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Waisale Serevi: 'Without Hong Kong Sevens there would be no Olympic Sevens. It’s everything.'

By Jon Newcombe
This picture taken on April 7, 2019, shows fans attending the third day of the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament. - The Hong Kong Sevens will soon bid farewell to its home of nearly 40 years, as organisers eye a major facilities upgrade to dovetail with World Rugby's Asian expansion plans. (Photo by ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY RUGBYU-SEVENS-HKG-STADIUM BY SEAN GLEESON (Photo credit should read ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images)

Ticket sorted. Fancy dress sorted. Party head on!

For those lucky enough to be heading to the Cathay/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens, on 5-7 April, this year’s event should be even more memorable than any that have gone before in the last half a century – and that takes some doing, given its sporting bucket-list reputation as Mardis Gras meets rugby.

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Organisers Hong Kong China Rugby are celebrating 30 years in the iconic Hong Kong Stadium in So Kon Po, and looking ahead to a move to their future home a short distance away in the shiny new 50,000-capacity Kai Tak Sports Park, which includes 24 changing rooms, as befits an event for both genders and elite and invitational teams alike.

In time, the Kai Tak Sports Park’s 50,000-capacity stadium might gain a place in the superbly illustrated ‘Remarkable Rugby Grounds’, written by Ryan Herman. But while its facilities promise to be amazing, for now at least, the Hong Kong Stadium, which is one of 80 entries in the book, is literally the only all-singing, all-dancing rugby venue in town.

Although the tournament had humble beginnings at Hong Kong Football Club, since the first full tournament at Hong Kong Stadium in 1994, it has been a place where lifelong memories and friends have been made, and one of the tournament’s biggest entertainers, David Campese, who goose-stepped his way to two titles and the Player of the Tournament award in the 1980s, says people whose paths he first crossed in Hong Kong keep popping up all over the place.

Speaking to RugbyPass, the Wallaby legend said: “Not long ago, I was in Sri Lanka and this lady came up to me and said I met you in 1983 at the Hong Kong Sevens. That happens wherever you go in the world. A lot of people have been going for years and years and years, so it is an iconic thing to do.”

Campese will be one of the old stars returning to the Hong Kong Stadium to celebrate its 30th anniversary, with the tournament organisers billing this year’s event as ‘The Greatest Hits’. He appeared in the first of his 12 tournaments in 1983, the year after he was first capped by the Wallabies, and is not alone in launching his career there. One of the biggest examples in every sense of the word is Jonah Lomu, who first served notice to the rugby world of his game-changing qualities a year before he became a global superstar at Rugby World Cup 1995.

Waisale Serevi
HONG KONG, CHINA: Waisale Serevi (L) holds up his four-year-old son Waisale Serevi Jr as the Fiji team celebrates with the trophy after winning the Melrose Cup at the Hong Kong Rugby World Cup Sevens, 20 March 2005. Fiji beat New Zealand 29-19 to take the 2005 Rugby Sevens World Cup title. AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images)
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The tournament will, though, be forever associated with one man, Waisale Serevi, the ‘King of Sevens’. He was another who burst onto the international sevens scene there, winning the Most Valuable Player award as a 20-year-old at his debut tournament in 1989 – 10 years before the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series was launched.

The Cathay/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens also pre-dated other marquee sevens tournaments like Rugby World Cup Sevens, which he won twice in Hong Kong in 1997 and 2005, and took place long before the sport became part of the Olympics movement and Commonwealth Games.

“I lost the Hong Kong Sevens in 1989, then in 1990, I achieved my goal of making people happy, we won, it was a public holiday, because we’d won the biggest sevens tournament in the world,” Serevi said in a recent interview in The Rugby Journal.

“Without the Hong Kong Sevens, there would be no Serevi,” he says. “Without Hong Kong Sevens there would be no HSBC Sevens series. Without Hong Kong Sevens there would be no Olympic Sevens. It’s everything.”

