Hong Kong is considered by many to be the best stop on the International Rugby Board's Sevens World Series circuit and the massive fan support is one of the main reasons. Tickets sell out instantly and the excitement and enthusiasm at the 40,000-seat stadium is hard to describe, according to Taylor Paris, a member of Canada's team.
"It's just crazy," he said. "You have to experience it. You either have to play in it or be there and be watching it, otherwise you just can't explain the atmosphere," he said.
Those who weren't lucky enough to get tickets — there was a draw — will pack the city's watering holes to take in matches on TV. The tournament will be broadcast in 144 countries. Rugby sevens is a variant of the game where there are seven players instead of 15 per side and there are just two seven-minute halves.
Twenty-eight countries are taking part, making this year's event the biggest one in Hong Kong's 38-year history of hosting the tournament. The games — and the parties — officially kick off Friday night but the anticipation has been building all week. Canada's team arrived in Hong Kong on Saturday and they've been training, meeting their fans and taking in some of the city's sights.
Sold-out lunch supports team
On Thursday, they attended the "Great Canadian Luncheon," a fundraising event that has become one of the hottest events of the year for Canadians in Hong Kong. About 150 people, including Canada's consul general in Hong Kong, Ian Burchett, packed into a room at the posh China Club for the sold-out event that featured a good meal, lots of drinks and a live auction.
The money raised goes to the Canadian Rugby HK 7s and Olympic Fund, an initiative launched by two passionate Canadian rugby fans in Hong Kong seven years ago.
Randy Heward and John Woodward wanted Canada to do better at the tournament, where the team's amateur players go up against many professionals, and the financial support over the last few years is paying off — the team is now ranked tenth in the world.
"It's been a lot of fun and it's been very rewarding, we think, especially with the way the team has been performing this year. We think it's a terrific return on our investment," said Heward, a Vancouver native.
The goal is to have a $1-million endowment fund by 2015 and so far $350,000 has been raised. Canada's ex-pat community in Hong Kong is a major contributor to the fund. Guests paid $150 for the lunch ticket and thousands of dollars were raised through donations, the auction and box seat ticket sales.
"Now it's not just about the Hong Kong 7s, which is what we started it out to be, we're looking towards the Olympics," said Heward. The game will be at the Olympics for the first time in 2016 and supporters of the team are keen to see Canada qualify.
Placing well at tournaments like the one in Hong Kong is key to building the team's success in the lead-up to qualifying matches in 2015 for the Games in Rio de Janeiro. The players know what's at stake.
"This tournament is such a big stage for seven-aside rugby and the Olympics is going to be an even bigger stage so in terms of experience like that there's no better preparation," said Paris, who is from Barrie, Ont.
Proud parents made trip
Candace Yip and Neil Duke would love it if their son Sean made it to the Olympics, but for now they are thrilled to be in Hong Kong to watch him play for the fourth year in a row.
"The whole city goes crazy over the Hong Kong Sevens," said Duke, who was at the fundraiser. "The whole city is partying and looking forward to the Sevens, with a lot of people dressing up crazily and just having a really good time," he said.
Another parent, Garry Hirayama, also made the trip from British Columbia to see his son Nathan play. It's his second time coming to the Hong Kong tournament and he said he can't believe the support from Canadian ex-pats.
Hirayama isn't just a fan and supportive father — he's a former player on the team his son is now on, and he played in Hong Kong when Canada first started competing in the tournament more than 30 years ago.
The team's manager Brian Hunter also said the support from ex-pats in Hong Kong is "outstanding." He said the team is looking good heading into the weekend and the goal is to finish in the top five. Canada's first match is Friday night against Spain, followed by games against Fiji and host Hong Kong on Saturday. The results of those games will determine who they play on Sunday.