It's showtime as Sevens kicks off
The Hong Kong Sevens, one of the world's best-known rugby tournaments, kicks off today and it promises to be a titanic contest.
Since the IRB Sevens Circuit was launched in 1999, the spectacle on the field easily rivals the partying in the stands.
'Without a doubt, the standard of play has increased immensely,' said John Molloy, chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union (HKRFU). 'All players, whether professionals or amateurs, are dedicated to training and fitness. We see superb athletic performances now.'
New Zealand are the IRB Sevens defending champions, while England hold the Hong Kong title and were only four points behind the All Blacks in the final 2003 standings.
The 2004 Hong Kong Sevens is the fifth stop on an eight-tournament world circuit that began in Dubai in December.
Tournaments have since been held in South Africa, New Zealand, and most recently, Los Angeles. Next week it's Singapore, then there is a two-month break before France hosts the showpiece. London holds the season-ending event at the beginning of June.
But Hong Kong is the best, say players. 'Hong Kong is the big one, and the most prestigious,' says Hong Kong captain Paul Dingley.
'With 40,000 true rugby fans going berserk in a purpose-built stadium, it's just streets ahead,' says the 31-year-old, who played his first Hong Kong Sevens in 1998.
'We're one of the lower-ranked teams in the tournament but when you get out there it's like they're screaming for the world champions. It's an absolutely fantastic feeling. I've played in front of decent crowds in South Africa, but there's just something special about the Hong Kong fans,' Dingley told Rugby Talk magazine recently. Hong Kong's flying winger Andrew Chambers says the electric atmosphere is unique. 'You can't engineer anything like it,' says Chambers, who is playing his third Sevens this year.
'It just evolves into a fantastic buzz - it's awesome,' added the 24-year-old, who grew up in Hong Kong.
The race for the 2004 IRB Sevens title promises to be tighter than ever before. For the first time in the circuit's five-year history, four different teams have won the four preceding events.
South Africa won in Dubai, England in South Africa, New Zealand in Wellington, while Argentina clinched full points in Los Angeles.
The team who win in Hong Kong (the only 24-team tournament) will have a great advantage as it is the only event on the circuit worth double championship points.