Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
 

For so many of us of an advanced age, this Hong Kong Sevens thing just seems so damn familiar. The revelry, the pageantry, the debauchery and the massive queue to get into the frighteningly dense and suitably lubed South Stand, I've seen it oh, about 15 or 20 times. Yawn. Down on the pitch it's more of the same. Fiji is putting up a 59 spot on hapless Malaysia, while South Africa hardly breaks a sweat in a 45-zip romp over Hong Kong. The big boys don't really start banging heads until today and what little drama there is so far has been supplied by the Canadians, who upset Argentina on Friday night and should have done the same against Australia until falling victim to a couple of horrendously inept referee decisions before succumbing 26-24.

Up in the rarefied air, the suited heavies are stationed outside the most important private boxes where admission is highly exclusive. The secret service has nothing on this crew. Come today they will be on high alert when the big-moneyed class roll in for an hour or so. They should be easy enough to spot with a perfectly ironed pleat down the middle of their jeans, the corporate version of slumming it.

Yup, here at one of the world's greatest annual sporting events it all seems like business as usual. Except it's not. Far from it. This is not your father's Hong Kong Sevens and even though Bob Dylan is coming to town in a few weeks, we don't need the ageing troubadour to remind us the times they are a changing. When this event began in 1976 there was no way anyone involved could have predicted that 35 years later it would morph into a world-class spectacle, an enormous cash cow and Olympic event. Honestly, who knew?

Certainly none of us who remember the old stadium with its wooden planks for benches that were always oozing of stale beer come Sunday morning. Scantily clad young things and drunken yobs would parade around the stadium track for all to see, while players would hop into the crowd to hang with their mates when their game was done. It was quaint, ridiculously fun and it was ours. Well, the secret is out boys.

Hop off the MTR in Causeway Bay and ticket touts immediately pounce on you all the way to the stadium. They're asking three times the face value and, according to a few of them, they are getting it. These are no homeboys either, most coming all the way from the UK.

In Hong Kong with fewer tickets being made available to the public, a premium price must be paid to get in. Overseas tour groups are gobbling them up and selling integrated packages and there is no shortage of grumbling around town. But people, this is Hong Kong. Money spins this joint so why should the highest profile annual gathering be any different? 'I've waited 10 years to come to Hong Kong for this event and I have to say it's been everything I expected,' says a chap named Gary from London. He tells me he had a couple of mates who would came all the time in the '90s and it would take them months to wipe the smile off their faces when they returned. So Gary, what if you could go to Las Vegas to see the same thing? 'Vegas?' he says. 'Hmmm, that might work. Certainly a bit closer to London than Hong Kong.'

The days of Hong Kong competing with itself are over. Dubai and Wellington have been hosting some pretty rocking affairs these past few years as well, all part of the IRB Sevens World Series, and with sevens officially coming aboard as an Olympic event in 2016 the profile of the sport will soon blow up. Two years ago the US Sevens was moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and it's safe to say the Nevada city knows a bit about putting on a show and partying. That event will only grow and begin to attract Sevens tourists from afar.

While all of those locales may sound enticing, I still believe Hong Kong's vibrancy and its inherent Sevens culture puts it on the top rung and virtually every player will agree with that. But things change so you have to change with them. And while it can be infuriating that tickets are scarce and expensive, at least there is a market for them.

The truth is we have to get used to the suits from the IRB and the International Olympic Committee having more say in this event because it is no longer just the Hong Kong Sevens, it's a stop on the world tour. And I'm not sure all the changes are for the worse, either. The music, thankfully, is better. I have nothing against J-Lo and Britney, but neither of them belong in a juiced-up stadium full of 40,000 rugby revellers. Now they have a deejay who does the events in Dubai and Wellington as well, and he seems versed in iconic stadium rock - Bob Marley, Guns 'n' Roses, even the disgraced Gary Glitter. I mean it's not exactly rocket science. It's merely progress.

I've been checking out some of my fellow dinosaurs this weekend. Ruddy faced and double fisted, they are never too far from a pint and maybe it's just as well because their legacy is waning. There is no one under the age of 20 who has a clear memory of Hong Kong before the handover in 1997 and there is no one under the age of 32 who was legally allowed to drink at the last Sevens under British rule. So many of the old fossils made this event what it was and cheers to that. But it's time to share. For better or worse, the baby is all grown up.

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Tim Noonan

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