Concerted effort to curb binge drinking among youth at Rugby Sevens

Event has amassed many traditions over 40 years including drinking to excess

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 6:07am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 8:41am

Plastic beer jugs flying over the South Stand and days of hedonistic partying are mental images of the excesses that have come to be associated with the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. But as the event celebrates its 40th anniversary, some contend the Sevens have grown up and evolved into a family event.

For one thing, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union no longer allows beer jugs and under-18s into the South Stand. The HKRFU has also made concerted efforts with partners such as KELY Support Group in the past few years to help young people make healthy choices at the Sevens.

Dance instructor Melissa Thornton, who has kept Sevens crowds entertained between matches as a roving presenter in past years, lauds efforts to curb excessive drinking and other positive changes.

"I am especially proud that the event has grown from a male-dominated, Western-cultured occasion, to the family-oriented event it is today," she says. "This certainly hasn't [lessened] the fun for which the Sevens is renowned; however, controls have improved and should continue to be improved so that everyone can enjoy themselves in a safe environment."

It's also important the event retain its local flavour, she adds, and the HKRFU do a great job organising children's rugby matches to showcase local clubs.

With his 12-year-old daughter, Anjalika, in youth squads such as Peninsula Dragons Under-14 girls, lawyer Ralph Ybema concedes the drinking culture among players gives him cause for concern.

"Mercifully, the drinking is not yet the norm in my daughter's age group, but the moment will come, I am sure," he says. "Whether she will have the stomach for it while an active player is very much the question. As one of the faster players among her peers, she will not be able to afford a hangover, at the peril of losing the edge she has on the pitch."

That's why Ybema is less concerned at the prospect of his daughter starting to experiment with alcohol in a rugby team environment.

"I am sure there is peer pressure on rugby youngsters to drink and sometimes even drink more than is good for them. However, on balance I believe that the framework the sport offers is a much better one for that peer pressure to be exercised than most of the alternatives kids are likely to encounter. And with the 'morning after' punishment felt more acutely than in most other sports, I could not wish for a better system of corrective action."

Robbie McRobbie, general manager of rugby operations for HKRFU, knows what is at stake when it comes to youth.

"We are working very hard to be at the forefront of 'Sport for Development' in Hong Kong, which basically means using sport as a medium to tackle social issues," he says.

Health education is a key part of all this, and that's why they have been collaborating with KELY Support Group, most visibly around the Sevens, to support young people in making informed choices, particularly in relation to alcohol and drugs.

Creating a family atmosphere is an important part of the Sevens now, he says.

"We have a mini-rugby community of more than 5,500 boys and girls aged four to 11 years, many of whom participate in the mini-showcase games at the start of each day at the Sevens," McRobbie says.

And in the week leading up to the event, overseas teams also help reach out to the youth community, visiting schools and local rugby clubs.

KELY launched the Save Our Sevens programme in 2012 in partnership with HKRFU. The aim is to provide a safe environment for young people at the event by helping them make informed choices about binge drinking and providing support for those who may be inebriated.

"KELY's main objective at the Sevens is not to stop youth from drinking, but to provide support and reduce harm from binge drinking," says Victoria Wong, its communications co-ordinator.

Messages developed in a youth-friendly style (Don't Up & Chunder, for example) also help keep the issues in mind. Additional measures this year include a hydration campaign, with 60 volunteer "water ambassadors", who will go around providing free water as well as counselling or even medical support if needed.

KELY's objective ... is to provide support and reduce harm from bingeing
Victoria Wong, communications chief

The group have also set up a lounge where young people can hang out, and a tent where teenagers who may be dehydrated or suffering the ill-effects of drinking can rest.

KELY will also host Batak games, a fun fitness activity that can be used to test reaction time and hand-eye coordination. "Participants will be able to assess how their judgment and reaction time are being affected by the alcohol they may consume," Wong says.

Teacher and parenting counsellor Marie Marchand, whose two sons grew up playing rugby and are Sevens regulars, understands that families want to enjoy the event and know that their children are safe in the stands. Parents could talk to their children about the potential consequences of alcohol abuse before the event, but Marchand believes the most effective way is for parents to stay in contact with the youngsters at the stadium throughout the day.

"Sit with them or close by to watch the games or, at least, make sure they know where you are sitting so that they can find you if they need help," she says. "If that is not happening ... use binoculars."

Another idea is not give children too much money so that they have to come to parents more frequently. "So when you see them, you can judge the state they are in and if they are drinking or not," Marchand says.

Other suggestions include inviting the youngster and their friends for lunch, and make sure everyone goes home together.