As Patten sailed into the sunset, up stepped Serevi as the new ‘governor’ of Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s destiny changed in 1997 with its return to the motherland and so did Fiji’s as Waisale Serevi inspired the tiny nation to World Cup Sevens glory
The year of 1997 was not only a momentous one for Hong Kong but also Fiji as it forever changed the destiny of the tiny island nation.
“A part of Hong Kong is for Fiji, I believe,” Waisale Serevi told the Post, 20 years on from winning the Rugby Sevens World Cup. “It not only holds a special place in my heart but all of the Fijians’ hearts.”
Serevi’s inspirational performances at the tournament – scoring 117 points, including nine tries, over the three days – mean he and Fiji will be forever linked with Hong Kong.
The winds of change were in the air for both two decades ago, when governor Chris Patten watched in the stadium as Serevi lifted the Melrose Cup on March 23, 1997.
Just over three months later on June 30, Patten would depart Government House for Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia, during a two-day handover ceremony that officially marked the transfer of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China.
While Serevi also departed Hong Kong after that triumph, he never truly left.
When the Post called the 48-year-old before the start of this weekend’s tournament, the sun had barely risen in Seattle, Washington where he lives.
“I always wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning to go to the gym,” he said, laughing, when I apologised for such a rude awakening.
He is now running children’s training camps in the United States with the company he founded, Atavus Rugby.
Such dedication to growing the game is rooted in his own modest upbringing in Fiji, where rugby was still an amateur sport; he did not have a television to watch matches, so listened on a transistor radio.
Serevi recalled the joyous scenes after Fiji’s famous 1977 victory in Suva over the British & Irish Lions, who were on their way home from a 3-1 series defeat in New Zealand.
“I said to myself, maybe rugby makes people happy in Fiji, so I want to play rugby and make people happy,” he said.
It was that same year four decades ago, when Fiji won their first Hong Kong Sevens, that Serevi’s and Fiji’s lifelong love affair with Hong Kong was born.
“When Fiji wins the Hong Kong Sevens, it is the best 12 months for all of us,” he said. “And when Fiji loses it is the worst 12 months coming up for all of us.”
When he made his Hong Kong Sevens debut for Fiji 12 years later, the 1.7-metre 20-year-old did not know he would become the face of the tournament for the next decade and more.
“Hong Kong is where Waisale Serevi started in 1989 – this whole world knew that there is a little Fijian making the big people look funny in Hong Kong,” he said, chuckling again.
Player of the tournament Serevi returned with beaten semi-finalists Fiji in 1990 to win the first of three consecutive Hong Kong Sevens titles.
Fast forward to the Rugby Sevens World Cup final in 1997, and they stood on the brink of an even greater achievement.
Their opponents, South Africa, had demolished everyone in their path and boasted Joost van der Westhuizen and Andre Venter from their 1995 World Cup-winning squad.
“We told the boys they are bigger and they are stronger, but we are fitter and we are quicker,” said Serevi.
As Fiji came out to warm up, South Africa’s players were already there.
“I knew in my mind it was psychological they were warming up on our end,” said Serevi. “A lot of people said, ‘Do you want to go to the other area?’ I said no, we don’t want to lose the first battle. Let’s warm up together here.”
The little magician then looked into a sea of faces in the stands and saw the inspiration that would change history – a sign that read “Take it home Fiji”.
“I told the boys the fans believe in us,” he said. “They represent all the fans not coming to the Sevens this year. It’s now that we believe in ourselves or not.
“Play like it’s the last game of your life – to me the result doesn’t matter. What matters is how you work on the field. You can only be disappointed with people who don’t do the job when the opportunity is there.”
When Fiji found themselves 14-0 down inside four minutes after Venter’s second try, Serevi delivered another pep talk under the posts.
“We knew before half-time we need to score one,” said Serevi. “We had to test them when we had the ball so that we had some confidence. We had to use our width.”
A minute before the break, Fiji got the ball out to wing Marika Vunibaka, who burned the chasing South Africa players to score.
Tries from Luke Erenavula and Lemeki Koroi put Fiji 19-14 up soon after the break, before Koroi crossed again. Fiji held on for victory.
“We won the cup because of our emotions, thinking of all the people back home,” said Serevi.
“A four-year wait paid off. I promised the people in Fiji, especially the kids, I promised my family, this year was our year, that we bring back the Melrose Cup.”
Serevi is grateful to HSBC for allowing him to keep returning to his spiritual home at the Hong Kong Sevens in an ambassadorial role.
“It would be amazing to jump under the posts one more time this year,” he said, laughing. “As long as there is no one else on the field!”
Some things never change.