It was 1976, the last Fire Dragon year, when the then 20-year-old Liverpudlian Ruth Mitchell took three months off work, bound for east Asia to see her boyfriend and have an adventure. Little did she know the short break would turn into a 40-plus-year love affair with Hong Kong, changing her life forever, to say nothing of countless others throughout Asia and as far afield as Rwanda.
Ruth is one of the 'founding mothers' of Hong Kong women's rugby and her decades of commitment to the game were recognised with the prestigious IRB Women's Personality of the Year Award at a star-studded ceremony last October.
Held since 2001, the IRB awards are the Oscars of rugby. Graham Henry has won Coach of the Year five times since 2005, and Richie McCaw has won Player of the Year three times since 2006. Ruth shared the stage with them and the Player of the Year, France captain Thierry Dusautoir and other luminaries.
Among her many roles Ruth is the chair of both the Women's Rugby Committee and the Hong Kong Sevens Women's Organising Committee, as well as being a trustee of the HKRFU Charitable Trust - 'The Trust helps put kids through education, and those kids in turn give back through the game,' she says.
For the past three years, while she's been flat out with women's rugby at the Sevens, she has also been organising mountains of rugby kit to be donated from Hong Kong to Rwanda. 'We took two hotel rooms for this purpose and filled them to the roof with pre-loved and new rugby kit from Hong Kong people,' says Ruth. 'Last year, we also took a lot of kit to Laos.' Another mission has been to organise Pink Rugby Day to support Breast Cancer charities.
Yet Ruth's tale of devotion might never have happened were it not for a trip to the Hong Kong Sevens.
Shortly after she arrived in early 1976, she became smitten with Ross, a young policeman. On one of their early dates, he asked soccer-loving Ruth to go on a date with him to the inaugural Sevens tournament. 'The significance of it being the first Sevens didn't have as much meaning as the fact he'd paid for the ticket,' smiles Ruth. 'It was all of $50! 'He must really love me', I said to my girlfriends.'
The Sevens magic must have worked a charm, as the couple married and had a son and a daughter, Craig and Terry. At 37, with the kids old enough to fend for themselves on the sidelines, Ruth, who used to play soccer, started playing for the police rugby team, then went on to play scrum-half for DeA. 'Craig and Terry would shout, 'Go on Mum!' from the sidelines and egg me on.'
Teammates and opponents from this time say she was a hell of a player who didn't need much encouragement. 'I loved it. Until then, I was an aerobics instructor, complete with leg warmers - well, it was the 1980s,' she laughs.
Later, she coached DeA Tigers' Colts (teenage women) for a season and managed the women's national squads in sevens and 15s after her playing days were over.
Not surprisingly, with all this background, Ruth was prominently involved in the process to make women's rugby part of the Hong Kong Sevens. 'The first year we played in Dubai [on a police tour] a top American coach called Emil Signes suggested we start a women's sevens tournament in Hong Kong and promised he'd bring the USA women's team.
'The first one happened in Aberdeen around 1996. Then, in 1997, women's rugby was able to secure some slots and the final of our domestic league was played in the stadium. I remember it was at 7.30am on a Saturday. Playing in that big stadium and on that pitch was an incredible honour. OK, so it was not a full house, but it drove me on to make women's rugby a bigger force.'
Ruth credits the Union with helping her grow women's rugby in Hong Kong and Asia. 'The HKRFU was ahead of the game in terms of women's rugby. They got behind the idea from day one and gave me the encouragement and freedom to develop the game. They were well in advance of other unions.'
Ruth joined the Union's board as director of development and is now in her third term. 'I think I am now the longest serving committee member,' she says, almost incredulously.
Despite all her awards, Ruth is one of those people who do things from the heart and not for the plaudits. When she was told last August that Total Rugby, the international rugby channel, wanted to shoot some footage of her, she missed the subtext. Similarly, when she was asked by the IRB to head from vacation in the UK to New Zealand late last October to the awards, she just figured that the IRB wanted an Asian presence at the ceremony in Auckland, held the day after the Rugby World Cup final.
What they had (purposely) neglected to tell her was that she was receiving the Women's Personality of the Year prize, awarded to a player, coach or administrator who has shown total dedication to the sport. Ruth was the first woman in Asia to receive one. (Last year, she was also named the first Asian Rugby Football Union's Women's Personality of the Year.)
Ross knew Ruth had the IRB award in the bag, but kept schtum. 'As I headed out to see the [World Cup-winning] All Blacks' parade down the street from the hotel, I told him I'd be back and only needed 15 minutes to get ready for the awards dinner,' says Ruth. 'When they called my name it didn't register. I was totally overwhelmed.'
The after-party carried on until it was time to head back to the hotel to call the children, grab suitcases and head to the airport for an early morning flight back to Hong Kong. 'When we checked in, a crowd gathered. They asked me to take out the award so they could have photos with it.'
The IRB Awards are televised live in New Zealand and Ruth found herself in the spotlight again on board the flight. 'The Air New Zealand crew also recognised me and offered to mind my special cargo.'
But fame won't go to the Everton fan's head. She has remained grounded in all the years she's been in Hong Kong, never even buying into the ubiquitous local notion that domestic helpers are a necessary part of life.
'My daughter said to me, 'So I suppose eating baked beans on toast three times a week was worth it, mum?' I left school when I was 15. Rugby has been my university. It's a game for all. It's a game for life. I am the proof of the pudding.'
Since the inception of the Hong Kong Women's Rugby Sevens 15 years ago, the event has hosted 32 international teams from all around the world. This year will see the return of England, (who last competed in 2003) and Tunisia 2009) in a new IRB-sanctioned format, the IRB Challenge Cup Hong Kong 2012.
Whereas Guyana and the Philippines are the new teams in the men's event, Brazil and Spain are the debutants in the women's tournament. This year, for the first time, four women's games will run within the same timeframe as the men's tournament. The women's Plate final will be played at 18:12 tonight. The first Cup semi-final will be played at 11:42 tomorrow, the second at 12:04 and the final at 16:50.