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Instantly recognisable, the Hong Kong Stadium has sky-scrapers at one end and sky-high levels of fun at the other. With a sea of fancy dress and hedonistic vibes, the alcohol-fuelled South Stand is as notorious as any part of any rugby ground in the world.

“The saying goes that, if you get bored, you can turn around and watch the rugby,” laughs Hong Kong China Rugby’s CEO Robbie McRobbie, who is preparing for his last Cathay/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.

“And there’s more than an element of truth in that. It’s Hong Kong’s Mardi Gras and people come because they want to let their hair down, and they just want to have fun.”

At the Hong Kong Sevens, it is impossible to go a weekend without smiles and belly-aching laughter.

“A lot of stuff that we’ve done has been a bit tongue in cheek,” explains Robbie. “There’s always been a lot of humour about the stuff we’ve done, whether it’s been having David Hasselhoff here or kung fu rugby or Sébastien Chabal dressed as a caveman – there’s always been an awful lot of humour. And that’s reflected in the fancy dress ethos too.”

On what will be an emotionally charged weekend anyway, for McRobbie it will be doubly so. With the most Scottish of names, there is no doubt where McRobbie is from but his heart is in Hong Kong, having spent the last couple of decades working for the union.

“I arrived as a 21-year-old police officer in 1992 and so my first few sevens was in the South Stands as a punter,” he explains. “Coming out to Hong Kong was an adventure, but then finding sevens took it to the next level.”

As Bryan Rennie, General Manager Hong Kong Sevens, points out there is only one party in town for three days in April.

“The whole city buys into it, that sevens fever,” he says. “You can see that around the bars and restaurants, all the corporates buy into it, and there is obviously a huge amount of fancy dress within the stadium. It’s a thirsty crowd, that’s for sure.

“It puts rugby on the map, it is a huge strategic push for us to try and grow the game locally and within Asia and the tournament definitely helps us do that.”

While the enduring success of the Hong Kong Sevens means it never needs to reinvent itself to appeal to the masses, Rennie and his staff are always looking at ways of improving the experience.

Across the weekend, there will be several live acts including Canto Pop band Lolly Talk, America’s Got Talent finalist Celine Tam, top reggae band The Wailers and Sunday Journey lead singer, Arnel Pineda, who was discovered in the bars and clubs of Hong Kong.  On Friday, there will be a DJ set performed by former England star and Cathay/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens ambassador James Haskell.

Haskell is not the only DJ to be known to Cathay/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens. All Blacks Sevens’ long-standing captain, DJ Forbes also mixed it with the best at the event, which has been a key event in the World Series since its inception.

“For me, Hong Kong definitely had a certain aura about it, it was basically the World Cup of the World Series. Every athlete for every country wanted to be involved,” says Forbes, who won every trophy there was to be won during a stellar sevens career.

“I know in those early days there was a cash prize up for grabs and also at one stage, double points, so it definitely made for a spectacle.

“Given it’s likely to be the last time that it is played there, there is going to be a lot of excitement and a fair bit of tension to get that last victory in the famous Hong Kong Stadium, so I am really stoked to be involved and I am looking forward to being back in April.”

With both the men’s and women’s teams playing inside the stadium and a host of subsidiary tournaments planned to run alongside the main event, the Hong Kong Stadium is going to celebrate its 30th in style.

Rennie is confident though that the unique spirit of the stadium will be kept alive once the move across the Bay does take place.

“It’s been our home for so long, the ground holds some great memories, and a special spirit runs within the Hong Kong Stadium. But, at the same time, there was an opportunity for us to move over to Kai Tak to an incredible, really smart stadium that has fantastic facilities – a retractable roof, an additional 10,000 elevated seats, bars and hotels on-site, as well as additional facilities outside like bigger training pitches.

“So it is a hugely exciting time in Hong Kong in the Greater Bay area for sports and entertainment.”

To find out more or book your tickets for the 2024 Hong Kong Sevens, visit hksevens.com

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