Cover Hong Kong’s Lee Ka-to (left) passes the ball, supported by Max Woodward (centre) in a match against New Zealand at the 2019 tournament (Photo : Ike Li / Ike Images)

As the international rugby tournament returns to the city for the first time in three years, Tatler speaks to Max Woodward about how Covid disrupted training, Olympic dreams and the importance of home team fans

Whip out your banana suit, slap on your sunscreen and charge your glass: the Hong Kong Sevens returns this month after three years of postponement, though expect certain rules to keep everyone safe. Fans attending the tournament will need to be fully vaccinated with a vaccine pass, use the LeaveHomeSafe app, wear masks and sit in groups of no more than 12, and capacity of the 40,000-seat arena is restricted to 85 per cent. Snacks can be brought in, but eating is only in the seated areas of the outdoor spectator stands. And despite hotel quarantine being nixed in time for the rugby, the number of overseas spectators will be far lower than at previous tournaments.

That said, the matches represent a turning point in Hong Kong’s “zero covid” pandemic strictures and will be a bellwether for the return of large-scale, non-seated events, restoring some of the city’s damaged reputation as a tourist destination. “This is really all about getting Hong Kong moving again, and [is] an opportunity to demonstrate that Hong Kong can still throw a good party,” says Hong Kong Rugby Union chief executive Robbie McRobbie.

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This will be the fifth Sevens outing for Max Woodward, captain of the Hong Kong team. Here, he conveys his excitement for the comeback of the year.

How does it feel to be gearing up for the first Sevens in three years?

It’s pretty special. For it to be confirmed and coming up very quickly is super exciting. The Hong Kong Sevens is the marquee event for us: we train throughout the year, we play our tournaments, we have our own goals, but the Sevens is where people realise that the team exists. It represents something a bit bigger; something for people to get behind and support to show their love for the city through a team is really special. It has been a tough few years for everyone, but it feels like there is light at the end of the tunnel. And the Sevens represents that.

How has the team changed during these intervening years?

There has been a massive changing of the guard. There are only a few guys left from when I started training, and the make-up of the squad has changed drastically. There won’t be many guys who have played at the Sevens, so that adds a big impact to it. The core of the team has changed: the team is very young and has an outlook towards the future that’s quite beneficial.

We have a lot of goals: the Asian Games, the Olympic qualifiers, and having a young team means that the drive is there. It’s going to be a tough tournament in Hong Kong because we’re against the best teams in the world, but it’s a chance to show that we’re a good side. We’ve had to deal with lockdowns, masks, closures, training by ourselves and going away to train, which have impacted the team. I quarantined with three of the young lads in one room for seven days. In ten to 15 years time we’ll look back on that time as bonkers, but I wouldn’t change it because it’s good for the culture to go through these experiences together.

Why are spectators so important to the Sevens?

The Hong Kong Sevens Instagram had a competition this year for which fans were asked to share their favourite Sevens memory to win tickets. I needed to pick a winner so I read all the replies, and honestly, some of the stuff was getting me emotional. We don’t have a massive sporting culture in Hong Kong. But seeing people get behind a team that represents their home is special. The crowd in Hong Kong just cheers everything. They’ll cheer a big tackle or a great piece of skill, irrespective of who wins or loses.

I’ve transitioned from going to the Sevens as a ten-year-old and I think the family aspect of it is really cool: all the kids with their faces painted. We never really play in Hong Kong so feeling that support is special. Playing at the Sevens means a lot, and it’s pretty unrivalled in terms of sporting events in the world. Spectators make the Sevens: you’re walking through Causeway Bay and there are guys in Teletubbies and Baywatch outfits walking next to kids in their mini rugby kit.

What is your standout memory from all the Sevens you’ve played?

When we played the quarter-final on Saturday night at the last Sevens in 2019, I remember running out as captain and hearing the noise. It was unbelievable: I got chills because the stadium was so loud. It hit the right moment, timing wise: at 7pm, the south stand is rowdy but still compos mentis. The kids are still in the stadium because it’s not that late. They’ve had a full day of rugby but it’s not Sunday. All elements are in place for it to be an awesome event. Also, we won that game, so it was pretty special.

November 4 to 6. hksevens.com

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