Moving the needle for rugby sevens international growth won’t be easy, even here in Hong Kong

The first all North American finals between Canada and the US at the Singapore Sevens barely registered both at home and abroad

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 6:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 7:49pm

So nobody cares, outside of the people who care, and, apparently, that is not too many. The first ever championship by Canada in a World Rugby Sevens Series after 18 years and 140 tournaments actually happened last weekend. They beat the United States in Singapore in the first all-North American sevens final. Still, for many in the sporting world, a Canadian victory over the US in Singapore admittedly doesn’t move the needle.

It should, in theory at least, because there was nothing fluky about it. Canada beat heavyweights England and New Zealand to make the finals, while the Yanks got there by knocking off Olympic gold medal powerhouse Fiji and completely dismantling Australia, who had just beaten runaway series leaders South Africa. Fiji, New Zealand, England and South Africa all losing before the finals just does not happen. But they did and despite the fact it was in a half empty stadium in Singapore cannot diminish the scope of these upsets from a pure sporting perspective.

Come on Hong Kong, you know that. I mean if we can’t understand and appreciate that here in the spiritual home of the modern sevens game then who can?

Of course, there are always extenuating circumstances when a blight of upsets of this magnitude occurs. Start with fact that the US are getting really good, really quick at this thing while Canada are developing nicely as well. On occasion they do beat the big boys. It’s just that the occasion is rarely ever in Sunday elimination matches. But far more ominous, it seems, is that the big boys of rugby sevens were afflicted by a malady that is quite common around here: Hong Kong hangover. There is no question that of the 10 stops on the series calendar Hong Kong is the absolute cat daddy, the Super Bowl of sevens. Players know it, organisers know it, fans know it and international ticket scalpers know it as well.

Despite the fact that there is now some local existential angst over the way that World Rugby is trying to strong-arm the event and wrestle control of it from the very people who made it great, nothing changes in terms of the scope of the Hong Kong Sevens. The Fijians, in particular, devote virtually all of their emotional and physical resources into this event. So a week after winning here in front of 40,000 rabid fans, a title that often precipitates island-wide celebrations in their home country, they show up in Singapore. Cavernous National Stadium in Singapore seats 55,000 and when it is half full still looks like an empty airport hangar. The atmosphere is, according to my colleague Sam Agars, “much like Singapore itself – sterile and conservative”. Coming from a rabid and festive event like Hong Kong, it’s quite natural for teams like Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa to suffer a letdown. Last year Kenya were the upset winners and this year it was Canada. Still, it’s important to remember these are virtually the exact same rosters that played in Hong Kong for all the teams. There is also no question that if the US team had made the finals in Hong Kong a week earlier, and they barely lost in the semis in extra time to South Africa, it would have had a much bigger impact internationally than the results in Singapore.

Usually, when Canada beats the US in anything it’s huge news in the Great White North, but somehow this win snuck under the radar. Of course the country is naturally consumed with its five NHL teams opening up the Stanley Cup play-offs and while there were pockets of coverage, it was relatively muted because this is not a rugby country. As an Olympic sport, sevens has some appeal but it is still a cycle or two away from being more than a curiosity. Throw in the fact that pictures from the event showed a plethora of empty seats and those Canadians who may have noticed were left to ask, what’s the score of the Maple Leafs game?

Here, in the ancestral home of modern sevens, the result should have resonated with much greater force because, presumably, we care about the game. Unless of course we only care about the event and if that is the case than the rugby overlords who are trying to hijack this tournament have much to worry about as they attempt to grow their sport globally. Despite its appearance at the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, maybe sevens appeal is provincial at its core. And maybe most locales, Hong Kong included, are provincial at their core as well.