ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN
FRIDAY MARCH 11 A meeting for all of the hosts at the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union (HKRFU) headquarters in North Point. Copies of an aide-memoire on how to help our teams - with extensive details on everything from the use of the sponsor's rugby balls to laundering the playing kit - are handed out. The only thing that sticks in my mind is that staff of the Hilton, where all the Sevens teams stay, will empty the mini-bars before the teams' arrival.
FRIDAY MARCH 18 In drizzling rain we are taken on a tour of the Hong Kong Stadium to see the new facilities. It is a remarkable sight remembering what it was like 24, or even 12 months ago. That is apart from the half of the pitch that was covered by plastic sheets for in-field seating at three rock concerts; that section now looks like a cow pasture after a napalm attack. The lugubrious-looking Peter Else, of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, dodges the raindrops as he says: 'We have been told the roof covers 75 per cent of the spectators. As you can see, when the wind blows, it is more like 25 per cent.' A stream of water cascades from an upper level on to some seats near us.
TUESDAY MARCH 22 I wait by the group arrivals exit at Kai Tak for the appearance of my team, the HKRFU President's Seven from London. Last-minute withdrawals by Welsh and English players mean I am not sure who exactly I am looking for amid the hundreds of Burberry-clad Japanese and Taiwanese tourists spilling out of the gate. At least I'll recognise the coach, Les Cusworth, the former England fly-half. Panic sets in an hour after the plane has landed. All the other hosts have met their teams and put them on the bus to the Hilton. As it starts to pull out I scuttle on and shout: 'Is anyone here from the President's Seven?' A group of seriously-fit looking males shout back: 'Yes, we are.' Les Cusworth is 10,000 kilometres distant at his home in England. He is not coming. Nor is the manager, another legendary fly-half, Scotsman Ian McGeechan, because his mother is very ill. In their place is the less-than-legendary scrum-half Richard (Churches) Churchill, pulled from his administration job with the English Rugby Football Union to bring the team out.
Alistair Merricks, another team host, is already at the Hilton. He had met the team's two Fijian players, Eparama Tuvunivono and Marika Korovou at Kai Tak the night before. As Churchill settles into the room he will share with player Chris (Sheas) Sheasby, I notice the mini-bar is still neatly packed with beer and spirits.
WEDNESDAY MARCH 23 The team had gone out on a bonding exercise last night. This consisted of a long session at Oscar's in Lan Kwai Fong where the happy hour lasted all night, followed by a ritual visit to Joe Bananas - a nightclub with an almost talismanic reputation among overseas rugby players for obscure reasons that have longed baffled Hong Kong residents. Some members of the party grumble because the club displays memorabilia with the legend 'Joe Bananas welcomes the Barbarians' - even though the invitational side is not competing in the Sevens this year.
As I wait in the lobby, a painting of All Black Kevin Schuler falls on the head of a diminutive Portuguese player in an armchair below. When the President's Seven arrive most look as if they also have been clobbered over the head - the deadening agony of a hangover and the debilitating effect of jet-lag combined.
With two earlier appearances at the Sevens for the Barbarians, Sheas is a wise old hand at coping with the first night - he opted for a 12-hour sleep, rather than the 12 minutes the rest seem to have managed - and so reckons his jet-lag has disappeared.
The main chatter centres around the player who ended up in his room in the small hours with two of the groupies who make their way annually, like migrating ducks, to Hong Kong for the Sevens, perhaps because the tennis season is not at full throttle yet. 'Yeah, they talked for a bit, and then they started kissing each other; must have been lessies,' he recalled. 'Did you shag them?' was the question, answered by a nod.
The 90-minute training session in the bright heat of Happy Valley is sluggish, especially compared to the teetotal Samoans on the next-door pitch who were probably tucked up in bed as the President's Seven was ordering their third round of drinks. Ali volunteers to act as the 10th member of the squad for training. Television commentator Bill McLaren wanders over to watch. 'There are a lot of unshaven fellows around - it's putting me off,' he says, and wanders away.
The team, Sheas, captain David (Sculls) Scully, Lawrence (Loll) Dallaglio, Damian (Hoppers) Hopley and Nick (Bealy) Beal of England, Scotsmen Adam (Roxy) Roxburgh and Derek (Starky) Stark, and the Fijians will have to add another player to the side by Friday from the players taking part in the Carlsberg 10-a-side tournament.
