Hong Kong Sevens

'More than a game, on a day I'll never forget'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am

The mood of South Africa at the time of the 1995 Rugby World Cup was unbelievable. Although I moved to Hong Kong from South Africa in 1987, I flew back to experience the magic from the quarter-finals.

As depicted in Invictus, the whole country got behind the Springboks. The mood on the streets was incredible. It truly was more than a rugby match, and the movie captured that.

[Nelson] Mandela was smart, astute and thoroughly strategic to allow the Afrikaaners to keep their game and keep their Springbok logo, despite the move to do otherwise in the lead-up to the Cup. Rugby is religion to Afrikaaners. Mandela understood this. He allowed pockets of the population to keep the things they value.

Getting the blacks behind it was a high-risk strategy, one that I believe he had plotted for a couple of years before the World Cup. As far back as 1993 he had targeted the Boks as unifying the country.

I have heard from many people who have met Mandela that his impact on you is immense. His charisma is testimony to an unbelievable individual. To spend 27 years in prison on Robben Island and bear no grudge shows you the magnitude of the man.

Mandela cleverly studied Afrikaans and knew what buttons to push. I have heard that not only does he own the room, he speaks to every single person in it. People feel blessed in his presence.

When [Francois] Pienaar met Mandela, it would have defined and changed the young Bok captain. Mandela has a way of making believers of non-believers. His total forgiveness for what happened to him, I'd imagine, is a totally humbling experience.

The fact that Mandela wore the same number-six jersey as Pienaar was tactically brilliant. I will never forget it. The synergy between Mandela and Pienaar was an amazing thing.

Sean Fitzpatrick says that he has a vivid memory that day of Mandela visiting the All Blacks prior to kick-off to wish them luck. He was surprised to see Mandela had a number-six jersey on and realised the psychological victory this was for the team. The crowd loved the fact that he wore that jersey. Mandela is infinitely, instinctively in tune with the mood of the people.

Nor will I forget the plane that flew over Ellis Park with 'Good luck Bokke' - the Afrikaaners word for the Springboks - painted in huge letters underneath it. It was like a bomb exploded, an unbelievable noise. The huge jumbo flew over once, banked, and then came back and did it again. When the jet first appeared, for a split second there was total silence - apart from the engines. Then there was a tremendous roar from the crowd.

After that incredible win that day, I thought, 'Maybe there is a God. Maybe there is a higher level operating in the universe'.

It was incredible that South Africa beat the best rugby team in the world. That they won was testimony to the fact there are greater forces than I can understand. It was far more than a game of rugby. I think Pienaar's importance has grown even more as time goes on, and he is even more of an elder statesman for his country.

I felt the same passion of that win when, only 10 years after arriving in Hong Kong, I was in the top role in the HKRFU when we hosted the 1997 World Cup Sevens. There was so much emotion around the 'handover Sevens'. Many people thought it might be the last.

Since the handover, the Hong Kong Sevens has come ahead leaps and bounds and has a key role to play. We've reached a much broader audience, and paved the way for long-term Asian rugby development. Rugby at the Commonwealth Games [in Malaysia] and the East Asian Games was played to packed houses.

People like Ian Brownlee, Dermot Agnew, George Simpkin and Peter Duncan have been instrumental in making Hong Kong rugby what it is today. They really drove the development programme. It's taken 20 years - a generation, really - to have a home-grown Hong Kong team.

We've come full circle, but there is still much work to do to get rugby into local schools and into universities, and keeping children playing it once they reach 12 to 13 and the focus becomes studying and passing exams.

The biggest challenge remains facilities. The ongoing battle for training pitches continues. Rugby could grow quicker here with more of them. Despite this, the HKRFU has found many creative ways of taking the game to the people.

Scotland may claim fame for having started the game of sevens, but Hong Kong really commercialised it.