With co-operation from the IRB, HK would be perfect host in 2013

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 March, 2009, 12:00am

Everything seems to be double the size in Dubai, perhaps magnified in the dry desert air. For instance, the security guards at the Rugby World Cup Sevens seem twice the size of any puny Hong Konger.

The imposing presence of the mainly African security contingent even impressed Allan Payne, executive director of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, one of many officials who was in Dubai to watch the fifth World Cup unfold.

'They are huge. I wish I could take a few back to Hong Kong,' says Payne, who along with Trevor Gregory (chairman), Pieter Schats (director of finance) and Paul Dingley (director of marketing) watched the action and the fun take place at the stadium, a purpose-built ground erected by Emirates Airlines.

The rectangle arena reminds one of the old Hong Kong Stadium, simply because of the wide walkway between the stands and the pitch. Steep banks of seating - no seats, just steps - rise on four sides, two of which, both behind the goalposts, are designated as family-only zones where alcohol is not allowed.

However, the beer flows freely elsewhere as the mainly expatriate fans party in true Hong Kong style. Fancy dress is the order of the day, everyone from Roman soldiers in skirts and sandals to winsome angels have fun. The large contingent of colourful Kenyans bang drums and cheer their side on. A smaller Fijian band match them song for song. It is one big party a la Hong Kong Sevens.

But there is one big difference. For the first time a women's World Cup is also being held. This could be the norm in the future. Any potential host of the 2013 World Cup will also have to think of running both the men's and women's tournaments side by side.

Hong Kong could easily have done it this year. But the HKRFU decided not to bid for the 2009 event, simply due to the demands from the International Rugby Board, which said if Hong Kong was awarded the World Cup, it would still have to run the Hong Kong Sevens, too.

The IRB wanted its annual series to carry on regardless, and independent, of the World Cup. Hong Kong officials baulked at this. They felt they wouldn't be able to sustain two sevens tournaments in the space of a few months. They felt the demands on their loyal fans, sponsors and corporates would be too much.

And they would have been proved right, especially in the current economic climate. It was revealed this week that Goldman Sachs and American International Group - two long-time corporate supporters of the Hong Kong Sevens - will skip this month's tournament at So Kon Po.

Others like Citigroup and Royal Bank of Scotland have said they will scale back hospitality at the three-day tournament. They don't want to be seen as spending money lavishly, especially after receiving government bailout funds.

'This isn't a time for many companies to be spending money, being extravagant,' Warrick Dent, HKRFU's commercial head, told Bloomberg this week. 'There might be a slightly different feel to the event this year.'

So in hindsight, the HKRFU's decision not to bid to host the World Cup this year was prudent.

But Dubai, hungry for sporting events, agreed. Last November it held its annual Dubai Sevens, the first leg of the IRB Series. And now, just four months later, it is the turn of the World Cup. But the effects of the economic downturn are being felt.

Only 25,000 tickets were pre-sold. This is just half the capacity. Dubai organisers said they expected a walk-in crowd of around 10,000. But still it is far less than the 50,000 who turned up for the Dubai Sevens.

Horror stories abound in Dubai of expatriates leaving the country in droves after being made redundant. The bubble has clearly burst. Construction sites have turned into ghost cities. Hotels are empty. The roads are empty. So perhaps this has taken a toll on the World Cup.

But a Dubai journalist says that the Dubai Sevens is not only an IRB tournament - 16 teams - but also a larger club-based tournament which attracts teams from around the Gulf region and as such a large travelling fan base. These fans have not turned up in numbers for the World Cup.

Two tournaments in the space of four months might also have proven too heavy a burden on the fans' wallets. The IRB must realise this, and when it calls for bids for the 2013 World Cup, it should allow a union like Hong Kong or the Arabian Gulf (Dubai) to just host one tournament, and let them choose whether it be an IRB Series event or the World Cup.

Russia has already said it wants to host the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens. The Rugby Union of Russia has confirmed that it had the full backing of the government in its quest to host a major international rugby event for the first time.

Russia had originally expressed interest in bidding for the 2019 15-a-side World Cup. But it pulled out. Bernard Lapasset, IRB chairman, was thrilled at the early bid from Russia.

'Rugby sevens is a major driving force behind the continued growth of the men's and women's game around the world, particularly in new markets, and we are excited that the Rugby Union of Russia views the hosting of the tournament as a major stimulus for growth within Russia,' Lapasset said.

But this should not deter Hong Kong. We have had two World Cups, in 1997 and 2005, and a third one in 2013 would be welcome. The HKRFU should throw its name into the hat.

One thing the IRB needn't worry about if Hong Kong won the 2013 bid is the commercial success of the tournament. That would be a fait accompli. And money talks as we all know these days.