The Cathay/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens is an event to look forward to every year, and the question of whether one follows the sport or not seems to be, at best, an inconsequential one. To the people of Hong Kong, the city’s biggest sporting event is also the biggest and rowdiest party of the year. Sports fans and revellers turn up in equally loud measures, though it often sounds like the latter surpasses the former. As the joke often goes, nobody goes to the Sevens to watch rugby.
We’re at Little Cove Café in Kennedy Town, seated across from two people who would know best: Max Woodward, captain of the Hong Kong China rugby sevens team, and Chloe Chan, a senior player on the Hong Kong China women’s team, who will both be playing at the HK Sevens this weekend.
Max is a Sevens regular; this year will be the sixth Sevens tournament of his career. As if by design, rugby became a full-time programme at the Hong Kong Sports Institute the same year Max was considering a professional career in Hong Kong. That was in 2013. Fast-forward a decade to 2023: Max will be leading his team onto the HK Sevens’ pitch as captain for the fifth time.
For Chloe Chan, this year marks a different kind of milestone; you don’t forget your first Sevens. “We’ve got a pretty hard pool,” she acknowledged. “We’ve got New Zealand, Canada, and Great Britain.” She continued, “But I think that’s gonna be such a good experience. I’m super, super excited to play. I think [the HK Sevens has] the biggest crowd ever.”
Max agrees. Playing for a home crowd at a major tournament is a privilege usually experienced by top international teams the likes of New Zealand or South Africa. “The fact that we get to experience it as Hong Kongers, it’s actually very, very rare,” he says. “I’ve played in other world series events around the world and none of them come close to Hong Kong as a playing experience, as a spectating experience.”
The Hong Kong Sevens is a spectacle in a class of its own. Unlike most stadium sports events, general admission tickets have free seating, and fans often choose to roam around the stadium, rarely staying in one place for the whole day. Max compares it to a music festival rather than a seated concert: fans have their own agendas and there’s plenty of room for chaos, especially in the south stand — an enter-at-your-own-risk wild west where the debauchery is the stuff of urban legend. Yet despite the bountiful displays of exuberance, there’s a duality at play: “Kids can come, you can have a stag do next to a group of under-ten minis,” Max says. “The safety of the event and the city in general is a big part of [the appeal].” Being steps away from the city centre never hurts, either.
“I think now a lot of local communities are bringing kids into our league, but when I was younger there were literally two Asian kids in my team.”
– Chloe Chan
Chloe hopes to set an example for other aspiring female athletes in Hong Kong. “A lot of young local girls growing up [in Hong Kong] don’t see sports as a profession. It’s not really the culture here,” she explains. “If they see local women playing in the stadium like that, then maybe they will follow in our footsteps.”
When Chloe played her first game of rugby at the age of fifteen, there were very few other local kids doing the same. She says, “Many Asian [parents] are scared of their kids falling over or getting hurt. I think now a lot of local communities are bringing kids into our league, but when I was younger there were literally two Asian kids in my team.”
Scars are inevitable, but a few well-earned scars are worth the lessons learned. Max himself sports a recent one under his eye. “When you finish doing an engaging activity and you’re knackered, you’re sweating, and you’ve achieved something… I think rugby ticks all those boxes. It’s so good for kids to do it.” Team sports teaches skills that can’t be learned in a classroom. “That team sport environment has so many metaphors for life. You learn how to lose, you learn how to try really hard yourself, but within the structure of a team. You learn how to use your body physically and aggressively, but in a safe manner. Sport is an outlet for that.”
“I’ve played in other world series events around the world and none of them come close to Hong Kong as a playing experience, as a spectating experience.”
– Max Woodward
Playing and training during the pandemic involved living in the Sports Institute in a closed-loop system and undergoing three-week hotel quarantines (with a roommate!) on the return leg from tours abroad. As we recoiled in secondhand horror, both players remain unwaveringly upbeat.
Max remarks, “I think those times brought everyone a bit closer together. You’re sat at breakfast, lunch and dinner with your teammates, you get to chat to people to learn a bit more about them. It was good for team cohesion.” Chloe’s team was similar: “We did a lot of board game nights and stuff. I think everyone just felt a bit closer because we were also so bored.”
“That team sport environment has so many metaphors for life. You learn how to lose, you learn how to try really hard yourself, but within the structure of a team.”
– Max Woodward
When we ask Max what playing the Sevens this past November was like, his answer was very much what we expected: that is, not very much. “I was nervous about the masks and I was worried that there’d be so many rules.” Then he surprised us. “But actually it was the best Sevens. I’ve never seen so many people in Hong Kong rugby shirts. I’ve never heard people cheering for us that loud, because it was only people from Hong Kong, or people who had been in Hong Kong a long time. And yeah, the team they all cheered for was Hong Kong. It was really special.”
This weekend is gearing up to be Hong Kong’s most-anticipated Sevens ever, as it marks the city’s first large-scale international event since its reopening. The event organisers tell us that in previous years, planning would have taken a year. In comparison, this year’s event was pulled together in ninety days. We don’t know what to expect, but we do know the beer will be flowing, the fans will be roaring and, somewhere in the south stand, more than one cup of suspiciously yellow liquid will be flung over unlucky cheering heads.
Whatever the Sevens weekend holds for both the fans and the players, Max knows it’s going to be good: “The product speaks for itself. November was good. And then even more people will come back in 2024, because 2023 is going to be class.” Perhaps not class in every sense of the word — but first class, indeed.
The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens starts tomorrow from 31 March to 2 April. Tickets are still available for purchase here.
(All images c/o Peter Simmons/HKRU)