At lunch at the hotel, I use a spare meal ticket and sign it 'Ian McGeechan' since the side has more vouchers than members at the moment. The players are then taken to the Sevens hospitality room on the fourth floor to be measured for complimentary rugby shirts and tracksuits. 'Mmmm, excellent snatch; top,' they comment approvingly using their argot to describe giveaway clothing.
Loll reflects on the wisdom of Sheas' sleeping habits. 'I think I will have a quiet night tonight. I won't go out. Well, I'll go out but I won't drink ... I'll drink, but only shandies.' THURSDAY MARCH 24 More team bonding into the early hours last night. I call Churches' room at 10.15am to prepare him to leave for the 11am training session, only to be told he has pressed the 'Do not disturb' button on his telephone. Meanwhile the French team sit, neat as buttons in their matching kit, ready to leave for the training ground. He appears 15 minutes later, looking rumpled, claiming he must have pressed the button by mistake but owning up to another hangover.
The team had gone to a party for one of the Carlsberg 10-a-side tournament teams at The Jump. As we leave Happy Valley, they spot a sandwich board girl at the gate and berate her for causing their hangovers. 'I couldn't finish that last pint in Joe Bananas - it was one of them neverending ones. You take a sip and the level doesn't go down. I had to hide it under the table,' the ginger-haired Roxy says.
Training is much better, and the side goes through a lot of work despite the heat. Speculation about who will take the last place in the squad abounds among the team and the media. Hoppers and Loll guffaw loudly at some of the suggestions. Hoppers advises his team-mates: 'Let's really **** the press around. If any reporters ask you, tell them it will be 'The Judge',' - a reference to rugged former England prop forward, Paul Rendall, not renowned as a 'gas man' or sprinter, a vital commodity in Sevens. I tell Starky that Kiwi and Hong Kong Sevens veteran Scott Pierce has been mentioned. 'Who is Scott Pierce?' he asks.
With his chest cough Starky is not at his best at the moment; he looks strangely crestfallen when he hears the Japanese team have had success with the rugby groupies.
An embarrassed American official goes to Central police station to pick up all of his side's training kit left in the back of a taxi but later handed in by the driver. The 10 practice balls that disappeared from the hospitality room are not expected to return.
FRIDAY MARCH 25 Last night was quiet, with the main topic of conversation being the nightclub punch-up between two hefty players who had squared off in the Carlsberg 10s a few hours earlier.
With the hour of reckoning only a day away the team is beginning to tighten its attitude and approach. But 24 hours before they are due to play their first match the President's Seven have no specialist coach or manager, the team blazers and flannels that Sam the tailor had measured them for are still being run up, and their socks, shorts and tracksuits are also pending. Neither have they seen their playing jerseys yet. Dave Crosbie of the HKRFU has. 'Er ... well, the badges are very nice,' he says sympathetically.
At least they have a full team with the inclusion of Jon (Sleights) Sleightholme from the White Hart Marauders who played in the Carlsberg 10s. Training includes a game of touch with the Romanians that is full of misplaced passes from both sides. 'Look at that will ya?' the Romanians' Irish coach asks, rhetorically. 'I'm glad we had this game wit' yoos so we could get all of this crap out of our system.' Following training, the team meets 'Mr President' - Gerry Forsgate - and the HKRFU's founder over drinks and sandwiches at the Hong Kong Football Club. Forsgate, who finds remembering anyone's name somewhat challenging, tells a very long anecdote about taking a Hong Kong side on a rugby tour of Japan in the 1940s. He has barely finished when Churches decides it is time to go back to the Hilton, a proposition the players readily agree to.
Suddenly there are all sorts of problems to sort out: Tuvunivono and Korovou need size 11 rugby boots, something as common as snow in Hong Kong, while Sleights is after a pair of size nines. Sheas, who regards physiotherapy as essential to his existence as food and drink, needs treatment, and Starky's cough necessitates a visit to the doctor. The HKRFU, which is supplying the tracksuits, socks and shorts cannot believe that a rugby player, in this case Sculls, has a 35-centimetre waist and that the ones they have supplied do not fit.
The red and green-hooped jerseys arrive, three apiece Sculls explains: one to wear, one to wash and the third in case you get covered in blood, although he does not make it clear if he means his own or the opposition's.
In the evening we go to a reception at the Hong Kong Cricket Club in a bus driven by someone who feels the most direct route from Central is along Hennessy Road, through the heart of Causeway Bay and then up Stubbs Road. It is a 40-minute journey of lurches and long halts in traffic jams. The side stays fractionally longer at the reception which is also for the two other clubs Valley is hosting, France and Singapore. Hong Kong comes along too, since no one else thought to invite them to their hosting party.
