Fans of the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens shrugged off a three-year pandemic absence as the weekend sporting spectacle kicked off with drinking, fancy dress — and Covid rules.
Teams from nations as far-flung as Samoa, Spain and South Africa converged for one of Asia’s biggest sports events, which Hong Kong bigwigs hope can prove that normality is on the way for the city.
Hong Kong has languished since early 2020 under onerous Covid curbs, some of which are still in place.
Spectators have to wear masks and provide a negative Covid test to get in, with overseas visitors — normally a large share of the crowd — mostly kept away by rules on new arrivals entering public venues in their first three days.
– Fans out in force –
But Hong Kong-based fans were out in force, many cradling large jugs of beer, eventually filling about three-fifths of the stadium.
Most were unmasked, despite the best efforts of security guards waving signs telling people to cover up.
“There’s a big crowd, good experience,” said Talaiasi Toma, a 32-year-old Samoan living in Hong Kong, wearing the colours of the Pacific nation.
“I’m super excited to be here,” said his friend Sone Loleni, who was draped in the national flag. “I watched on the TV. I wasn’t expecting to (ever) be here in the park.”
When their team took to the field, for a strong win over New Zealand, the pair whooped, hollered, and waved their flag as the larger Fijian contingent joined them.
Among the spectators in fancy dress — a staple feature of the Sevens — were Mario & Luigi impersonators, a man in a red gorilla suit and two people in ketchup-bottle costumes.
On the stadium’s east stand, a group of South African women were dressed in green wigs and tutus paired with rainbow leg warmers.
“To be honest I was going to boycott it, because of all the silly rules,” said one of them, who gave only her first name, Nunki, and said her age was “28 forever”.
“But my daughter was so excited so I did this for her. Despite my misgivings, I’ve actually enjoyed it.”
Another in the group said she had kept her booze-filled plastic cup to her mouth all day, with eating and drinking being one of the only times masks are not strictly required.
As she spoke, the Hong Kong team ambled along the pitch, headed for an extremely tough match-up with reigning series champions Australia.
The home crowd were in full voice to back the hosts as they went down 43-0, chanting “Hong Kong!” throughout the game, and booing every Aussie touch.
“I’m very happy with the atmosphere,” said Robbie McRobbie, chief executive of the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU).
“People seem to be enjoying themselves and having a good time. That’s what we’re all about.
“We see ourselves as being one of the milestones on the path to normality. I’ve got confidence that we’re heading in that direction.”
– Barred from entering –
One visitor unimpressed by the pace of Hong Kong’s reopening was South African tourist Renier du Plessis.
Having arrived in the city a day earlier specifically for the tournament, and unaware of the Covid rules, he was barred from entering the stadium.
“We didn’t know you have to be here three days before you can enter any parks,” said the 38-year-old businessman and Springboks fan, who last visited the tournament in 2019 and had already bought his tickets.
“In South Africa we don’t wear masks anymore. We don’t even know how to do rapid tests. One of the local ladies showed us how to do it,” he told reporters on the stadium concourse, before revealing that this was not his first rejection of the day.
“We were refused at Disney World this morning. It’s disappointing, the fact that we cannot do anything,” he said.
“Where am I supposed to be for the next three days? You can only walk the shops for that long, it’s going to get boring eventually.”
McRobbie said the HKRU was aware of nine such knockbacks for recent arrivals and would speak to the customers affected, but added that Hong Kong’s Covid rules were “not a secret”.