Interview: Brian Stevenson – President of the Hong Kong Rugby Union

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President of the Hong Kong Rugby Union, Brian Stevenson is an old China hand who’s seen it all since his arrival in the territory more than 45 years ago, including the first ever Hong Kong Sevens tournament. He tells Time Out Hong Kong about meetings over whisky in the old HSBC building, streakers on the pitch and the future of rugby in our city

With his gentle Scottish lilt, bushy moustache and immaculate Hong Kong Rugby Union (they recently dropped the ‘football’ part) blazer, Brian Stevenson looks every inch how one imagines certain British officials of another era. But having worked and resided in Hong Kong for 46 years, Stevenson is local through and through. Like many here, he left home in search of better opportunities and came to Hong Kong as a chartered accountant. A former rugby player in the equivalent of the Scottish First Division back in the sport’s amateur days, a road accident in Hong Kong prevented Stevenson from playing for nine months. It was during this enforced absence from the sport that he took up his first position at the HKRU, that of treasurer.

Now the institution’s president, Stevenson has witnessed almost the entire history of the Hong Kong Sevens tournament first hand. The event, the most popular of its kind in the city, has gone from strength to strength. The sport itself has grown tremendously in recent years, and the national team is currently striving to reach the Olympics in Rio de Janerio in the sevens format, and 2019 World Cup in the 15-a-side game. So there’s plenty to talk about as we meet the man leading Hong Kong rugby forward…

Were you involved with the first Sevens tournament?
I became the treasurer in 1976, when we’d just held the first international tournament. I closed the books on the first rugby Sevens! We made a profit, which wasn’t expected, of $6,000. We argued for weeks with the sponsors – Rothman’s and Cathay Pacific – about how we were going to share the profit. The decision proved very important for the future. After weeks of wrangling and gallons of whisky being consumed at the old HSBC building, it was agreed the Rugby Union would keep the profit. [Back then] it was only a small amount, but we established what they did and what they got. It’s basically stayed the same since.


The Hong Kong players in 1976

How was the tournament in those days?
The first tournament had about 3,000 spectators. It was successful enough to say what a great idea, we’ll do it again. More and more people began to attend very quickly. By 1981, it reached capacity in the old Hong Kong Football Club, which held about 12,500. What to do? We decided to move to the then Government Stadium where the capacity was roughly 24,000. So we doubled the capacity, but within a few years we were once again pressing the roof of capacity. Then the Jockey Club stepped in and helped re–do the stadium. Remarkably, the whole place was demolished and rebuilt without missing any tournaments.


The Korean team on the attack, 1981

Was it a less boisterous affair in those days?
From the word go, the very first Sevens, there was an incident involving Australia. Thereafter, whenever Australia entered the park, people would boo. I think it goes right back to the start. That was a degree of boisterous. I honestly can’t remember when we got into the costumes and what have you, but certainly the popularity of the event was established very quickly.

What makes the HK tournament so special?
What really what makes [the event] is the carnival atmosphere. It’s a carnival event, and I see that. I still think this place is very special for that. Don’t ask me how all that developed, it just happened. But I can tell you about the first streaker! I was the chairman at the time and we’d never had a streaker before. This was 86 or 87. Sir David Akers-Jones was Acting Governor [of Hong Kong]. I was sitting beside him in the Union’s box, looking down at the pitch, when suddenly this guy came straight across the centre line, wearing only his running shoes. One handed, he picked up the ball, carried on straight down the centre line, right up the stadium stairs, past us and through to the back of the stadium. I thought, “Jesus Christ! That was a streaker!” And I’m sitting there beside the Acting Governor – what do I do? So I remember turning to Sir David and asked whether that a streaker. He replied, “I do believe so.” That was the first time it ever happened [laughs].

With sevens events in Singapore now, and Vancouver, how does Hong Kong stay ahead of its rivals?
The first thing is, we’re very modest people. We wouldn’t worry about staying ahead. I think we’re extremely well respected for what we’ve already achieved. The single biggest challenge is spectator capacity. I’m on the government committee and I can tell you there are no definitive plans for the Kai Tak sports area. You’re talking about something that won’t be ready till 2022. Meanwhile, springing up all over the world, all over the region like in Singapore and Shanghai, massive stadiums are being developed. That’s the biggest concern I have. But I believe that Hong Kong will prevail because of the atmosphere and the character, and also importantly, because we have two wonderful sponsors who have been with us much of the time – Cathay and HSBC.

But in response to that, we’re starting events like those at Chater Garden, which is effectively taking the Sevens out to the population of Hong Kong. Because we know they can’t get tickets, so we’re doing our best with things like that. I think it’s working and popular. As I said, [capacity] is a concern, but there’s nothing we can do about it.



How do you see the future of the Hong Kong sevens team itself? Will they get to the Olympics?

