Sevens Tour Diary: Hong Kong

“As a kid I always dreamed of playing in Hong Kong.” Mark Robertson
“Hong Kong is a magical place to play rugby.” Graham Shiel

A Weekend to Learn From

I would love to be sitting on this flight to Tokyo with a winner’s medal round my neck. After our group games, even sipping from a tankard for winning the bowl would have been acceptable. Yet performances, and consequently results, didn’t unfold as we had wanted. We were participating in a 12 team tournament so it was always going to be a challenging event. Drawn alongside Fiji, Australia and France, our task wasn’t made any easier.

We took to the field at 5:06 on Friday evening confident we could spring a wee surprise. There were only 4 recognisable names in the Fiji squad. Our squad all had World Series experience. We were buoyed by the return to action of Mark Robertson. Our last session before the tournament had been almost flawless. We knew exactly what we had to do: deprive Fiji of ball as much as possible and get them to ground early when they did have the ball. Simple.

Yet by 5:30 the harsh reality of international sport had slapped us in the face. After going behind we scored an excellent try. But we struggled to win possession, and previous failings at the restart came back to haunt us. We were punished for falling off tackles. Fiji are masters at playing at a high tempo when the defence is in disarray. They continually moved the point of attack and their angles of running were too good for us. 39-5. A massively disappointing start to the tournament.

We had little time to dwell on our loss, back on the pitch just after 10:00 on Saturday morning. The key lessons to learn: we had to look after the ball. And we had to make teams work harder to score tries against us. We knew Australia would make us tackle. They are a direct team that play at a great tempo and grind teams down with their intensity. And they defend as if their lives depended on it. In many ways they are a team we should look to emulate. Before we do that we need to put into practice our basic principles and learn from our mistakes. Again we coughed up possession too easily. And again we were punished for it. Our analysis had revealed that you have to work exceptionally hard to score against Australia and that they don’t concede many tries. To match them we would have to limit them to 2 or 3 tries and take our opportunities. Definite improvements were made in our defensive effort but not consistently throughout the 14 minutes. We built 2 good scores, but we also relinquished possession too easily. The outcome: a 29-14 defeat. Still we talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

We had a relatively long break until the French game. The scheduling did not afford France such a luxury. We had to take advantage of this and tear into them. Deny them the ball, make them chase us, make them chase us and then seize the moment if their defence fell slightly out of shape.

Don’t let them breathe. Easy.

Well, easy to say. The reality was different.

For the first 4 minutes we barely touched the ball, allowing them to settle and rack up a 12-0 lead by half-time. But then at last we began to walk the walk. The intensity of our game increased, we kept ball for longer periods of time. Sean Kennedy, Andrew Turnbull and Robbo came on and lifted the tempo. James Fleming scorched away from the French and under the posts. Suddenly we had dangerous runners everywhere. And they were linking together, offloads were going to hand, the French were almost chasing shadows. The pressure told shortly after the full-time hooter and Sean dragged an exhausted French defender over the line with him. 12-12 with the kick to come. That responsibility fell to me. So I did what most others would do in that situation: dropped the ball, shut my eyes, swung my leg and hoped. Phew, it snuck over. It was a good way to finish off the day. Our points difference wasn’t good enough to get us in to the cup competition but we had beaten a top 8 side and had to build from there. USA up first on Sunday.

As our coach constantly has to remind us: in international sport nothing comes for free. Everything you earn, you deserve because you have worked for it. Against the US we deserved nothing so we got nothing. Frankly put, it was an unacceptable performance. The hard work of defeating France was quickly undone with a sloppy and gutless performance. It is difficult to say such things, but that is the reality. We are a team that need to function at the top of our game otherwise we can come unstuck. The US know this and took their opportunity. Rather than playing in the Bowl final in front of a packed stadium we were out on the back pitch starting the preparation for Japan next week. And trying to run away some of the frustrations that beset us throughout this competition.

The frustrating thing is that we know we are a good side. We just need to eradicate the silly mistakes and treat the ball with a little more respect. The positive from this is that wholesale changes are not required. If we can then increase the tempo we play at teams will begin to fear us. And maybe then we could realistically aspire to playing at the final of the Hong Kong 7s. It is undoubtedly the pinnacle of sevens rugby.

From Scotland to Hong Kong…

It’s all about the Sevens, of course, but much more goes on in Hong Kong. So let’s backtrack a little…

Since the first car journey from Glasgow through to Murrayfield, Byron McGuigan has provided an alternative outlook on life for many of us. He came over from South Africa and breezed in to training with a truly disgusting ginger mullet. And unfortunately things have deteriorated. Firstly he added a “skunk” stripe through the mullet. Then he arrived at Edinburgh airport ready to depart for Hong Kong sporting a dyed moustache.

However, the final insult is the impact he has had on a couple of the younger, more impressionable members of the squad. Sean Kennedy and Adam Ashe have grown up in the Clackmannan area of Scotland and so have notoriously suspect fashion sense. But to follow the lead of Byron has proved a huge fashion error. Sean arrived at the airport having bleached the lower back section of his hair. Adam has slightly longer hair and decided the back section of it should be dyed red. As a “senior” member of the squad, I may not be at the height of fashion, but judging by the rest of the squad’s reaction I am higher up than those three. Sadly, to round up the hair news, poor Mark Cairns has lost his battle with baldness. He arrived at the airport shorn of his previously flowing locks.

