Hong Kong Rugby Union

Loud and proud, outgoing chairman Gregory lets his actions do the talking

Departing HKRFU boss has had plenty to say during his eight-year tenure, but it his achievements that have shone so brightly

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 12:48am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 10:37am

Silence and Trevor Gregory do not go hand in hand. On the contrary, when the big, brash and colourful Gregory – that is how we described him eight years ago when he became chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union – walks into a room, you can expect a blast of sound.

But even he was left gasping or words that memorable day in 2009 at Hong Kong Stadium when the Hong Kong men's sevens team lost the East Asian Games gold medal to Japan in the dying seconds.

"I nearly swallowed my Adam's apple when that guy scored in the last minute," Gregory remembers. Despite having to settle for second best, he describes that as the defining moment of his tenure, which draws to an end on Thursday.

"Rugby is no longer a 'gweilo' sport in this town and our successes at the 2009 East Asian Games – a silver medal for the men and a bronze for the women – largely helped changed the attitudes of the local community," Gregory says.

Prior to becoming chairman in 2006, Gregory served as secretary of the union and he knew that the game was regarded mostly as a pastime for mad dogs and Englishmen.

Even though there was a smattering of local players – most notably Chan Fuk-ping, a protégé of Gregory's at DeA and the first local Chinese to represent Hong Kong at the Asian Championships and the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 1997 – they were the exception and not the rule.

Public perception was sadly not colour-blind. The Hong Kong Sevens was for many observers a time when drunken gweilos would stagger around Causeway Bay in outlandish fancy dress, or run on to the stadium pitch without a stitch on.

"Let's just say that when I was secretary and attended the meetings of the Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, rugby was not very well liked at all," Gregory says.

That has all changed during his reign with the first step taken at the East Asian Games when rugby sevens won its first medal at an international multisports event, earning the sport grudging respect.

"We are no longer regarded as a gweilo sport and it all started to change when we showed we are capable of winning medals," Gregory said. "We were not part of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee family then, but today we are a full member and accepted as part of the community."

The appearance of more Chinese stars – starting with Ricky Cheuk Ming-yin whose role as the face of local rugby has now been taken over by Salom Yiu Kam-shing – has greatly helped in the acceptance of the sport.

Gregory was also fortunate that rugby sevens was accepted as a medal sport by the International Olympic Committee (in 2009 in Copenhagen) with the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro welcoming it back.

This has hastened the process of integration into the local community and acceptance by the Hong Kong Olympic Committee.

"The other day at an Olympic function I saw Salom [Yiu] in his tracksuit with the Olympic rings and I felt so proud. Who would have predicted that eight years ago," smiles Gregory.

The HKRFU has played a proactive role in changing attitudes. The successes of the men's sevens team in Asia – they were crowned champions in 2012 – has resulted in the sport earning its place at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. Now, more than 40 men and women live and breathe the game every minute of the day.

While most of the focus has been in sevens, the 15s game has also made tremendous strides with the national team booking a berth in the 2015 World Cup repêchage for the first time. They will travel to Montevideo early next month to take on Uruguay.

Hong Kong are ranked second in Asia behind Japan and hold the highest position in their history in the world rankings - 23rd.

Gregory has not only overseen the rising fortunes of the HKRFU, but he has also been the driving force behind the game's resurgence across Asia and is now president of the Asian Rugby Football Union.

"When I took over as chairman of the HKRFU, we only had one tournament [the Asian Championship] every couple of years. Today, we have 34 tournaments [15s and sevens, men's, women's and juniors] and this has helped develop the sport and also our local players," he said.

The widespread popularity of mini-rugby, the growing number of facilities with the home of rugby at King's Park taking pride of place, and a burgeoning women's rugby scene have all flourished under his tenure.

But the reign of the Yorkshireman, who came to Hong Kong in 1982, has not been all hunky-dory. The Hong Kong Sevens is always a challenge. Every year it is a struggle to appease the public during the sales of tickets.

The decision to hold a second major event resulted in the Bledisloe Cup being played for the first time offshore in 2008. If that initial experiment was a success, the 2010 clash between the All Blacks and the Wallabies was a disaster with the union losing millions of dollars.

The Wallabies pipped the All Blacks, but the fans stayed away in their droves leaving the union in the red. "It kept me awake at nights," says Gregory.

The historic visit of the British & Irish Lions last year was another major accomplishment which earned Gregory a few more grey hairs. Yet, all these obstacles fade into insignificance compared to the frustration encountered in trying to convince the government to speed up work on the Kai Tak sports hub.

It has been Gregory's dream to lay the groundwork towards Hong Kong hosting a few matches, or even a pool, of the 2019 World Cup in Japan. To do this, the new stadium at Kai Tak has to be up and running, but much to his disgust, the government has dragged its feet on the multibillion-dollar project and the estimated date of completion has now slipped past 2019, taking Hong Kong out of the equation.

Forgetting the World Cup, Gregory and the union have also been thwarted in their attempts to make the Hong Kong Sevens bigger. He says: "We cannot explore the full commercial potential of the Hong Kong Sevens at the old stadium."

The lack of a world-class facility is the biggest disappointment for Gregory and he hopes it is a challenge his successor – likely to be former HKRFU finance director Pieter Schats – will not have to grapple with, too.

"I hope the next chairman does not say these same things when it is time for him to step down," says Gregory.

Outspoken and candid, he had his views and was never afraid to let the world know them.

Silence was not golden to Gregory. He preferred to do the talking and walk the walk.