And to cap it all – Hong Kong honours its colonial era heroes
Former players gather from far-flung hideaways around the world to receive due recognition
Andy Fields has four England caps at various age-group levels, but the one cap he will treasure the most was handed to him by the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union in London this month.
The former Hong Kong and Valley hooker was overcome by emotion as he received his colony cap at the Hippodrome casino cheered on by former teammates, including Isi Tu'ivai, Gary Cross and Vaughan Going, plus many others from younger and older vintages.
"Hong Kong gave me the time of my life. I won a few caps for England at youth level and, while I'm proud of that, this is the one I will always treasure most," said Fields, showing off the blue tasselled cap.
An initiative started last year has gathered momentum with more than 125 caps handed out, 60 of them in London. Former prop and active policeman Dave Lewis was the first recipient of the colony cap (given to those who represented Hong Kong before the handover) and Andy Yuen Kin-ho was the first to get the SAR cap (for those who represented post-handover).
They flew in from all parts of the world. Former Hong Kong sevens captain Chris Gordon arrived from Dubai, as did Rob Grindlay. Chris Blair, a former soldier who was stationed here, came from Qatar where he is now building stadiums for the 2022 soccer World Cup. Didier Lenoir, one of the best openside flankers to play for Hong Kong, came from Paris. Others like Tu'ivai had a shorter commute as they live in England.
Chief organiser and former loosehead prop Chris North - who once when playing for Hong Kong against South Korea in a test match told referee Ross Mitchell, "I like your hair" - only had to walk across the road in Leicester Square where he owns a casino.
"Six months ago [Richard] Cooke [a director of the union] got in touch with me and said there were plans to hand out caps to former Hong Kong players during the London Sevens and asked if I could help organise it," North said. "A good friend of mine runs the Hippodrome and I thought it would be an ideal setting, right in Central London for a get-together."
North, who played for Kowloon, was the first player to be awarded both caps. He played before the handover, first representing Hong Kong in the Pac Rim competition against Canada, and also after the city returned to Chinese rule.
"I played when George Simpkin was coach and by virtue of being the loosehead prop on the team and with jersey number one, I also became the 'first' player to get both caps, colony and SAR," said a proud North.
Another player of the Simpkin era was Welshman Cross. The hooker stood out on the field both for his inspirational play and for a large tattoo of the Pink Panther on his leg. Cross still had not lost his ability to surprise, saying he worked for the British ministry of defence. We couldn't quite grasp exactly what he did - something to do with mines - amidst his joyous reunion.
"It is fantastic to receive this recognition," said Cross, doing a Usain Bolt celebration as he received his cap.
One of the more recent caps awarded completed a father-and-son quinella. Alex Gibbs, assistant sevens coach with the Hong Kong team at the London Sevens, got his SAR cap, to add to the one his dad, former Wallaby Paul Gibbs, won for playing for the colony from 1970 to 1974.
"My dad got his cap a few weeks ago in Hong Kong and I'm proud to follow suit," said Gibbs.
HKRFU chairman Trevor Gregory revealed the idea of awarding caps was not only limited to the men.
"The last time I checked, no other union awards caps to women and we are proud to be the first to do so. [Former Hong Kong manager] Steve Quirke first started the debate that players should get caps and he even went as far as coming up with a design. After that it was a no-brainer that we go ahead, especially with the HKRFU celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
"Rugby has come a long way since the HKRFU was established. In the '70s, we were playing against sides from England and Scotland, then in the '90s it was the Pac Rim days and the 'mercenaries'," said Gregory to cheers from Tu'ivai and company.
Valley winger Tu'ivai, known as the Tongan torpedo, was one of a number of players who came up from the southern hemisphere during the Simpkin era to represent Hong Kong. He was part of the team in the early '90s who defeated the likes of Canada, Japan and the US. He also figured prominently in sevens.
"I'm very grateful for Hong Kong not only for the rugby, but also for what it has made me today. Hong Kong was a stepping stone in my life, as it has been for so many other players," said Tu'ivai, a successful businessman in Britain.
Gregory recounted the days when Hong Kong used to defeat Japan, or when Hong Kong ran in a world record 164-13 score against Singapore in a World Cup qualifier "with Ashley Billington scoring 14 tries".
Gregory said to great cheers: "But Hong Kong rugby has moved on. Last year we had 69 teams playing in the domestic competition. Apart from Japan, we are the only team to have played in every Top Five competition in the ongoing Asian Five Nations.
"Another proud record is the fact Hong Kong has played in every World Cup Sevens and we will be in Moscow in June this year, too."
Winger Dennis Chang, who won his first cap for Hong Kong a fortnight ago against the Philippines, became the 222nd player to represent Hong Kong since 1997.
Much older, and a proud owner of a colony cap was Gus Cunningham, 67, a former chief superintendent of police who retired from the force just before the handover.
"This cap is very special and it is wonderful the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union is recognising the contributions made by the players," said Cunningham, who represented Hong Kong from 1967 to 1976, captaining the Colony XV from 1970 to 1974.
"There have been many remarkable achievements by Hong Kong rugby over the years, none more than the establishment of the Hong Kong Sevens in 1976 which has been a catalyst towards the sport being reintroduced into the Olympics. I have wonderful memories of playing and living in Hong Kong and this cap will remind me of that."
For some, those memories were tinged with sadness.
Fields, who represented Hong Kong from 1992 to 1996, broke his neck in a motorcycle accident in 2001.
It left him semi-paralysed and in hospital for a year. He has since gained use of his legs and today walks with the aid of a crutch.
"I was 22 when I went to Hong Kong and despite my accident I will never forget the wonderful experiences I had there," said Fields, who is a teacher today. "This cap is a fantastic reminder of the great days of Hong Kong, where it all happened."