Outgoing Hong Kong rugby president Brian Stevenson happy with the state of the union after meteoric rise
The Scot bowed out after 15 years in the job having began his association with the game in the city at the sevens in 1976
Brian Stevenson couldn’t possibly have dreamed of the success story Hong Kong rugby has become during his long association with the local game.
The Scot first got involved behind the scenes in the 1970s after a car accident meant he had to stop playing, and has occupied just about every role in the game’s governance over the past 40 years.
As treasurer he closed the books on the first Hong Kong Sevens in 1976, which made a modest profit of HK$6,000.
After some wrangling with the sponsors, the union got to keep the money – and as the sevens has grown into the city’s biggest sporting event since, that precedent laid the foundations for rugby becoming perhaps the best-funded sport in the city.
As he bowed out after 15 years as president, he looked back with well-earned pride on the game’s rise – and with some happiness that he’s avoided the fates of predecessors.
“When I came in as president way back in 2001 one of the things I said in my speech was, ‘This president intends to walk out with his boots on and not be carried out,’” smiles the 72-year-old.
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“My predecessor, a wonderful gentleman, Gerry Forsgate, 21 years in the job, unfortunately passed away in the job – and his predecessor Vernon Roberts, who headed Hong Kong Land, he too after 11 years in the job was carried out.
“I now reflect on it and say should you have been in job so long, you didn’t ask for it, people asked you to stay there, that sort of thing, I’m but very happy to be giving opportunity to one of my colleagues to be president. I’m so happy Peter [Duncan] is my successor.”
After coming to Hong Kong from Scotland as a young accountant, Stevenson has held – and still does – senior positions at most every major institution in the city, but you feel his long association with rugby might be the one he’ll look back on most fondly in his semi-retirement.
“I was very lucky ... I was appointed the treasurer way back in ’76 and my first job was to close the books on the first rugby sevens – nobody expected it to make a profit, we made a tiny profit, and I’ve been involved one way or another since,” he says.
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“The rugby sevens remains critically important to us. That’s where our money came from to enable us to invest in rugby. When I became chairman at my final AGM in the eighties the one thing we got through was the development plan and the approval of the financial resources because we had built them up over many years, we had the cash now ready to go.
“That to me was the beginning of what’s been achieved and a from where lot of it flows ... if I look at where rugby is now, many of us have been involved for years and couldn’t have believed what’s been achieved.”
Stevenson recalls a pre-handover South China Morning Post headline prematurely declaring rugby’s demise after ’97. It wasn’t the first and won’t be the last time we got something very wrong.
“It was ‘the end of rugby’ – we’d lost the military forces, lost the expat police, we were a goner,” he says.
“No. So many people came back, young Chinese formed a lot of the Chinese clubs, and then development of the mini rugby programme with vast numbers of locals.
“You see a lot of the things we dreamt about – more than dreamt about, we planned – we had to get it into the schools, we achieved that. It’s in the schools, it’s in the universities, it’s in the disciplined forces ... and women’s rugby is very strong too.
“There’s so much rugby getting played at all levels and that was part of the plan – if we’re going to be successful you have to have a strong international element as well so that the kids can aspire to that.
“I really believe that we achieved that with the sevens and hopefully we’ll see things with the fifteens.”
Stevenson modestly points to the “small part” Hong Kong played in sevens becoming an Olympic sport, though World Rugby’s chief executive told the Post in Rio that it was absolutely crucial.
The rise of the late Beth Coalter from the Hong Kong Rugby Union to one of the most admired and influential women in world rugby, and sevens becoming the first team sport to qualify for the Sports Institute also fill him with satisfaction.
But one of his proudest achievements is the Union’s decision to go ahead with the sevens in the midst of Sars. At a time of panic in the city, it was a defiant, morale-boosting stand.
“We got a lot of criticism, letters to the editor and what have you, but I can assure you behind the scenes it was not taken lightly,” he says.
“That’s where the role of the president can help, when the boys needed contact with senior people in the community you can help.
“We had to go right to the top of the government to get them involved in what was happening. For about 10 days we briefed the visiting sides’ consuls general daily at the Hong Kong Club .
“Mr Tung [Chee-hwa, then Hong Kong chief executive] himself came down, there was a photo of himself and me on SCMP’s front page. It was good for Hong Kong.”
And as he steps back, Stevenson says there’s every reason to believe the next four decades will see Hong Kong rugby go from strength to strength.
“I think it’s in great shape,” he says. “We’re very strong, we’ve built up the finances and we’ve got our strategic plans.
“We’re putting more emphasis now on 15s and we can afford that and lets see how we do ... I believe that our future is just a matter of pushing further.”