Times Column 19/03/05
The main event this weekend in Hong Kong is the IRB World Cup Sevens. Less well-known is the fact that over the last few years Hong Kong’s international week of rugby has been developing a fringe, like the Edinburgh arts festival. While the main tournament can be spectacular, it can also drag as surely as choreographed fireworks and pipers in the castle. For the full, glorious range of rugby achievement, look to the wonders of the fringe.
Wednesday and Thursday at the Hong Kong Indoor Sports Hall saw a three-match series of International Wheelchair rugby, in which the New Zealand Wheel Blacks took on England. Over the same period at the Hong Kong Football Club, 24 teams from fourteen countries competed in a 10’s tournament featuring former stars such as Neil Jenkins and Toutai Kefu. Across the harbour, Kowloon RFC’s Securicor Kowloon Rugby Fest celebrated its fourth year as a 10’s tournament for touring sides eager to maintain the traditional imbalance between socialising and playing. True to the ancient spirit of the game, anyone can simply turn up with their boots and join the pick-up team.
For those unfamiliar with the abridged version of rugby called 10’s, there are ten players on each side, five backs and five forwards, who play for ten minutes each way. More accommodating than 7’s, the short and fat can play a full part, as can any other adjective keen to pull on a jersey, be it lanky, heavy, light-weight, thin, dim or downright cowardly. 10’s retains the inclusive virtues of fifteen-a-side rugby, and also the tactical variety. To get technical for a moment, it’s possible and sometimes desirable to stick it up your jumper in 10’s, while the open spaces are always there for the jinkers and outright speedsters.
The first ever 10’s tournament was held in 1967 in Kuala Lumpur, where the Combined Old Boys Rugby Association (COBRA) were looking for a way to encourage young Malaysians to continue playing rugby after leaving school. Since then, 10’s has spread throughout Asia, piecing together a thriving circuit that now includes tournaments in Manila, Bangkok, Guam, Bali, and Jakarta. A new tournament, hoping to share in the Asian-led fun, took place for the first time this year at Bondi in Australia. If these destinations sound like a paradise dot-to-dot, then that’s an added extra once the sun goes down on the fierce contests that 10’s seems to generate.
There’s no similar popular circuit for 7’s rugby, not even a social fringe event in Hong Kong. The IRB might like to ponder this, especially since they’ve chosen 7’s as rugby’s vehicle into the Olympics. Hoping to impress the IOC with the global nature of the game, the IRB like to point out that in 7’s Kenya have twice beaten Australia. This is great. Any country beating Australia at any sport should be encouraged. However, despite their 7’s heroics Kenya are no closer to mounting a challenge at the real-life, fifteen-man RWC France 2007.
In fact, 7’s is a severely limited means of developing rugby, because however good it may sometimes be to watch, it’s almost impossible for an ordinary mortal to play. The youth and pace required are insurmountable obstacles to all but the young and quick, and rugby was never intended to be so restrictive. If Kenya could develop expertise in 10’s, they’d have a much firmer foundation from which to step up to the full game, which could then genuinely aspire to a global reach.
In a straight contest between the two shortened versions of rugby, 10’s is the clear winner. Infinitely more fun to play, 10’s is also better to watch because it has the variety that 7’s lacks. In Europe, 10’s rugby lags behind its increasing popularity in Asia. Not to worry, though. When the inaugural Hong Kong Sevens asked the RFU for help, back in 1975, the Asian upstarts were refused, just as twelve years later the RFU questioned the merits of a Rugby World Cup. 10’s is moving fast on a wave of popular enjoyment. The absence of official support is simply rugby’s traditional way of confirming that it’s surely the next big thing.