ripley's 1981 Barbarians to lift the Cup. But the feel-good factor didn't last long for, in 2003, the Sevens faced its darkest moment when the Sars virus gripped the region. With the death toll rising, France, Italy and Argentina pulled out and it was decided only at the 11th hour that the Sevens would go ahead. 'That was a landmark year, a turning point in the history of the tournament, for Hong Kong rugby showed that whatever the odds, it would be life as usual,' Coalter says.
Indeed, life goes on. The hosting of the World Cup Sevens in 2005 and last year's 30th anniversary celebrations have put the Hong Kong Sevens back in the premium category once again.