Fans show healthy appetite for the game
The signs are too hard to ignore, something special is going on this weekend. I tried to get a slice of pizza and a beer on Friday afternoon in Central only to be told by the proprietor of the pizzeria that he was out of stock. 'You're out?' I asked. 'Yeah, I got no food left, nothing at all,' he said. 'Totally caught me by surprise.'
Must have been quite the surprise, 12.30 on a Friday afternoon and you're out of food? When told that the Bledisloe Cup was happening the next day and that the town was full of rugby fans, he just shook his head. 'How was I supposed to know?' he replied.
Sorry man, but rugby fans are like the Coneheads. They consume mass quantities, always have and always will. You don't take that into account and you deserve to lose a ton of money. That's the thing about the Bledisloe Cup, it brings the All Blacks and the Wallabies into town and with them some of the best rugby players in the world. It's only one game though, albeit a very prestigious one. Businesses around town are conditioned to think one thing when they think rugby and that's the Hong Kong Sevens.
And while the Bledisloe Cup will never touch the Sevens for sustained debauchery, it's not exactly chopped liver. This is the All Blacks and the Wallabies and if you are a true rugby fan, you can't ask for much more.
'Yeah, should be a good match,' says Matt, who is originally from England but has lived in both Australia and New Zealand and now resides in Hong Kong. 'I like to see anybody at the top of their game, doesn't matter if they're singers or athletes. Like I said this should be good and not bad for a dead run.'
Ah, there's the rub, a dead run. The Bledisloe Cup has been contested since 1932 between these two neighbours and this year by the time they came to Hong Kong for the fourth and final match, it was a fait accompli. The Kiwis had won the first three and already sewn things up for the eighth year in a row. There really is no drama, only rugby.
'It's all about pride,' says Martin, who turns to the pitch and howls that most jingoistic refrain: 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!' Martin is originally from Brisbane but has lived in Hong Kong for six years. 'This is real rugby mate, not sevens,' he tells me. 'You're going to see real rugby fans here today.'
And so I do, maybe not a full house but enough real fans that most of the concession stands run out of meat pies by half-time. Two years ago there was a full house here to watch the All Blacks win and while it's not fair to compare every rugby event at Hong Kong Stadium to the Sevens, it is inevitable.
The most noticeable difference is that the action is all on the pitch today. The Sevens is a three-day Mardi Gras, one of the true spectacles of international sport where the crowd is every bit as riveting as the matches, if not more. But these are real rugby fans here today, the game is the thing, and that is fine with me because I have always dug rugby fans. There is very little pretence, just some pints, some pies and some good spirited banter. The violence stays on the pitch, despite the passion in the stands.
'Mate, we flew over eight hours to come up here and watch a one-and-a-half-hour match, that tells you everything you need to know about rugby fans,' says Nic, who is up from Sydney. He tells me that he spent most of the previous night drinking with Kiwis. But aren't you guys like bitter rivals? 'If this was English football you might need armed patrols and guard dogs to keep the fans apart, but not in rugby,' he says. 'That stuff never happens in rugby union.'
He insists on filling a cup of beer for me because if I am going to watch with him then I am going to drink with him. The match itself is odd. Australia start out strong and then are knocked about by the quality of the All Blacks. The Wallabies find themselves down five and with no time left.
'Go on, you good thing!' yells Nic and his prayers are answered as James O'Connor pushes over a final try to tie things up at 24-24. The crowd is delirious and when O'Connor makes the kick from a daunting angle, the Wallabies win 26-24. A dead run has never been so alive but that should hardly come as a surprise. After all, these are real rugby fans.