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40 Years of the Hong Kong Sevens

How it all began: A jewel discovered

IN PICTURES: 40 years of the Hong Kong Sevens - part 1 (1976-1980). Join us for an eight-part romp through the SCMP archives looking at how the world-famous event grew from humble beginnings to become a phenomenon

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 March, 2015, 11:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 12:48pm

From humble beginnings in 1976, the Hong Kong Sevens has grown into the city's leading sports event, famed throughout the world. This year, as the tournament celebrates 40 years, we're taking a ride through the SCMP archives to see how the event became the jewel in the sevens crown. 

And if you see yourself or a friend in any of our pictures in our eight-part series, click here to enter your best memories of the Sevens and the most original/entertaining answers could win a pair of three-day tickets to this year’s Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens from March 27-29. 

Aptly, the idea for the Hong Kong Sevens was first mooted over a boozy lunch. 

Ian Gow, an executive with Rothmans Tobacco, wanted an event to promote his cigarettes – back in the days when using sport to sell one of the most unhealthy products around was the done thing.

He sold A.D.C Tokkie Smith, chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union and former captain, on the idea of inviting the world's best rugby teams to play in the city and the plan was duly hatched. Seven-a-side rather than 15s seemed easier both financially and logistically, and a proposal was sent off to the sport's chiefs at Twickenham.

The blazers at the RFU reacted with horror at this upstart competition, with its – gasp – commercial sponsorship. This was still years before the first Rugby World Cup and England wouldn't send a team to Hong Kong until the 90s. 

Undeterred, invites went round to top teams in the southern hemisphere and Pacific – the first 12 teams who competed at the old Hong Kong Football Club ground in Happy Valley were Indonesia, South Korea, Wallaroos (Australia), Cantabrians (New Zealand), Tonga, Japan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Fiji – with the tournament sponsored by Rothmans and Cathay Pacific.

"A kaleidoscope of colour" was how the SCMP reported on the first ever tournament in the paper of March 29, 1976, won by New Zealand side Cantabrians. One Sevens tradition – booing the Australians – seems to have been in place from the get-go, after a hard-fought battle with Fiji. 

"Smith leapt to his feet and tried to quieten the crowd, but he had as much success as Canute, and the incident certainly tarnished the image of the local fans," harrumphed the SCMP.

The Cantabrians, fielding three All Blacks, were far too strong for the Wallaroos in the final, while Hong Kong delighted the fans by beating Tonga in the Plate final.

The tournament returned in 1977, and was won by "the flair of those fantastic Fijians", the start of a long love affair between the island nation's rugby team and Hong Kong. 

"It's here to stay," declared Jock Campbell, promotions manager of Cathay Pacific – and how right he was.

That year saw the tournament on the SCMP's front page for a first time – albeit only three paragraphs – and it has been a perennial fixture of the sporting landscape ever since, to the point where the 40,000-seat Hong Kong Stadium could be sold twice over for this year's tournament.

1978 saw the tournament expand to 16 teams, with much more coverage in the SCMP – including a first-ever front page photo as Fiji retained their title. 

Hong Kong qualified for the knockout stages for the first time in 1979, won by Australia, while the 1980 tournament was more notable for the weather than anything else as Hong Kong suffered a biblical deluge.

"Farcical conditions," bemoaned the SCMP, even arguing "a player could conceivably have been drowned". 

Roll of honour

1976 Cantabrians (New Zealand) 24 - Wallaroos (Australia) 8 

1977 Fiji 28 - Marlborough (New Zealand) 18

1978 Fiji 14 - Manawatu (New Zealand) 10

1979 Australia 39 - Western Samoa 3 

1980 Fiji 12 - Scottish Co-Optimists 8

Don't forget to enter here if you see yourself or a friend in the first of our eight-part photo series. 

Part 2 is on Wednesday.