Hong Kong Stadium's famous South Stand ready for last sevens hurrah

After 30 great years, the famous venue hosts its last HSBC SVNS event in 2024, Rupert Cox writes, while outgoing Hong Kong China Rugby CEO Robbie McRobbie looks ahead to the tournament's bright new future across the bay.

Melrose was the first. Dubai might now be the biggest. But Hong Kong remains the feather in the cap of rugby sevens. It’s the one the players want to win, and the trip all self-respecting rugby fans have at the top of their bucket lists.

This year, the Cathay/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens will be a little different – a fond farewell, as the long partnership between the iconic tournament and a venue that has become famous around the world ends, and a new beginning.

2024 marks the 30th anniversary of the tournament at the Hong Kong Stadium, and the last to be held there before the grand old lady of So Kon Po is decommissioned, and the Sevens moves across the bay to the newly-built, state-of-the-art Kai Tak Sports Park. 

Along with the tournament’s home, comes another huge change: Hong Kong Rugby CEO and tournament boss Robbie McRobbie will hand over responsibility after 20 years at the helm. Rugby fans and Hong Kong pilgrims may not know the name McRobbie as well they do Waisele Serevei, Perry Baker or the other legends of the pitch, but he has been as vital to the HK Sevens as the South Stand – and it was the South Stand, in fact, that first brought him to the Sevens.

In the stands

“I first came to Hong Kong in 1992, to take up a job with the Royal Hong Kong Police, so my first involvement at the Sevens was as a spectator,” he said. “I then joined the Hong Kong Rugby Union, and because of my police background I was put in charge of South Stand security.”

South Stand security. Anyone reading who has been a part of the South Stand, or witnessed it on television from their sofa, knows that it is the most unquenchable, unbiddable shindig in rugby: three days of fancy dress and antics that would put a Glasgow stag do to shame. By 07:30 local time on Saturday, long before the cameras have started rolling or a ball has been thrown, the South Stand is full, with the queue for entry snaking.

“There was no automatic re-entry to the South Stand,” McRobbie said, “so it was one in and one out – and this enormous line would stretch all the way under the main stand to the front gate. 

“We’d put up these big signs saying ‘Two hours from here to the South Stand’, ‘Three hours from here to the South Stand’, and I’d walk up and down the concourse asking people in fancy dress, carrying jugs of beer, where they had come from: ‘England, South Africa, Australia,’ they’d say. And I’d say, ‘That’s great – do you realise it’s a four-hour wait from this point to get in? You can sit anywhere else in the whole stadium'. And they’d be like, ‘Nah, cheers, I’ve come half way round the world to stand in this queue’.”

As the fans made their global journeys to the South Stand, Hong Kong realised it had to do more than provide a well-signed queue, and embrace itself as a party: and so it became the first event on the sevens circuit to book international music acts. And what acts!

Who could forget David ‘The Hoff’ Hasselhoff in his red trunks, serenading the South Stand with the theme from Baywatch? Or The Proclaimers leading a 40,000-strong rendition of 500 Miles? Wanting a piece of the action, French rugby star Sebastien Chabal duly dressed up as a caveman and sang his own version of 500 Miles to the South Stand. Why? Who knows! It made little sense – but was all inimitably, and very, Hong Kong.

Not content with the much-loved roster of kitsch heroes, McRobbie upped the ante in 2007 and brought in none other than The Beach Boys. How did he pull that off?

“The old head of Cathay Pacific was an American and a massive Beach Boys fan. I was asked by a friend to dinner with him one night, and next thing I’m being offered the Beach Boys!

“We couldn’t afford them – just think of the cost of the first-class flights! But it turned out a brand spanking new 747 was being flown into Hong Kong that week. It was a completely empty aircraft, so the boss pulled a few strings and arranged for The Beach Boys to hitch a ride.”

So the Hong Kong Sevens managed not only luxury travel for the superstars, but a whole new Boeing. Once they’d disembarked and taken to the Sevens stage, how were they?

