We spent an entire weekend in Hong Kong Stadium watching rugby, as the world’s best teams (and several of the world’s mediocre teams) competed for the coveted HK Sevens Cup. England were the hot favourites, having won the Sevens for the last two years and the Rugby World Cup last year, but New Zealand are always highly fancied, and Argentina were looking good too. Of course, I was supporting New Zealand – it’s something to do with my genetic make-up. (Though I don’t usually wear make-up.)
Actually, I had another reason for hoping England wouldn’t win – their fans like to sing, and their enthusiasm is matched only by their tunelessness. And why do they choose “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” as their theme song? It has as much to do with rugby as it has with inorganic chemistry. I guess they’re not called the Barmy Army for nothing.
The Sevens rugby games are played by teams of seven, in two seven-minute halves. This makes for a pretty fast-paced game. The first day’s games were all “pool matches”, designed to sort the teams into grades for the finals. There were lots of one-sided games between big fish (NZ, England, Australia, South Africa, etc.) and minnows (Chinese Taipei [sic], Singapore, etc., and of course the hosts Hong Kong). There were quite a few scores in the 50-nil range, with no unexpected results.
We noticed early on who the crowd favourites were. Hong Kong drew cheers for being the home team, New Zealand for being good at rugby, and England for being England. (It was a somewhat partisan crowd, as sporting crowds so often are.) Australia got a few boos (from the English, I think), but the team the crowd loved to hate was France. When they made a mistake – BOOOO! When they scored – BOOOO! When their name was mentioned – BOOOO! Hard not to feel sorry for them, really.
A lot of the crowd noise came from the infamous South Stand, a big open-air stand where alcohol flowed freely and groups of bizarrely-dressed rugby fans (and a lot of alcohol fans) partied all day long. At any given moment there were usually a few giant inflatable balls crowd-surfing. The security guards took the balls away a few times (were they dangerous?) but eventually joined in the ball-bouncing fun. Between games it was amusing to just watch the South Stand Crowd. I still don’t know why that one group all had watermelons on their heads. Perhaps I never will.
The second day featured more pool matches, and the first upset. Fiji are always considered an exciting team, showing great flair but lacking in stamina for the finals. But the plucky Canadians managed to beat them narrowly in a very exciting match, qualifying for the Cup final along with the top teams. They fully earned their standing ovation.
The other outstanding result was that France failed to qualify for the Cup final. The crowd, of course, were delighted. Their match against Scotland was probably the best of the tournament – Scotland scored during the final play, then kicked a difficult goal to equalise, and finally scored in the sudden-death extra time to win. I don’t know what the crowd liked more – the exciting finish, Scotland winning, or France losing.
All thorough the tournament, sponsors were handing out free toys – inflatable hats, inflatable hands (to wave when somebody scores), toy rugby balls and frisbees. Most of these got thrown into the field during the matches, often at French players.
Finals day had much more atmosphere. We arrived in time for the team parade, featuring all the teams, lots of little rugby-playing kids, and marching bands. Here the crowd entered the spirit of competition – the tubas in the marching bands were the ideal target for the small toy rugby balls. Down they rained on the poor tuba players, and we saw a few bullseyes. The tuba players were quite expert at plucking them out – it was almost as if they’d done it before.
Along with the teams, the referees paraded too. It was a nice touch to see them all carrying white sticks, confirming the suspicion held by every true rugby fan.
So for finals day, the teams had been organised into three groups – the Cup competition for the top teams, the Plate competition for the best of the rest, and the Bowl competition for the others. I’m sure there’s a hilarious joke about table settings to be made here, but not by me.
The results mostly went as expected. Canada battled bravely but unsuccessfully and most of the favoured teams won. South Africa beat Australia early on (sadly for my Australian companions) and even more shockingly, Argentina beat New Zealand in the Cup semi-final. Everyone was a bit disappointed, because New Zealand are an exciting team to watch. Just wait till next year.
The first final was the Bowl final between Japan and the Cook Islands. Difficult to choose for me, since I recently lived in Japan, while the Cook Islands are more or less part of New Zealand, my home country. I chose to cheer for Japan, the underdogs, which meant of course that they lost. Gambarimashita – they tried their best.
The Plate final between France and Scotland presented no problems of loyalty for me, after four years in Scotland. I think the whole crowd supported Scotland, purely for not being France. This was a good match, and happily Scotland won. They seemed very happy. Impressively, during the Plate presentation, the crown was still able to rustle up a decent BOOOO! for the French team.
Amidst all the games, we were entertained by zillions of brightly-dressed kids doing an interpretive dance, evoking the spirit of international cooperation and rugby, or something.
The final final pitted the favourites – England – against the surprise package – Argentina.
Argentina and England were at war only 20-odd years ago, so feelings were running high. Argentina scored first and were looking good, but England’s trump card was their star winger Richard Whatsisname, who wore a grey helmet and ran like a greyhound. He was the player of the tournament for sure. With his help, and a rousing chorus of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, England scored and scored again to become the first Northern hemisphere team to win the Sevens three years in a row.
So the final whistle went off, the crowd went wild, and we went for dinner. It’s only a game, after all.