Tim Noonan: Likeable underdogs USA are here to stay
Americans have made a big impact this season and are close to slugging it out with World Series big boys
You inherit this town. It doesn’t inherit you. That is the cardinal rule of Hong Kong and it won’t be changing any time soon. Come ye from ports near and far and on entry you are most certainly free to redefine yourself both professionally and socially, as many do. But know that when you arrive in this teeming and unique enclave, the rules are already written.
The sporting rules, in particular, have been etched in stone thanks to the colonial legacy. It’s all about soccer, cricket and rugby. Even field hockey is simply called hockey. There is definitely some interest in basketball and the NBA, particularly among locals. But generally speaking other than throwing them the odd bone here and there, North American sports are little more than a curiosity to the media.
When the dust clears on Sunday afternoon at the Hong Kong Sevens, by far the biggest sporting event locally, and the big boys play for the big prize it’s a familiar cast of characters; Fiji, New Zealand, England, South Africa and a few years back Australia as well. Again, this has all been scripted and seemingly carved in stone.
Despite the plethora of American multi-nationals in the corporate boxes, the Yanks know that while their money is always welcome, when it comes to the big stage their team is not. That too seems carved in stone. However, down on the pitch it’s a meritocracy and you can still earn your place at the adult’s table.
Sunday was a downpour of biblical proportions and when the skies open up over Hong Kong there is no half measures. Puddles become lakes and even covered shelter is useless as the pounding rain whips sideways.
But you know what, it was still a beautiful day America. Of course, it was basically over before it started for the US team against powerful and relentless South Africa, who bounced them in the Cup quarter-finals 28-0. But for all intents and purposes the heavy lifting was done on Saturday. Sunday was simply a bonus.
When the US beat Australia 22-7 on Saturday afternoon, it was their biggest victory ever in Hong Kong. In fact it might well be their greatest rugby victory since they won the gold medal at the Paris Olympics in 1924. At the risk of excessive hyperbole, something deeply profound happened for both the Hong Kong Sevens and the future of the sport globally when the Americans beat Australia and this event and game will never be the same again.
The world is going to get its first real look at Sevens this summer in Rio and chances are good it will be a hit. The beauty of this game is it’s humility and it should prove to be infectious. The fact that there will be a competitive US team in the tourney is even better. New England Patriots defensive back Nate Ebner is on leave from his day job and here playing for the American team in hopes of making the Rio squad.
However the only time he saw the pitch was as a water boy, bringing refreshments to his team-mates during breaks in play. An NFL player from one of its best clubs is more than happy to do whatever it takes at this event because the team is everything in sevens? The selfless nature of the game and its players may be the perfect tonic for a world disillusioned with pampered and entitled sporting stars.
After England upset South Africa on Friday night it threw a wrench into the works for Sunday. The Americans went 3-0 to win a tough pool that included three of the top six teams in the Sevens World Series rankings, in Australia, Argentina and the US.
The Americans reward for this was a meeting with an angry South Africa team while second place Australia beat England for a place in the semi-finals. Relegated to the Plate, the Americans proceeded to pound a pretty good Wales team 27-0. Notice has been served.
With an incomparable pool of elite talent to choose from, the USA are here to stay and much like the American soccer team, the US sevens team is something of a likeable underdog, for now at least. Of course all of their success here won’t help to make baseball or the NFL the lead story on the local sports pages.
It is however the most significant development for North American sports in this region in pretty much forever. The earth shifted ever so slightly this weekend in the spiritual home of rugby sevens. The extent of the reverberations are soon to follow.