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Rugby Rules in Hong Kong on 'Sevens' Weekend

March 25, 1990|DAVID WISHART | Wishart is a free-lance writer living in Vancouver, B.C. and

HONG KONG — When William Webb Ellis invented the sport of rugby in 1823 by picking up a soccer ball and running with it, he had no idea that the ball would still be in the air more than 165 years later.

Nor could he have imagined that his rule-breaking initiative would one day lead rugby players from around the world to the Mad Dogs bar in Hong Kong, where they would sing, in enthusiastic if uncertain harmony, "Why Was He Born So Beautiful?"

Rugby, drinking and singing are virtually inseparable, a fact that is clearly evident in such strongholds of the game as Cardiff Arms Park in Wales, but equally plain during the annual Hong Kong international Sevens.

It was in 1975 that expatriate rugby fanatics hatched the idea of an international seven-a-side tournament over lunch at the Hong Kong Club. In less than a year, they had organized the first event.

Sponsors were found, including Cathay Pacific Airways, which flew in the 11 teams of seven men each, plus two spares and a manager.

The teams were from Fiji, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Tonga and Malaysia, plus Hong Kong. Spectators, not all of them rugby fans, were thrilled at the speed of the game--the fast running, swift passing and die-hard tackles.

The tournament quickly caught fire, growing first to 16 teams and then to today's 24, which include the United States and Canada.

Last year, the event--officially known as the Cathay Pacific/HongkongBank Invitation Sevens--attracted a sellout crowd of more than 30,000 fans to Government Stadium at So Kon Po.

This year's tournament, which features teams from Wales, West Germany, Soviet Union and the Arabian Gulf among the 24 invitees, will be held next weekend, March 31-April 1, and has been sold out for weeks.

Still, visitors to Hong Kong have a chance to participate in the festivities.

Pubs and restaurants will be filled with rugby followers, and all events except the post-tournament banquet for the teams are open to everyone. There is even the chance of a buying a late ticket, either through Cathay Pacific or the HongkongBank or perhaps at the stadium on one of the two game days. Ticket prices are about $27 U.S. for adults, $13.50 for children.

The Sevens, as it is known locally, is the biggest event on Hong Kong's busy sporting and social calendar. Throngs of business people schedule trips around that weekend, and sales meetings and conferences are conveniently arranged to coincide with the rugby tournament.

A well-connected tourist can expect invitations to lunch at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, golf at Fanling or the more exclusive Shek-O, drinks at the Hong Kong Cricket Club and dinner at the Hong Kong Club. The less well-connected can still enjoy the festivities at hotels and pubs that overflow with rugby fans from around the world.

New Zealanders, fanatical about rugby, come in droves regardless of whether employers or wives approve of the outing. The Kiwis, plus the large number of Australian expatriates in Hong Kong, put away a good share of the 30,000 pints of beer that is usually drunk in the course of the two-day event.

Not to be outdone for color and flair, many Hong Kong expatriates show up at the games in kilts, gaily striped rowing blazers, Cambridge rugby caps and Oxford bags.

Extravagant dogs such as Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds are paraded around with club ties, bandannas and straw hats.

A festival atmosphere reigns, people bump into old friends, they stop by one of the many company boxes and are offered cucumber sandwiches and a drink. Some bring picnic hampers, just as they would do back home at Twickenham, the game's shrine in England.

Before the matches begin, there is a parade of participants. This, too, can get raucous.

A Chinese pipe band leads the way, and the teams walk around the stadium to a tumultuous welcome. The Australians boo the Kiwis, the Kiwis boo the Aussies and everybody cheers emerging rugby nations such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Fiji, whose big men are bold runners, are crowd favorites. The Tongans are there, the Samoans, the men from Brunei and the Hong Kong squad.

The parade carries on with the Thais, a team from Taiwan, the American Eagles, and always a squad from Britain. This year, Wales is sending its national team.

The referees join the parade, living up to the old jibe that they are blind by walking around with white sticks and wearing dark glasses.

Then comes the play, two days of fast and furious rugby laced with moments of high drama and great emotion.

The effervescent Dutchmen have returned with one of their players in a wheelchair, the man having broken his neck at the previous year's tournament.

Against all expectations they win a runner-up's trophy, and there is hardly a dry eye in the stadium when the Dutch captain gives the award to his crippled teammate.

The previous year's tournament featured a romantic touch masterminded by, naturally, a Frenchman.

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