We’ve come a long way and the team are now members of the Institute of Sports. They are the only team sport there, men and women, which is wonderful, and I’ve seen a massive improvement in their play. But at the same time, other countries are developing as well; the sport’s becoming exceedingly competitive, exceedingly popular, and we worry. But on their day, the team can still [get to the Olympics] because sevens is a special game. But if I look ahead to the qualifying tournament in Monaco, I’m very conscious of the fact that there’re three or four sides there, like Russia, Zimbabwe, Japan, Spain, and they have all played on the World Series, so these are very experienced. Our boys don’t have that level of regular competition. So that’s making it all the more difficult for us.

SEE ALSO: HK's Elite Rugby Programme: Meet the bankers turned rugby professionals

Do you think there’s a bigger future in the sevens format these days than 15s? There’s the Olympics this year, the game is faster paced, small developing nations can punch their way a bit more easily…

I think it’s true. I think it’s great for the Olympics that you’re going to see Fiji competing for a gold medal. I think that’s absolutely super. So, it’s definitely true. [Sevens] is an easier game to play, less expensive, that and the Olympics could cause it to grow even faster, and I’ve always found it was a means of introducing the game to people, bringing them in to 15-a-side.

What’s the state of rugby at a local level in Hong Kong?

Back in 1997, before the transfer of sovereignty, there was a very famous Time magazine cover, and it effectively said 97 would be the end of Hong Kong. There was a similar article elswhere asking, “Is this the end of rugby in Hong Kong?” Why? Because the military forces were going; they contributed a lot to our teams. So did the police, and they had already taken the decision that they’d be cutting back on expatriate recruitment. I must admit, there was a degree of concern back then. But the surprising thing was the number of young Chinese guys who came back to Hong Kong, post 97, who played rugby in places like the UK and Canada who were going into business and who founded local rugby teams. In fact, since 97 it’s been an amazing success story, the growth of rugby in the city. It’s a very well respected sport in Hong Kong and we get a lot of support in the business community.

What about the fact that children will have to pay adult prices this year?
Yes, there are no more children’s tickets sold to the public. You can still get them through our mini rugby community, but it’s now just like any other event around the world, you get one general ticket price. We do invite 5,000 kids to come, and on Friday night we host 5,000 students, so again, it’s a capacity issue. If we could get another 20,000 seats it would be different.

People say, “Oh my goodness, Brian, you’ve only got 3,000 tickets for the public.” I always reply, “No, no, no, slow down. It depends what you call public.” To me, the public is the public of Hong Kong, and the first people we look after are our rugby community. And our rugby community has grown exponentially, to the extent that you get the mums, the dads, the minis and what have you, and as a result, yes, there’s less available for the guy only interested this one weekend of the year.

The new pitch has come in for some criticism. Are you confident it’ll stand up to all the action of the Sevens tournament?
It’s a responsibility of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. We’re effectively their client and this is Hong Kong’s single largest sporting event, so I can assure you it has the attention of their leader. The [LCSD] people have been assuring me that they’ve done the absolute best they can. If you look at the pitch, it looks in pretty good shape, so certainly their belief and hence our expectation is, yes, the pitch will be fine. It’s been well rested. The only thing it may have missed out on is a little more sunshine!

Was there any discussion about an artificial surface before the new pitch was laid?

Artificial or grass is obviously a major subject for discussion. The pitches both here and [in the future] at Kai Tak will principally be directed at rugby and football. Footballers are very specific, they want a grass pitch. We are very happy with a grass pitch too, but we are approved internationally to have an artificial pitch, like we have at King’s Park, where we play our internationals.

SEE ALSO: Concerns rise over Hong Kong Stadium's new $100 million pitch

The plans for Kai Tak sound a little up in the air at the moment.
Up in the air is too strong a term, I would say. There’s a government committee that’s been working on this for some time. There are provisional plans and they are now working with the national sports associations to get their input into these plans. I guess their aim would be to finalise that exercise as soon as possible, so they can get down to the nitty gritty of getting funding from Legco.

What would you say the HKRU can improve upon?
My observation as the old guy of the organisation is that the RFU, if you were to go back and look at our annual reports, it’s always a process. We’re rugby players, we’re sportsmen, so there is always a competitive element, and we’re never satisfied with where we are. Our main objectives are to grow the game in Hong Kong, and also to be more involved in the community of Hong Kong through our community work or charity work. And I do believe we are achieving these objectives.  

For more information on the HKRU visit hkrugby.com.

See also

HK Rugby Sevens guide
Your guide to this weekend's festivities including an overview of the main competition and what the national side is up to. Read more

 

Hong Kong's Top 10: Rugby Sevens fans
A roundup of the 10 types of fans that you're most likely to see at the event.
Read more

 

HK's Elite Rugby Programme
Meet the players and coaches of the Elite Rugby Programme spearheading the city's rugby dream. Read more

 

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