Thursday, March 28, 2003, and noted Australian commentator Chris “Buddha” Hardy asks for quiet from the players and spectators gathered at the Hong Kong Football Club for its annual tens tournament.

“I have an announcement from the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union. The 2003 Hong Kong Sevens will go ahead as planned.”

The response was one of relief and euphoria though as the afternoon progressed it was tempered by the fact that all mini-rugby and youth rugby at the event would be canceled and that children would only be admitted with parental consent.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) had earlier that day led the Rolling Stones to cancel their two shows planned for the weekend and there had been rumors that the Sevens — the “Jewel in the Crown” of the International Rugby Board’s sevens circuit — would follow suit.

After consultations with the government, health officials and tournament organizers it was eventually decided that the tournament would go ahead as planned — much to the relief of the many thousands of rugby fans who had flown in from overseas.

“We have taken measures to meet our international obligations and to the teams and ticket holders. We leave the choice of attending up to the individual but we remain confident of a safe, exciting and enjoyable Hong Kong Sevens,” said John Molloy, chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union.

In addition to installing more sanitary facilities the HKRFU also said that full ticket refunds would be available to those not feeling comfortable attending Hong Kong Stadium and that it would also provide 50,000 free face masks (“which will become collector’s items,” quipped Hardy, as he explained the conditions under which the tournament would proceed).

Of course, with hindsight, there are those that argue that the tournament should have been canceled, particularly in light of the fact that the disease has continued to spread and that health officials are still puzzled as to how the virus actually spreads. Indeed the tournament that followed Hong Kong — Beijing, slated for April 5 and 6 — was canceled the following day and Singapore (slated for April 26 and 27) was postponed indefinitely soon after.

“Hong Kong gave us and the teams assurances that China was unable to offer,” said Mark Egan, Sevens manager at the IRB.

“Traveling was a risk that we were not prepared to take. A few teams were happy to go but a number were not,” added Egan — well known to Japanese rugby fans having spent a number of years playing for Kobe Steel in the 1990s.

The decision to go ahead with the tournament must have been a difficult one to reach, given the fact that so many people had already made the journey to the former British colony and bearing in mind that the event came at the end of tumultuous year for the rugby community in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Sevens first took place in 1976. Since then the event has continued to grow and in the process several offshoot tournaments have sprouted with the Hong Kong Tens, the Women’s Sevens and the Kowloon Rugby Fest ensuring a huge influx of players and spectators, not to mention giving the local economy a huge boost

“Rugby week is basically like five New Year’s Eves on the trot,” said Jonny Porteus, manager of the White Stag in Wan Chai.

This year “rugby week” had added significance for a number of teams. On Oct. 12 2002, the rugby world was particularly hard hit by the Bali bombing, with a number of those killed on the island for the Bali Tens. The HKFC lost nine members and two supporters, while a number of other teams that lost players in the tragedy made special trips to Hong Kong to honor those that died and help raise funds for the Hong Kong Rugby Bali Fund.

As Richard Neish, chairman of the HKFC said in the program for the Tens: “The bombings united our club in sorrow, but with unity comes strength. Therefore, let us send a message to the world that we will not be daunted; in memory of those lost let us play on, and make this the best tens tournament ever.”

Neish’s message could well have been applied to the whole week. While the amateur game had been hard hit by events in Bali, the professional game had also lost two popular figures in the past year in Ratu Kitione Vesikula Tuiba (who had coached Fiji to a hat trick of victories in the Sevens from 1990-92) and Nick Duncombe (a member of the England squad who died tragically at age 21). The week’s events were to prove to be a fitting tribute.

Of course not everyone made the trip. The French, Italian, and Argentine teams canceled as a result of the outbreak of SARS, as did the Japanese women’s team and two referees from the Japan Rugby Football Union, and the crowds were noticeably down from the previous year. But those that did turn up were determined to make the most of their week — SARS and all.