SATURDAY MARCH 26 Not an auspicious start to the day. The team assembles in the lobby at 11.30am to drive to the stadium, only to find the last shuttle bus had left half an hour earlier. We pile into three taxis - when you are Loll's size you do not get into a Hong Kong cab, you put it on. Wedged on the front seat next to him and the driver I am glad when we finally reach the stadium since my right side is beginning to go numb.
The team sniff their dressing room and the players' enclosure in the stands like dogs warily exploring new territory. The sun is almost oppressively warm for Britons plucked from a northern hemisphere winter. When Hoppers comes off after the 45-0 win against the utterly outclassed Singaporeans he says: 'I went for broke and my radiator burst.' In their two pool games, the President's Seven score 11 tries. None of them are announced over the public address system. The jerseys supplied by the HKRFU have not been numbered so the announcers maintain a sulky silence for the duration of the games. The organisers try to press-gang them into wearing numbered jerseys from Kowloon Rugby Club for the game against Ireland, but Churches ignores them: 'It's their fault - they are the ones who gave us the kit.' SUNDAY MARCH 27 We have missed the bus again but the taxis run smoothly to the stadium. The team's confidence is at a high and even the prospect of a game against the 1993 champions Western Samoa does not faze them. 'We have to win,' Sheas says. 'Our game is at 1.30pm. If we do not win then we have to sit around all afternoon.' In deference to their game which takes place right afterwards, the President's Seven get first place in the competitors' parade, well away from Papua New Guinea's stuffed crocodile. Somewhat unnervingly the Samoans share their dressing room, as if the organisers are getting their revenge over the numbers episode on Saturday. Overnight the jerseys are numbered, and the scoreboard notes the team 'has learned to count'.
Sculls moves the warm-up to the area in front of the south stand, reasoning that is where most of the support is. The crowd is certainly behind the side; beer-laden Englishmen behind the barriers cheering them on as if they are the national side, and Fijian supporters acclaiming anyone who may beat their South Pacific rivals.
At just 14 minutes in length, a Sevens match is almost over before it starts; in a tense opening Stark glides over for a try that Bealy converts; then a loose President's Seven pass results in a five-metre scrum to the Samoans; a blue shirt squeezes over to equalise. They increase their lead to 14 to seven with a second converted try; Sheas pegs the score back to within two points; a kick ahead bounces capriciously away from Tuvunivono near the opposition line; Stark goes off injured. Sleights cannot hold an interception with his first touch of the ball; Samoa score again and it is all over. Say goodbye President's Seven.
The farewell lap around the ground takes three times as long as the match. Despite the defeat spirits are justifiably high. Practically unsupported, and written off by most observers beforehand, they have performed better than any other northern hemisphere side and with minimal preparation.
Starky, Bealy and the Fijians settle into the players' stand, while the others do some serious beer-drinking in the hospitality boxes. Sleights discovers boxes of free T-shirts have been left in the dressing rooms and a scramble begins to pack them away. 'Great pulling tokens for tonight - three shirts for a snog!' Churches says.
Fitness is crucial to the later stages of any competition; in the case of the Hong Kong Sevens that means still being able to manage a night on the town after the official dinner at the Hilton ends. The 'best and fairest player' of the tournament celebrates his win by taking a girl up to his room; he leaves halfway through his labours for refreshments, but his companion takes umbrage when he returns with the team-mate sharing the hotel room.
MONDAY MARCH 28 Churches explains amid the debris of his hotel room that Joe Bananas had turned them away after they left the Hilton dinner, forcing a detour to The Jump. He got in at the third attempt, after a drink in the Castle, and finished with one for the road in the Big Apple at seven. Several members of the team are said to have marked their last night in Hong sharing their beds with women politely referred to as 'interesting' in appearance. 'It's been great; we've had a fantastic time,' Churches says. 'But I think I'm going to lie down for a little while again.' Churches, Roxy and Sculls manage lunch and brave a trip to Tsim Sha Tsui where Churchill unsuccessfully looks for an imitation Tag Heuer watch. The group walk up and down Nathan Road, and finally settle for four ties at a grand total of $40 each. Loll, Hoppers and Sheas have already made their way there, having visited Sam's for outsized orders of suits, jackets and ties.
'What a trip; I've never had so much snatch!' Sheas says.
'Yeah - it has been strong, real strong,' Churches affirms.