By Holmes Chan
The Hong Kong Sevens kicks off on Friday for the first time since the pandemic began — but Covid controls including compulsory face masks threaten to dampen the rugby tournament’s hard-partying atmosphere.
The three-day sporting jamboree, long established as a highlight of the World Rugby Sevens circuit, is being billed as a key component of Hong Kong’s reopening drive.
“It’s brilliant for Hong Kong,” said Paul John, coach of the host side, of the tournament’s long-awaited comeback.
“To play in the Hong Kong Sevens is something special.”
Sixteen men’s teams will compete over the weekend, but the women’s tournament that usually runs in parallel has been cancelled.
Among the favourites for the competition, which kicks off the 2023 season and qualification for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, are Fiji.
The Olympic champions have long found Hong Kong a happy hunting ground, having won the last five editions and a record 19 titles in the city, more than any other team.
They will be defending the title they won more than three-and-a-half years ago.
Fiji coach Ben Gollings, the record points scorer in Sevens Series history, said he was delighted to be back in Hong Kong even with Covid rules in place.
“I used to love playing here — the energy of the tournament, the atmosphere,” he said.
Current World Rugby Sevens Series champions Australia will also be in the mix, part of a “pool of death” for hosts Hong Kong, along with powerhouses New Zealand, who have won 11 titles in the city since the inaugural Sevens in 1976, and Samoa.
Off the pitch, officials are eager to reboot the sports and tourism sectors and declare a return to normality after years of pandemic travel curbs in the southern Chinese city.
The tournament reliably drew a daily crowd of 40,000 at Hong Kong Stadium before the pandemic, right up until its last edition in April 2019.
This year, the stadium is capped at 85 percent capacity because of pandemic rules and organisers are aiming for 30,000-plus a day.
A major test for the tournament will be bringing back overseas spectators — who used to account for nearly half of ticket sales — weeks after Hong Kong scrapped hotel quarantine for international arrivals.
More than 26,000 out of 34,000 tickets were sold as of Tuesday but the “vast majority” went to the local market, said Hong Kong Rugby Union CEO Robbie McRobbie.
Organisers spent months negotiating with the government to find a middle ground between strict Covid rules and allowing the rowdy festivities that have become synonymous with the Sevens.
Spectators were initially to be banned from eating in the stands but officials relented last month.
“It has certainly helped enhance the event experience for those attending and has contributed to a noticeable spike in ticket sales,” McRobbie told AFP.
Hong Kong maintains layers of pandemic restrictions long since abandoned by almost everywhere else in the world.
Overseas arrivals are still banned from going to bars and restaurants for the first three days and must test regularly.
All spectators must present negative virus test results to enter the stadium and have to wear a mask at all times, except when eating or drinking.
The South Stand has long been famous for fans in fancy dress and a raucous party atmosphere fuelled by all-day drinking, singing and dancing. It remains to be seen if or how organisers will enforce the mask rules.
Economists estimate that this year’s tournament will bring in less than HK$300 million ($38.2 million), down from HK$400 million in past years, the South China Morning Post reported.
Last month, Hong Kong held a snooker tournament which broke records for a live audience size, though it featured fewer overseas players than usual.
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