“We got all the information but it doesn’t affect us at all because it’s just the British way,” said Tom Gillon, 40, from Leeds, England, while Angus Maclead, 50, of Scotland said, “You’d be foolish not to worry, but you’d catch a cold just as easily.”

“I think people are overreacting a bit. For example, wearing a mask. I believe it does not help reduce the risks. Apart from maintaining good hygiene, which we stress everyday in school anyway, I’m not going out of my way worrying about it,” said local referee Bill Mason who was officiating at his second Sevens.

One unnamed source with the Hong Kong medical authority told me: “A lot of people in the medical field have been working very hard but feel they have been let down by the government. Of a population of 7,000,000 there have only been 350 cases,” (though this has since risen to 1,059 as of April 11). “There are 300 fatalities every year from regular pneumonia.” (There have been 32 from SARS as of April 11.) “The government acted late and it has led to panic, and there is no need to.”

It seemed the chance to watch rugby of the highest order, and enjoy the huge amounts of alcohol on offer at the stadium were just too good to turn down.

“All the top players I’ve spoken to say it’s the big one and the most prestigious (of all the tournaments),” said Hong Kong captain Paul Dingley. “With 40,000 true rugby fans going berserk in a purpose built stadium — it’s just streets ahead.”

One person who would agree with that was Dean Richards, an engineer based in Tokyo. Richards had arranged for 25 friends and family members from Japan and Wales to meet up in Hong Kong for his stag weekend. When asked why he had chosen the Sevens, he simply smiled and raised his pint glass (not for the first time that day) and said “Look around you.” And all this well before the time most people are contemplating their second cup of coffee of the day.

The players were also doing their bit to make sure that this was a year to remember. With the IOC thinking of introducing sevens as an Olympic sport in Beijing in 2008, the tournament proved once again that rugby truly is a worldwide sport and that sevens is the perfect environment for emerging nations to challenge the established world order.

Highlights of the tournament included last-minute replacement team the Netherlands scoring against Samoa, Russia scoring the opening try against Fiji and the Cook Islands (a country of just 14,000 people and 100 rugby players) beating Wales in the quarterfinal of the Plate.

“We are the smallest country with the biggest heart. And we will be the surprise package at the Hong Kong Sevens,” said coach Damian Beddoes before the tournament.

However, pride of place must go to Kenya for its stunning 15-12 win over Australia (the world champion at 15-a-side). One of the last games to be played on the Saturday, the game enthralled everyone in the stadium — many of whom had spent the rest of the day oblivious that rugby was actually being played, distracted as they were by the hula girls, Santa Clauses, policewomen, Elvises, Batmen and the various other fancy-dress costumes on display in the South Stand.

“I’ve been here five hours and so far I’ve only watched the pitch for five minutes,” said Mark Duncan from the Virgin Islands.

The tournament finished, perhaps fittingly, with England beating New Zealand 22-17 to retain the trophy it won the previous year.

“It’s very special to come back and win the title,” said England coach Joe Lydon. “It was the best possible tribute to Nick Duncombe.”

Two weeks on and there have been no signs that anyone in Hong Kong for the week of rugby contracted SARS or passed it on. However so little seems to be known about the virus that no one can say for certain that everyone is in the clear.

One thing for sure though is that the real losers of the weekend were the ticket touts who flew over from England hoping to make a quick fortune out of Rolling Stones and Sevens tickets. Perhaps they should have taken a hint from the local entrepreneurs who were busy setting up face-mask stalls outside the subway stations.

SARS may have forced a few to stay away but those that did make it to Hong Kong Stadium more than made up for it in noise. Perhaps they were following the advice of HKFC member Glenn Schloss who wrote in the Sevens program.

“Yet we know there is only one way to remember them (those that died in Bali): shout a little louder, grab another beer, talk about their antics and laugh. Because that is what those fun-loving souls would have wanted.”

Judging by the noise and empty glasses in the South Stand and the hospitality boxes that read as a who’s-who of the corporate world of Asia, that is exactly what happened at this year’s Hong Kong Sevens.

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