Jewel in crown helps propel massive growth
The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and its coffers are overflowing with hundreds of millions of dollars
"Healthy" is how Brian Stevenson describes the state of the Union as the game reaches a landmark - its 60th anniversary - this year.
Stevenson, the president of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, says the sport's rude health is due to a couple of factors. The first being that rugby is the keeper of the goose that lays the golden eggs - the Hong Kong Sevens - and the other being that it has a remarkable community of volunteers who give up their time unhesitatingly for the good of the game. They come forward, be it on a Sunday morning at mini-rugby or when the city puts on the greatest show on the world rugby circuit, the Sevens.
"Rugby is in very good shape thanks to the Sevens and the army of volunteers we have," says Stevenson. "Hong Kong is a remarkably resilient place and despite all the economic problems we have had, we have pulled through. We are very fortunate to be in a strong position."
The HKRFU can afford to give itself a pat on the back for its coffers are overflowing thanks to the Sevens. At last count, there was in excess of HK$237 million in reserves, making it the richest sporting body - behind the Jockey Club - in town and one of the richest unions in Asia, if not the world.
All this would not have been possible without the Sevens, which over the past few years has seen the ageing 40,000-capacity Hong Kong Stadium being packed to the rafters. The demand for tickets is insatiable. The 4,000 tickets which were made available in a public ballot for this week's event were over-subscribed by six times.
It is a far cry from 1976 when the first Sevens was held at the Hong Kong Football Club. Stevenson, an accountant by profession who arrived in 1970, was the treasurer of the HKRFU. He remembers counting the profits from that first event. "It was just over HK$6,000. And to think that today we have millions in the bank. It is just amazing."
Early records show the game was first played in Hong Kong in the 1870s mainly by the British military as well as the police and merchant cadets from the trading hongs (Hong Kong Football Club was only formed in 1886).
The much-awaited clash in those early days was the annual interport against Shanghai. In 1951, a Hong Kong team led by Gerry Forsgate, Stevenson's predecessor, played against Japan and this was the start of fixtures against teams from Asia. In the 1952-53 season, the HKRFU was officially established with the stronghold of the game being the Hong Kong Football Club, the police and the military.
"The big change came about around the mid-70s when first Valley and then Kowloon were formed. That reinvigorated the local scene," Stevenson said. "Before this it was just a handful of teams, although there was quite a competitive set-up with the [British] forces teams always competitive."
The biggest change, however, came about after the now-famous meeting between Tokkie Smith, the chairman of the HKRFU, and Ian Gow, an executive with Rothman's Tobacco, which led to the creation of the Hong Kong Sevens in 1976.
From small beginnings, the Sevens has mushroomed into one of the biggest money-spinners in the game. This cash cow opened the door for the game's rapid progress. In 1987, the last year of Stevenson's chairmanship of the HKRFU, a plan was pushed forward to approve a wide-ranging development programme.
Stevenson's successor, Peter Duncan, made it his first task to hire an outside expert which led to New Zealander George Simpkin, who had coached Fiji at the inaugural World Cup, being picked for the job.
Simpkin, with a small team, lit the fuse which not only resulted in the expansion of the game across the local community, but also sowed the seeds for rugby's development on the mainland.
"If not for the money from the Sevens, we would not have been able to carry out all our plans. Today we have a booming mini-rugby scene, and the game is played in Chinese schools and at tertiary level. We have a large number of clubs and women's rugby is vibrant," Stevenson said.
"While the money from the Sevens accounts for a lot, the larger corporate community, too, is involved in the game and this is most encouraging. If you go down to watch mini-rugby on a Sunday morning, you will see all these kids wearing kit with different corporate logos on it.
"Compare this to soccer, the other main team sport in this town, and you realise how big a difference there is with soccer struggling to get corporate support."
Apart from huge numbers playing - almost 10,000 from mini-rugby up to the 64 teams in senior rugby - the game is also fortunate to have its own facilities. Its King's Park headquarters has three pitches while a new one came on line in Tin Shui Wai last year. Once again, all this infrastructure wouldn't have been possible without funds from the Sevens.
Hong Kong was one of the founding members of the Asian Rugby Football Union in 1967. Since then, the tag of Asian champions had never been attached to a Hong Kong team until last year, when the sevens squad won the HSBC Asian Sevens Series, pipping Japan to the prized spot. Today, the Rowan Varty-led squad are eyeing a berth as a core team in the IRB World Series.
"We have come a long way on the playing field. Yes, at 15s we are still a long way behind Japan but we have showed that at sevens we can more than hold our own. We are now at the crossroads and it will be interesting to see what transpires in London in a couple of months' time," Stevenson said.
Hong Kong have won automatic qualification - by virtue of being Asian champions - to the last leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series in London in May, when the qualifying tournament to unearth the three new core teams for next season takes place. If Hong Kong emerge in the top three from the eight-team tournament, it will be a watershed for the game as the HKRFU might have to go down the road of contracting players.
"We did this [contracting players] a couple of years ago but that exercise didn't work out. Now we are faced with this situation again. We will have to see what happens at the London Sevens but I believe the feeling is we will support the squad if they qualify," Stevenson said.
"This is a very positive challenge to have and the fact that we can be among the best in Asia will drive us forward."
However, Stevenson felt the biggest challenge facing Hong Kong rugby as it looks towards the future was that it lacked a bigger stadium to host the Sevens.
"The capacity constraints at the government stadium presently are my biggest worry. We have been running full houses for the past few years and we need a bigger stadium badly. But right now we haven't even got approved plans for the new stadium. This has created a lot of problems for us, especially with other tournaments challenging us," he said.