Hong Kong Sevens

Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am

The director in charge of finances at the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union must be laughing all the way to the bank as the union once again reflects on another successful Hong Kong Sevens. How much profit the HKRFU made from last month's tournament will be revealed at the annual general meeting in June, but rest assured it will be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Everyone at the sell-out Hong Kong Stadium would have left thinking this was one of the best Sevens in the event's history. We have to be grateful. Hong Kong has a great tournament, undoubtedly one of the social sporting events of the year, and it provides the HKRFU with the means to fund its diverse development activities, ranging from mini-rugby to providing facilities to a growing number of players.

I have been in Dubai this week covering the ICC World Cricket League Division Two tournament. From my hotel window in Deira, I can't see the Jet Airways flight which brought me to this desert sheikhdom. It lands in the wee hours of the morning.

But I can't miss the Emirates flights which land and take off every few minutes. It reminds me of the Hong Kong Sevens' counterpart in Dubai - the Emirates Airlines Dubai Sevens - and of Ian Bremner, the newly appointed chief executive of the United Arab Emirates Rugby Association.

A few days ago, I met Bremner at the offices of the UAERA, a union which has replaced the Arabian Gulf in the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five competition, which kicks off next weekend. We met to talk about the new association. But in the process, Bremner revealed the Dubai Sevens wasn't owned by the former Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU) or the present UAERA.

I had known the 'desert sevens', which is almost as old as the Hong Kong Sevens, was originally the idea of the Dubai Exiles Sports Club. But I had mistakenly thought over the years the Dubai Exiles had passed over control to the region's governing body, the AGRFU. Not so, Bremner says. 'The Dubai Sevens is owned by Emirates Airlines and we get something from them.' That something is funding.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Dubai Exiles was offered a deal it couldn't refuse and signed over the ownership to Emirates. Until 2007, the tournament had always been played at the Dubai Exiles grounds close to the city centre. But from 2008, it moved to the state-of-the-art The Sevens stadium, built by the airline so Dubai could also host the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2009.

Unlike the Hong Kong Sevens, which is fully owned by the HKRFU, the showpiece event which kicks off the IRB Sevens World Series - now backed by HSBC - every December is run and organised by Emirates. Unlike Hong Kong, there is no goose which lays golden eggs for the rugby crowd in Dubai. They have to make do with whatever comes their way from the title sponsors.

By all counts, that is substantial and the UAERA is happy with what it gets. Apart from funds it also has access to a superb facility which has six or seven grounds adjoining the main pitch.

Yet, at the end of the day, the fledgling UAERA is not totally in control of its destiny. Hong Kong might have to sometimes bow to the dictates of the International Rugby Board and its sponsors, but it still has control of the most important aspect - the finances.

Not so the UAERA, which is still in its infancy and was formed because the IRB, in its bid to increase membership numbers, was opposed to the idea of a regional body like the AGRFU and insisted it should be broken up into individual unions like the UAERA, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia etc.

Like Hong Kong, the UAERA's ultimate goal is to spread the message of rugby. While Hong Kong has to depend on the government to provide facilities, UAERA has to depend on its main sponsor, which has delivered so far.

They are also lucky in that the wife of Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum is a firm advocate of sports. Better known for her involvement with the equestrian community - she is the president of the International Equestrian Federation - Princess Haya has started an initiative actively promoting sports in local schools.

The UAERA is working closely with the 'Princess Haya Initiative' and, from next year, rugby will become part of the established sports curriculum in schools across the UAE. At the moment, most rugby is centred in and around the expatriate school system. Hopes are high that in the next decade, there will be more Arabs playing.

What is happening today in the UAE, happened 10 to 15 years ago in Hong Kong. Today we see the benefits of the development programme. Kids who learned the game from the grass roots are representing Hong Kong on the international stage.

The HKRFU is lucky it had the money to help nurture such development work. This is thanks to the Hong Kong Sevens. The UAERA will have to depend on the benevolence of its major sponsor.

Hong Kong can count its blessings that, in its case, it is the rugby community calling the shots. The UAE might not have the same flexibility, but it has a corporate body interested in promoting the game, and with the backing of the ruling family the sky's the limit for the new IRB member.