Sevens Seen, with Robby Nimmo - Day 3
Our roving reporter takes you around the sevens world
We could be heroes
Tina Turner’s Mad Max anthem “We don’t need another Hero” doesn’t reflect the Hong Kong Sevens. In fact, we have a surfeit of heroes, and there’s always room for more.
They are everywhere in the stadium. From the parents who tirelessly go bleary eyed to the pitches around Hong Kong every weekend for months every year, and their kids who run with tiny chests beating in their hearts on the same pitch where the legends strut their stuff, dreaming big.
To the fans and especially the children, the players and coaches are their heroes.
As Gordon Tietjens gave an interview in the media area in the North Stand, he attracted some attention. Youngsters in yellow T-shirts who were volunteering all weekend to deal with wayward rugby balls, ran up to him and asked them to sign his photo in the programme.
When their thick, black marker pens ran out, he took his pen out of his pocket and took time to sign each one.
As he had his head down signing diligently, he was oblivious to the children looking up at him in utter awe, hands behinds their backs as a show of respect, as though he were a god from another world.
“It’s nice that they asked for an autograph, not a selfie, eh,” he said matter-of-factly.
To kick off Sevens week, Fiji coach Ben Ryan took his team up to a pitch in the New Territories, some way from their hotel, to play with Sai Kung Stingrays’ under-11 boys and girls.
Kids who weighed a quarter of the Fijians had no fear getting on the pitch, darting among the Hong Kong Sevens champs and showing off their skills to the Fijians, who addressed them by name mid-play, “Charlie, Charlie”, they would say with encouragement, to beaming faces who had felt (at least on the inside) that they had grown to the size of a Fijian player in that moment.
Kids fell over here and there and were swiftly scooped up by the Fijians in a gesture so natural it was hard to believe that they weren’t their own kids.
Ryan shrugged it off, clearly entrenched into the esprit de corps that is Fiji after three years of living there.
“For these Fijians, being around kids and playing is completely natural,” Ryan said. “Coming from villages, there’s always kids around and everyone looks after everyone’s. These guys love to do this.”
This habit has now stretched further than Hong Kong
“We’ve always played with kids in Hong Kong, but now, wherever we go in the world, we’ve made it a habit. We just did the same thing in Vegas and Vancouver,” Ryan added.
Cathay attendants shape up
On average, Cathay Pacific flies 20 teams – around 300 players – every year to Hong Kong to take part in “their” Sevens. Since 1982, the airline has flown in over 100,000 rugby fans.
Michelle Tang wasn’t born back then, but the elegantly poised flight attendant was the epitome of Cathay calm as she walked on to the pitch and danced with Scottish band The Proclaimers over the weekend.
They’d flown 500 miles – and then some – to get to the stadium, but in some respects, so has she.
Tang’s parents may be originally from Hong Kong, but they moved to Utrecht, 50 kilometres southeast of Amsterdam, and that’s where she grew up, referring to her home base now as ‘Ong Kong’ in that interesting Dutch way.
This is Tang’s second year as a Cathay ambassador at the Sevens and she dances up a storm in their TV commercial this year which appeared around the stadium, MTR stations and social media.
“I don’t know how those Cathay girls do it, they were as fresh after the performance as they were beforehand,” enthused one of The Proclaimers twins, Craig Reid.
Maybe when the advertising copywriters came up with the ad campaign “arrive in better shape” in the eighties, they knew a thing about the resilience of flight crew.
For Tang, doing some dance rehearsals and turning up to the stadium is part of shaping her career with grace and quiet determination.
“I’ve been with Cathay for six years, but, like a lot of my flights, I am here for the long haul,” she said.
And as she gets back to Utrecht to see her family every few months, definitely a life well travelled.
The Hong Kong Sevens is a parallel universe where the music reflects the antics on and off the pitch. If you were to interpret the costumes as songs, you’d have a play list that would stretch around to the hallowed halls of post-Sevens party-ready Wan Chai.
Over the weekend, the Pharaohs were striking their “Walk like an Egyptian” poses, but Dexy’s Midnight Runners “Tutan-Kamen Eileen” may have better summed up their outfits.
A squad of over a dozen Americans – all sized like front-row forwards – wore diapers on a stag trip.
It all “Depends” on your point of view, but tour spokesman Evan Devine said the song that summed up their outfit was Diana Ross’ Baby Love and Hey Baby .
Both tunes were spun by Sevens DJ Simon Southgate to seat-dancing enjoyment.
There were plenty of “China Girls” (not all of them female), in their dress-up garb from cheong sams to the ubiquitous Singapore Airlines batik. Bowie would approve.
There’s fashion and there’s South Stand trashion. It takes all types.
One male “unit” spotted had a padded bum in a red bikini bottom with faux fabric flesh hanging out of it, to celebrate Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls”.
The odd dress-up squad every year will come as trees: Siouxsie and the Banshees “Hong Kong Garden” perhaps? Or a theme song for our home-grown team with hopes of Rio?
“Turning Japanese” was the costume chosen by Hong Kong’s Sophie Pettit and friends; kimonos and powder white make-up cutting a dash. “A few of us went to Kyoto last September and were inspired by the geisha,” she said.
