No place like home

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2005, 12:00am

Welcome home. Welcome to the place that gave birth to international sevens rugby. Welcome to Hong Kong - host of two World Cup Sevens and perhaps the rightful place to host the next and, possibly, last World Cup in 2009.

The International Rugby Board believes that if the sport is readmitted to the Olympic Games in 2012, there may be no need to have a World Cup Sevens in the future.

'If rugby wins back its place in the Olympics, then this will be the pinnacle of sevens,' said IRB chairman Syd Millar last month.

If 2009 is indeed going to be the last World Cup, then the IRB should look no further than Hong Kong as the venue.

'It would be nice if Hong Kong were to host the World Cup in 2009, if it is to be the last World Cup,' says Brian Stevenson, president of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union.

Stevenson, who has been involved in the growth of the Hong Kong Sevens from its early days, says that would be a superb gesture on the part of the world governing body, which will have to make some tough decisions after July 6, the day the International Olympic Committee decides on rugby's re-entry into the Olympics.

'The Hong Kong Sevens has acted as a role model for the world. While the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union never looks for credit - our style is modest - I think our success has been a factor in the growth of sevens rugby,' Stevenson says.

Since its birth in 1976, the Hong Kong Sevens has evolved into the biggest and most successful sevens tournament in the world. The IRB says the Hong Kong Sevens is the 'jewel in their crown'.

The Hong Kong Sevens made the IRB realise there was room for a second World Cup, played halfway between its XV-a-side showpiece. It also led to the annual World Sevens series - now in its sixth season - with the IRB acknowledging this short version of the game would be the ideal promotional vehicle to develop rugby worldwide.

The world has embraced it to such an extent that sevens is now part of a number of major multi-sports games, including the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, and has led to the IOC realising that here is a sport that is widely popular, can be played over two days, does not need a major facility (it can be played on a soccer pitch) and, most importantly, is hugely attractive to television and sponsors, the major revenue earners for the IOC.

In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post last month, Millar raised the possibility of the World Cup being supplanted by the Olympics one day, and also said 2009 could be the last World Cup Sevens.

'There could be another World Cup Sevens in 2009, but who knows after that? If we are successful, the Olympics will be the biggest stage for our sport,' said Millar, who presides over Rugby World Cup Ltd, which runs both the XVs and sevens tournaments.

The IOC will decide on July 6 in Singapore if rugby becomes a medal sport at the 2012 Olympics. Rugby sevens is one of five sports - with golf, karate, roller sports and squash - vying for a place in the biggest show on earth.

With a proven track record, Hong Kong should ask, and get, the 2009 World Cup if it is to be the last one. No other place can draw an international audience - the Wellington Sevens, the closest thing to Hong Kong, is superb but has a mostly local crowd - or can assure the organiser (RWC Ltd) of a guaranteed profit.

When the World Cup Sevens was last held in Hong Kong, in 1997, then RWC chairman Leo Williams revealed the tournament was a 'profitable venture'. That profitable venture earned close to $100 million for the RWC.

The television and sponsorship rights for that tournament were worth US$7 million - eight years ago. It is harder to estimate the revenue for the fourth World Cup Sevens as television and broadcasting right have been split between the IRB (foreign rights) and the HKRFU (local). Whatever the split, the event will be profitable.

Hong Kong has been the only profitable venue for the World Cup Sevens and also the biggest crowd-puller. The first tournament in 2003, at Murrayfield, Scotland, and the third in 2001, in Mar del Plata, Argentina, were played before half-empty stadiums. Hong Kong has been sold out on both occasions.

'Looking back, I would have liked to see the first World Cup being played in Hong Kong,' said Stevenson. 'But since Scotland is the home of sevens, I guess, that was why they got it. Now, if 2009 is going to be the last, it would be nice if Hong Kong got it.'

He added: 'But whatever happens, whether rugby enters the Olympics or not, the Hong Kong Sevens will go on. We will just go on doing our own thing.'

No question about that. But it would still be nice for Hong Kong to get some recognition, and one way the IRB can show that is by giving the SAR the right to host the 2009 World Cup if it is the last.