“Brilliant,” said McRobbie. “Amazing.”

On the pitch

As one Hong Kong Sevens fan famously said, “If you ever get bored, you can always turn around and watch the rugby”.

Ah, yes. The rugby. Let’s start with Jonah Lomu. The rugby world had never seen anything like him. He would become the most famous player on the planet, but it was Hong Kong who saw him first in an All Blacks shirt: he won three Cup finals, his first as a rampaging 115kg 18-year-old in 1994. Other Kiwi greats also began their stellar trajectories in Hong Kong: Christian Cullen broke the all-time record for points scored at a single tournament with 18 tries – including seven in a single game.

New Zealand might dazzle, but it is Fiji, of course, who are the darlings of the Hong Kong Stadium – sevens is their national sport, and Hong Kong has become their second home. For no Fijian more so than Waisale Serevi, the man known simply as ‘The King’. He led Fiji to a regal eight Cup final victories in Hong Kong, including two Rugby World Cup Sevens.

In the 2007 semi-final, Serevi balanced the ball on his fingertips, like a French waiter elegantly carrying a silver tray, going on to the try-line to secure victory against New Zealand. The Kiwis may not have appreciated the showboating, but the Stadium lapped it up and the moment went down in Hong Kong history. Years later, USA Eagles star Perry Baker paid homage to the great man with his own Hong Kong balancing act.

In 1997 Fiji won the first of their two Rugby World Cup Sevens in Hong Kong, beating a stacked South African side in the final that included a string of Springboks such as Bobby Skinstad and the late, great Joost van der Westhuizen. 

That win made Serevi a household name in Fiji, but when he did it all over again in 2005 – this time beating New Zealand – his legend in Hong Kong and across the world was secured. It was not long until he was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame – out on the middle of the field in his beloved Hong Kong.

However, McRobbie’s most vivid memory of Fiji’s 2005 victory is a little … different: “At the 2005 World Cup I was in charge of calling pyrotechnics before the final. I got a bit excited, and cued the fireworks too soon. A rocket went off, and shot right up the Fijian manager’s shorts. Not good! 

“I was praying Fiji would win that one, to save my own skin. Fortunately, for my sake, they did!”

The aftermatch

Believe it or not, South Pacific dominance in Hong Kong found itself challenged by something even more threatening than McRobbie’s intimate firework activity, in the form of the England sevens team. Long before they were absorbed into the Great Britain, England won four Hong Kong Cup finals in five years, in front of ecstatic expat crowds who felt these as home victories.

In 2006, Ben Gollings – the all-time leading points-getter of the Hong Kong Sevens – scored against Fiji on the final play in front of a packed South Stand, and then kicked the winning conversion. Head coach Mike Friday tells how he slipped his captain, Simon Amor, the RFU credit card that evening, to allow the team to push the boat out and celebrate in Hong Kong style. Next morning, Friday asked how the night had gone. 

Amor reported that it had been epic. With the RFU card in his pocket, they’d gone for it, but then, Amor said, having wined and dined their way through Hong Kong, “I forgot the pin number. So it’s bankrupted me. What was the pin, again?”

Despite the big move to the mainland next year, and the big move of his own, McRobbie is keen to stress it’s not the end as he prepares a final farewell to the famous stadium. 

“It’s about re-engagement. They’re building a brand spanking new state-of-the-art stadium tailor-made for sevens. The anniversary means 30 years of amazing memories, but there will be many more to come. Forty percent of this year’s tickets have been sold to overseas fans, and we’re on course for a sell-out. The future of the Hong Kong Sevens looks bright.”

So: one last hurrah before they tear the old house down and welcome the bright future. The South Stand will be rocking, and between stints on the mic you may well find me and the rest of the commentary team in the thick of it, dressed as avocados and bananas, because this is one final fling no rugby fan would want to miss.