When you come to Hong Kong for the Sevens and spend the weekend in the haunts of Wan Chai
Sevens fans come together in Hong Kong with more than just rugby connecting them to the city
Each year before the tournament, a buzz appears on the streets as tourists roll in from all around the globe to watch the best Sevens tournament on the planet.
For two tourists last year – friends of former Sevens tournament director Peter Burbidge-King – the dream became something of a nightmare. But in the spirit of rugby, just had to be laughed off.
“I asked South African mates Brian Whittingham and his partner, Sue Van Wyk, who live in Perth to join us at the Sevens,” Burbidge-King recounts. “I got this excited phone call from Brian that they’d arrived at their hotel. The only problem was, they’d got their dates horribly wrong and had arrived exactly one week too early. Their return tickets were unchangeable. So they had to leave before the Sevens started.”
Whittingham is a straight-up South African who knew that through aching disappointment, there was a yarn in this that would go on for years.
He was determined to make the best of it, just like in a rugby game when a team knows they can’t win, they give it their best shot and tell themselves ‘better luck next time’.
“The whole debacle cost me a few dollars as everybody that we met in the pubs over the ‘wrong weekend’ insisted that I buy the beers for being such an old idiot,” says Brian.
The bucket list epic fail became a voyage of discovery. Laughing about what was not funny at the time, he says: “I copped some banter in the White Stag, and Coyote was full on fun. We wandered into the Queen Victoria for laughs and Carnegies had a good Happy Hour.”
“I suppose it goes without saying that Sue managed all the bookings for this year’s trip.”
Grass roots growing
Girls rugby in Hong Kong has been growing from the grass roots at a phenomenal rate – to the point where they can compete with boys.
Craig Johnson moved from Hong Kong back to “Blighty” four years ago with his family after a 20-year stint. His daughter, Jasmine (then nine years old), had to play rugby with the boys.
“It really hit me that the level of rugby training for girls here was off the spectrum. In her age group in our club in Hong Kong, there were around three teams of girls for the under-10s. In England, she became the one girl playing in with 15 to 20 boys.”
Another unique feature of competition for Hong Kong kids is compact geography. “It’s dead easy for Hong Kong youth rugby to play against other teams as there’s a solid league of 10 other teams in the same group and everywhere is less than an hour away. In the UK, in a 10- to 15-mile radius of our home, maybe there would be one or two girls playing,” says Johnson.
While Jasmine had to take up other pursuits, elder brother Louie (17) plays, and brother Cameron (14) is one of the players on the Leicester Tigers developing players. “It is a complete coincidence that I work with Peter Wheeler’s son,” Johnson laughed. In the rugby Venn diagram of life, there are only ever about two degrees of separation.
A key part of the Sevens is reunions, and the Johnson family were enjoying catching up with the Hart family.
Kaitlyn Hart, now 17, is a founding member of the Sai Kung Stingrays. She has made the HKRU national age group teams for the past six years.
“I go to uni next year in Sydney. I’ve heard there’s not a lot of women’s rugby, and I’m used to playing full contact at a pretty competitive level.
“I know I’d better hold back in the O week (Orientation Week) friendlies of touch rugby, or I might not make too many friends in week one,” she said.
The prize for the oldest person at the Sevens goes to 89-year-old Ian Meffan, unless anyone comes forth over the next two days – with proof of date of birth.
Two years ago we ran into former Swire director Ian Meffan in the stadium and now he just can’t stay away.
“I’d been to the Sevens a number of times in the 1970s, but a couple of years ago, I decided to treat my daughter, then 59 to her first ever Sevens.
“Hong Kong holds much history for me. I was born in Hong Kong in 1928. My father was a prisoner of war here during the second world war and I was sent to Australia on a ship and billeted in Bondi. I worked my way up through Swires and lived here over several postings.”
Buoyed on by being tracked down by old school friends thanks to a Post story he was featured in at the Sevens in 2015, (as well as catching up with other ones), Meffan is back with daughter Fiona McKay, who was also born in Hong Kong.
They are guests of Hutchison group, proving that old rugby and corporate connections last for a lifetime.
“I still have an ongoing 30-year business connection with Wan Hai Lines who are a big customer of Hutchison’s Hong Kong container terminal,” Meffan says.
“We shall again be rooting for Scotland. We hope they’ll be inspired this year by the success of their 15-a-side team’s recent success in the UK.”
Next year, for his 90th, he will be back again with Fiona. And that really will be worthy of a celebration.