Another Sevens in the Wall as the curtain falls on a weekend of thrills and spills in Hong Kong
The Sevens Series whirlwind blows through Hong Kong for another year
The “Mexicans” from the UK – three aircraft engineers and a resume writer – wrote their own ticket to the most topical outfit of the Sevens with suits like brick walls, proving that with a good idea, anyone can be a Hong Kong Sevens celebrity.
Some were sevens virgins, some old hands, but this troupe sitting beside a posse of punks older than Johnny Rotten had the crowd in their palms.
Sweltering in their suits that cost £39 on Ebay their armpits were damp, but never their spirits. It was hot, and it was ‘going off’ over on the lower east side near where the South Stand collides. “We were worried about spontaneous combustion,” said one.
And that’s exactly what happens to Hong Kong in Sevens week every year. It erupts, it ignites, it combusts, as rugby sevens passion burns deep in the soul. “It must be love,” to quote Madness.
The cauldron of Sevens Splendour in Happy Valley drew them in on Friday. Parents, punters, tourists and human torpedos trekking towards the pitch. There were corporates blazing a trail in navy blazers and designer ties, beside some bonkers dress-ups. And no one batted an eyelid.
By Saturday, it was a case of “who ate all the ties”. By Sunday afternoon, if any ties were still remaining, they may have been askew on heads, channelling Woodstock.
The Sevens is our rugby rock ‘n’ roll. To quote Madness who performed on the pitch on Saturday (and at the kick-off concert on Thursday night), It’s “our house, in the middle of our street. Our house, it has a crowd, there’s usually something happening, and it’s usually quite loud.”
For yet another almighty year, the Sevens held its ground in the mind of coaches, players, entourage and about 39,750 others as the best rugby tournament in the world.
In the Telstra corporate box, life was a certain augmented reality, with hi-tech interactive walls. In the BT Box, there was still a phone box on the door that would do Dr Who proud.
American IT guys from Singapore – clearly the IT crowd – could barely get to the toilet as selfies with the Sumos were the coveted ticket. Last year, they were dressed as six-foot babies on a stag weekend, showing a leap of faith by the bride.
All weekend ‘pilots’ peacocked into the stadium with spring well in the air and in their step because there’s something about putting on a (fake) uniform that makes you feel like you really are in a scene from An Officer and a Gentlemen.
Strutting with a certain je ne sais quoi, some looked more like Ali G and may need to rethink that much gold on the epaulettes. But others owned it.
There’s years of planning to get to the Sevens. There is pain, there is passion and there is the need for liniment and red cards. And this is before we’ve even discussed the action on the pitch.
All weekend rugby parents were getting up when some were getting home, apparently in a parallel universe.
As the refrain of Jumping Jack Flash, it’s a gas gas gasss pumped around the stadium, indeed it was just that. A gas. A solid rugby diet of pies and fried chicken for three days straight will do that to anyone.
And on the last wind, the Sevens blew over for another year. The bold, the brave and the beautiful, the brilliant, the colour, the coterie had faded into the well-kept memory bank of Sevens past.
The pumped in their prime, the mega fit have moved on to Singapore, but in a blink it will be same time next year in Hong Kong.
And we wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Sevens sucks you in
It’s a magnet, an enchanting state. Once you are caught in its vortex, it’s hard to escape.
Kerry McGlynn, 75, left town last year for retirement after two stints over 40-plus years here, but there’s no escaping the tournament’s charm.
His life has been an amazing ride, starting here in 1974. “I was poacher turned gamekeeper, giving up journalism having worked in Sydney, London and New York. It took a while to start afresh and absorb the new role working with the government’s Information Services Department.
“I started as a cadet journo before my 17th birthday. My mum wanted me to get into printing, but you had to read things backwards then, and get your hands covered in ink.”
Some of his career memories include doing international PR for the WTO ministerial conference in 2005 as a speech writer and press adviser. Following the adage that “the past is another country”, he was governor Chris Patten’s press secretary, serving the last governor before the handover.
McGlynn was also special adviser to John Slosar, the chairman of Swire and Cathay Pacific, and Tony Tyler, former Cathay chief executive.
Having given up his “funky 400-square foot flat in Soho”, McGlynn is now retired in Sydney, but says that after seeing more Sevens than he can remember, and being a legendary box-hopper, the tournament is in his blood.
With endless optimism for the sport, it’s clear McGlynn embodies French rugby player Jean Pierre Rives’ comment: “The whole point of rugby is that it is, first and foremost, a state of mind, a spirit.”
Mini rugby on the rise
There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour, wrote Charles Dickens. Living this mantra loud over the weekend was Case Everaert, Hong Kong Rugby Union’s director of youth rugby.
“We want to see a rugby ball in every school,” said the Dutchman. He was up early, on the pitch for the mini rugby games with more than one ball in the air helping make sure 2,500 kids had a good time.
His goal seems attainable given the trajectory of the growth of mini rugby. “Only a short while ago, we had only a handful of local primary schools on stream, now we have 150. Our target is 240 schools in 2019. We have a strong focus on primary schools to build a base from the grass roots.’’
The youngest kids are only part of the story. “We have a total of 120 secondary schools as part of our programmes, too.”
Not only has the local school contingent grown by about 300 per cent in the past three to four years, Hong Kong still holds the Guinness World Record for the most kids playing rugby in one tournament. “In 2010, we had 2,610 kids in 263 teams playing rugby at the same time in Happy Valley to achieve that. Now we break the record with bigger numbers than that playing across pitches at every mini rugby festival, held once a month.”
In total, 8,000 kids under 18 years of age play rugby in Hong Kong. The 5- to 12-year-old minis total 5,500 and the 12- to 18-year-old colts total 2,500, boys and girls.
While many were sleeping off the rigours of rugby week before it really kicked in, the Dutchman was flying all over the steamy spring pitch with an almost illegal amount of energy and a single-minded goal – to get kids outdoors having fun.
Love at first Sevens
Despite being from sports mad Netherlands and having lived in England from the age of nine, Annemiek Ballesty Alsem knew very little about rugby until she started university in Swansea in the mid-1990s.
“Swansea uni was and is still rugby mad,” says diminutive Annemiek, who was spotted over in the Marco Polo hotel box. “I spent my undergraduate years travelling to Loughborough, Cardiff Arms Park and Twickenham for the university finals and supporting the Welsh team. Some of the players studied with me. I was hooked and have loved it ever since.”
Casting her geographical net further afield, she married into a rugby-mad family and moved to Australia. “My husband took me to all the big games, including the England versus Australia World Cup game in 2003. With my strong English roots, I didn’t know who to cheer for,” says the vice-president of the Fossil Group, a fashion accessories brand.
“My husband’s uncle was a Wallaby, so rugby must be in my son’s DNA. When we moved to Hong Kong in 2009, he started playing for the DEA Tigers, now USRC.
“I always remember my first sevens. It was as exciting seeing my son Ryan on the pitch playing as it was seeing the men’s team play. I spent six years at DEA supporting Ryan and the club. I was seen on the cake stall, managing the medals and the lost children.
“I’ve been to every Sevens since I came here. I just turned 50 last week, and the Sevens is a pretty good way to celebrate it.”