It is not certain if the girls learnt the language of the fan when they were in Japan, with its hidden ancient code.
But they appear to have learnt the language of the Sevens dress-ups, in all its flirtation and flight of fancy.
Clearly sevens fans, they fluttered theirs in the direction of Eric Rush as he wandered by.
At six-feet-five and 115 kilos, gentle giant Stephen Pengelly admits he scares people on the commute to Tunbridge Wells (a leafy upper middle-class enclave in the London commuter belt) even in a smart suit – just because of his size.
As he tells it, “Maggie, the publican in my local said I looked like an Easter Island statue, so now everyone just calls me ‘Easter’.”
Such is the face that comes with years of rugby and natural brute strength. And well, maybe you could call it “a nose for rugby ... the rearranged variety.
There must be a reason they call him “Pinky”, it is the yin of the gentle side of his character to his stature’s yang.
And indeed, ‘Pinky’ Pengelly is a force to be reckoned with.
‘Quiet’ is not in his vocabulary, which is a good thing herding his posse of foot soldiers who have assembled from far-flung abodes. Every morning it is never easy for a tour guide to assemble his charges, when after the night before they appear to have all the discipline of a busted flip flop.
“There are eight of us, yes, the Chinese lucky number. I am the only ex-Hongkonger,” says Pinky.
“There are two mates from the royal borough of Tunbridge Wells, one from North London, two Aussies from Canberra and a Yank who I work with in London.”
The Sevens is all about reunions, and Pinky is this weekend scratching about on his old home turf. It’s miraculous how conferences just have to be had in Hong Kong in many industries in Sevens week, and then there are all the obligatory sideline events.
Pinky is also here for a reason he’s been looking forward to for years: The Kowloon Rugby Club’s 40th birthday.
“I played Kowloon RFV from 1996 to 2011 as a second rower, I was infamous for not being able to jump and catch and it’s their 40th year anniversary this year. And also I played for Hong Kong from 1997 until 2001.
“I left Hong Kong with my wife and family in 2011 and it’s true what they say, rugby is a lifestyle not a game. And yes, it’s great to be back.”
Lining up for her first ever Hong Kong Sevens, Gigi Tam admits that the language of tries and conversions is new to her. However, as she works for the Legco Secretariat as a translation officer she’s well versed in the richness of language.
Tam reveals that a lot of Cantonese colloquialisms for sport revolve around food: “Cantonese is replete with food-related expressions for things in everyday life (call us hopeless gluttons). This is true even in the idioms of spectator sports, a relatively new concept introduced to this part of the world early in the 20th century.”
Referring to the action we may see on the pitch, Tam says: “An athlete suffering badly with the ball flying straight into his face at high speed is called ‘sik bo beng’, translated word to word as ‘made to eat the ball pie’, similar to the English idiom ‘eat humble pie.’
“An athlete having chafed skin from a hard rub against a rough ground surface is called ‘mor geong’, or ‘peeling off the ginger skin’. Ouch!”
There’s even a description for victors of the tournament :“The newly crowned champion in a
competition is referred to as ‘chut lo’ – fresh out of the oven, as you would read on the wall of a bakery shop. Piping hot stuff!”
“With spectator sports, comes betting. Some feisty older folks say ‘yan tou bok woo tou’ or ‘I’ll bet my head against your taro’, paralleling sport with a root vegetable. Did someone say Hongkongers are the Italians of Asia?”
Sums up the local linguist: “The language of food and life is interwoven. Good language is like the taste and spices of our mental life. Just like tasty food satisfies you physically, good languages satisfy you mentally.”
Players and sponsors come and go at the Sevens. As Nick Farr-Jones said in Hong Kong of the rugby machine a few years back, “the dog barks, the caravan moves on”.
Boxes are coveted and some new sponsors with a fine pedigree have appeared. They include French bank Natixis and international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.
At the weekend, the merger not only brought together more legal expertise, but also blended northern and southern hemisphere rugby talent within the firm.
“In Hong Kong, the firm has a long rugby history, and we jumped at the chance to support the Sevens with a box sponsorship this year,” says partner Gareth Thomas, a stalwart of the Hong Kong Cricket Club rugby section since 2001.
“In particular, partner Mark Lloyd-Williams represented Hong Kong a couple of times, in between managing the Hong Kong office for five years, before retiring to the comfort of London to head our global construction group.
“Our Australian offices, recognising the rugby union pedigree of our northern offices, retaliated quite spectacularly in 2014 with the partner hire of former Wallaby Ian Williams, the only person to have represented both Australia (1984-1990) and Japan (1993) in rugby,” says Thomas.
“Ian’s a regular visitor to our Asia offices, given the scale of his north Asian connections and clients, and he’s enjoying the box over the Sevens.”
It’s not all about the rugby old boys at Herbert Smith Freehills though. The firm is a sponsor of HKU Sandy Bay Rugby Club, with partners Austin Sweeney and Alexander Aitken turning out to assist with coaching duties as well.
“For most of us, the closest we get to rugby glory these days is watching the little-uns at mini rugby but on Sevens weekend we all enjoy recreating some of our glory days – on and off the field,” laughed Thomas, who regaled clients and colleagues in his firm’s new box.