Walking along Queen’s Road Central in downtown Hong Kong this past Monday morning, there were a lot of hoarse voices and rueful smiles. Overheard more than once was the teasing comment, “I see you survived the Sevens.” For non-ruggers out there (or loyal rugby league fans), the Sevens refers to the HSBC Hong Kong Rugby Sevens: a 3-day frenzy of international 7-a-side rugby, hilarious costumes, socializing, networking, and of course, inevitable hoarse voices.
The first thing to know about the Sevens is the reason behind the name. Standard rugby, known as rugby union, has 15 players per team and 40 minutes halves; sevens rugby has—you guessed it—7 players per team and 7 minute halves. Although the rules are essentially the same, sevens rugby is a lot more exciting: it’s faster-paced, with more scoring, and is ultimately unpredictable. If this is the first you’ve heard of sevens rugby, keep your eyes peeled. Just last year the sport was entered into the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, a HUGE victory for sevens fans and sponsors. We’ll be hearing a lot more about this exciting sport in years to come.
Favorites to win the Hong Kong Sevens this year were Fiji and New Zealand (who beat England in the Cup finals last year) and sure enough, the nail-biting final had these two teams pitched against each other as the crowd rose to its feet, some climbing on top of the seats in nervous expectation. Although there were plenty of New Zealanders among the fans (and many more hoping for a Kiwi win to see the infamous Haka), the teeny tiny island nation of Fiji rallied many more to its cause as the underdog and the promise of a new reigning champion. With a roaring crowd behind them, the Fijians went on to beat New Zealand by a single try, with a final score of 35-28.
Check out the videos below for the 7 best plays of the tournament (including a Fiji try against the All Blacks [NZ]) and the New Zealand Haka from last year’s victory.
Held at the end of March every year, fans of all ages and from all over the world descend upon Hong Kong just for the Sevens (two WildChina staff included) and the 40,000 seat Hong Kong Stadium sells out within hours–tickets go on sale in January. There are more teams competing than at other International Rugby Board (IRB) Sevens Series events (24 instead of 16), and this year, victory for some teams at the Hong Kong Sevens will enter them into the core 15 countries competing on the international circuit. All this, in addition to it’s party-like carnival reputation, means the Hong Kong Sevens is by far the most popular rugby event in Asia with tickets notoriously hard to get.
Over the weekend, WildChina took a break from the rugby to speak with anthropologist Joseph Bosco at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has been doing research into rugby culture and the Hong Kong Sevens, to better understand how a sports event held in Hong Kong became so immensely popular (because, let’s face it, rugby is not usually what springs to mind when you think of the Chinese urban metropolis).
Bosco says the sport itself, the nature of sevens rugby is “ideal for socializing, since it has spans of intense action and excitement along with half-time breaks (two minutes), and pauses between games (about five minutes). The Sevens game fits the Hong Kong pace of life and attention span. In Hong Kong [time] is scarce; while everyone else in the rugby world enjoys an 80-minute game, the city has shortened it to just 14 minutes.”
“Sevens is also easier to understand…it’s a more open game. Spectators can see the ball almost all the time, and they can see players form lines of defense, and though they may not understand how the gap was created, they can easily see the player spurt through a hole in the line to break away into open field, do a side-step on the hapless halfback, and score. Even someone who has never before seen rugby can understand the basics of sevens rugby.”
Finally, he says, “the Hong Kong Sevens means different things to different people, but the different meanings complement each other and have synergy. Spectators who come for the party also learn to enjoy the rugby. Rugby fans who come for the athletic contest also enjoy the festive atmosphere. And the businesspeople who come for branding and networking can do their work more effectively and pleasantly thanks to the party and the rugby.”
As you can see above, at the Hong Kong Sevens this “festive atmosphere” and “party” translates into one thing: costumes. The more hilarious and outrageous, the better and we definitely have our favorites from this weekend:
With 24 countries competing, the chance that you have a personal stake in every game is next to zero, which means that fans usually pick a team for that game to support, lending a friendly air to the event. The one exception is when Hong Kong plays—the stadium as a whole pitches itself behind Hong Kong. This year Hong Kong fielded one of the best teams in years, emerging from their pool undefeated (beating Uruguay, Tonga, and China). Hong Kong was competing to enter the core 15 international sevens teams which would have made them the first professional sevens team Hong Kong has seen. The majority of the boys on the Hong Kong team came out of the Hong Kong youth rugby programs, making their eventual loss to Japan even more devastating for them and local Hong Kong fans.
WildChina got in touch with former Hong Kong sevens and fifteens (union) player, and poster boy for Hong Kong rugby, Andy Yuen, to hear his thoughts on the Hong Kong Sevens. Yuen is currently the assistant coach to the Hong Kong Women 7s team, and much like the current Hong Kong team, he came up through the local rugby program. “Playing for the Hong Kong team in the Hong Kong Sevens was my dream, and I made the dream come true. I started watching the Sevens when I was a little boy playing mini rugby and to step on the pitch in front of the home crowd was a really special moment. I also think Hong Kong Sevens is the best Sevens tournament in the world. Players put on their best performance here…[and] for the crowd, it’s not only a rugby match to watch, it is also a 3 day party.”
This next weekend Hong Kong is heading to the first ever Tokyo Sevens and Yuen thinks, “Hong Kong has a good chance to do well and build on what they achieved in the Hong Kong Sevens. They had a good tournament here and it was unfortunate to go out they way they did and I am sure that will be extra motivation for them to try and beat some of the ‘big teams’ in the tournament to stake their claim.”
Finally, whether you are already an avid fan or not, these last statistics from the Hong Kong Tourism Board will really pique your interest in the Sevens phenomenon: A Hong Kong Tourism Board survey of the 2011 Hong Kong Sevens found that 73 percent of spectators were previous attendees, 97 percent of them said they would recommend the event to relatives and friends, and 90 percent of them planned to return this year for the 2012 Hong Kong Sevens. Says Bosco, “The event is such a social event that “See you at the Sevens” is widely heard in March.”
With that many loyal and returning fans, we can only hope that the Hong Kong Sevens will continue to grow. If you’re planning a trip to Hong Kong, March is most definitely the time to do it. With or without Sevens tickets, the weather is perfect—winter is over and the humid monsoon season is about a month away—and the city is alive with an almost overwhelming energy of excitement, camaraderie, and expectation.
Maybe you’ll be saying it to us next year: “See you at the Sevens!”
Interested in traveling to Hong Kong for the Sevens in 2013? Do not hesitate to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.