Left Field: Sell-out crowd for Baa-Baas match will send important message
The case for a new, larger stadium in Hong Kong will be strengthened if there is a full house for Lions and Baa-Baas clash in June
This year rugby fans get the chance to witness two major events at Hong Kong Stadium - the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens at the end of March and then, on June 1, the British and Irish Lions taking on the Barbarians.
This past week, the Lions vanguard arrived in Hong Kong led by head coach Warren Gatland on a scouting mission to check the facilities on offer for this landmark game - the Lions have played the Baa-Baas only once before in the storied history of both teams.
Gatland left happy with what he saw. He was impressed by the stadium, which hopefully will be packed to the rafters on June 1. It undoubtedly will be for the Sevens, which has been sold out for the past decade or more.
The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union has said more than 10,000 tickets have been sold for the Lions game so far, so there is still a long way to go before the 40,000-capacity stadium is filled.
For the Sevens, only 4,000 tickets are available for public sale and after years of struggling to get it right, the HKRFU has at last opted for a public ballot. For more than a month, people have been registering for this ballot, which will be drawn on February 7.
The online ballot is bound to be over-subscribed and, as happens every year, there will be many thousands who will be left disappointed. But at least this time they will not have had to waste their time and effort calling a hotline, which almost always fails to live up to that name.
However, as far as the Lions game is concerned, the HKRFU and organisers have stuck to the old ways and tickets are being sold through a ticketing company, whom you have to call to make your booking. In good old-fashioned Hong Kong style, there has been no rush to break down the doors with the public leaving it to the last minute - only the Sevens can guarantee a mad rush.
Gatland said the Lions would be accompanied by a large number of travelling fans. Some estimates put the number at up to 10,000, which means half the stadium still needs to be filled.
The chance to watch two iconic teams in action shouldn't be missed. And it will not just be an exhibition game. The Lions have already said the Hong Kong game is important as it will set the tone for the tour of Australia, where they will play nine games including three tests. Gatland has said the game in Hong Kong will give the chosen few - the tour party is expected to number 38 players - the first chance to put their hands up for selection to the test side.
The Barbarians will want to make a statement, too. Players are invited to play for the Baa-Baas and pride will be at stake. They will be determined to put on a good show. It will be a mouthwatering clash featuring two of the best known teams in world rugby.
Apart from earning revenue for the HKRFU, a full house is also important as it would strengthen the case for a new, larger stadium to be built in Hong Kong.
Other than the Sevens, the only other time Hong Kong Stadium was packed for rugby was during the Bledisloe Cup in 2008. That was to be expected because it was the first time that a Bledisloe Cup match was played outside of Australasia. However, the second time the All Blacks took on the Wallabies in Hong Kong, in 2010, only half the stadium was filled even though the game was an absolute cracker with the Wallabies breaking their rivals' dominance with the last kick of the game.
All rugby fans must back the HKRFU's bold attempts to host marquee matches here. It would be easy for the union to sit back and just concentrate on the Sevens. It is a risk-free enterprise. But the mission statement is to host another major event every year. Without the support of the public, such efforts will fail.
There are still a few months to go before the visiting teams arrive, but like the clamour for tickets to the Sevens, it would be nice to see a similar rush for Lions' tickets. A full house on June 1 would prove to the government that rugby in Hong Kong is more than just the Sevens - and that the need for a new stadium is urgent.