The flight to Hong Kong was a relative breeze compared to other Sevens flights. A mere 12 hours, and even Turny – who hadn’t trained for a few days prior to departure – came off it walking almost upright. The highlight was Hamish [Watson] colouring in his immigration landing card. Once we had given him a new one and collected our bags we were off to the hotel. I last played Hong Kong in 2006 but the teams still stay in the same hotel. On Kowloon it has a great view to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. And, having hosted the teams for several years, it knows how to cater for so many hungry rugby players. This deprives me of a central theme to the previous blog but I am a happier person for this.

We arrived in Hong Kong earlier than previously to help overcome the jet lag. Some of the team appeared to need this more than others. Mark Robertson was up at 4:30 the first morning. And Adam Ashe was up at 5:00 the following morning along with his room mate Byron. It appeared Ashy was almost drifting off to sleep when he shouted “badger’s nest”. Nobody has any idea what he was referring to, but it certainly ensured neither he nor Byron could get back to sleep.

Community Duty

Our early arrival in Hong Kong also gave us time to undertake a few community visits. First up, on Sunday morning, was a trip to help the Flying Kukri’s mini rugby squad. Hopefully the kids enjoyed our participation. Although the 8 year old that Rory Hughes bowled over maybe didn’t. Rory was on fine form, adding a couple of tries to his “dominant hit.” According to Rory, the kids have to learn so he was perfectly entitled to intercept the 9 year old’s pass and run to the tryline unopposed.

As the kids headed home we undertook our first proper session since arriving in Hong Kong. To welcome us we were greeted with 27 degree heat and 83% humidity. Not exactly what we are used to but still preferable to the wind and rain of Scotland. And it certainly made our lunch at the Hong Kong Aviation Club all the more enjoyable. It was a great feed with super hospitality and generously provided by the Flying Kukri’s.

On our return to the hotel we undertook our mandatory pool recovery session. However the pool in Hong Kong is deeper than most so our normal aqua jogging, stretching and light swimming session had to be adapted. First to attempt this was Mark Robertson who introduced the team to the game of Marco Polo. I won’t bore you with the details but it is basically a blind game of tig in the pool. If you happen to be the ‘tigger’ it can be hard work swimming around the pool with your eyes shut hoping that you swim in to someone to relieve you of the duty!

Next to modify our pool session was Hamish. He decided a game of Tanks and Submarines was a more suitable recovery protocol. Again the details are best left out but in summary involved lots of swimming lengths, either underwater- as a submarine, or on the surface- as a tank. Prior to this pool session we had participated in a training game against Canada. These ‘hit-outs’ are proving more and more valuable as it gives us an opportunity to challenge ourselves against another international team. Canada have been making vast improvements in the last few months and provided us with a big test. It also gave Robbo a wee reminder of just how tiring sevens can be.

With training completed we undertook a school visit on the way back to the hotel. The Diocesan school was our destination and they generously provided us with lunch. As we tidied our plates and bowls away we wandered outside to find some of our team mates had wolfed down their food so they could take on a few of the pupils at a game of basketball. This didn’t go all that well for us, with the pupils proving far more adept on the court. Things went from bad to worse for Ross “nowhere near LeBron” Miller. As the game wound down he decided to attempt a slam dunk. Not only did he miss (by a fairly considerable margin) he also managed to half grab the ring. This only succeeded in providing enough momentum for his legs to swing up before he lost his grip of the ring. The resulting fall was truly epic as he hit the ground back first making an almighty clatter. As one has to in these situations, Ross jumped to his feet attempting to laugh it off. However he definitely walked with a bit of limp for the rest of the day.

Whilst Ross iced his bruised back and ego the rest of us had to say farewell to our four additional squad members. We had travelled to Hong Kong with a squad of 16 to assist with our community duties and provide competition at training. It was time for them to join up with the Scottish Barbarians squad and prepare for the Hong Kong 10s tournament.

Our now reduced squad had a little time off, so a few of the lads headed for Ladies Market to try and pick up a few bargains. The vogue item appeared to be Beats by Dre headphones, with every second stall full of them. Ashy picked up a pair at a bargain price and they proceeded to break a couple of hours later. This, along with their remarkably low cost, led to a few questions about the authenticity of the product. However experiencing the markets is still a ‘must-do’ experience.

What has also become a vital part of our Hong Kong experience is the iPhone game Draw Something. We had free wifi in our rooms and this has been exploited in the most futile of ways. The game involves you drawing a picture on your phone and sending it to a friend for them to guess. They then draw one back. That is has exciting as it gets. Turns out Ross Miller is pretty handy at drawing anything from a wildfire to Justin Bieber.

Preparation Intensifies and a Wonder Strike

Tuesday and we were off to the gym followed by lunch and then training. A fairly standard day. What made it different was the introduction of our new fines system. Punctuality, tidiness, appearance and conduct in general are normally well maintained in our squad. However we felt it was relevant to introduce some deterrents. To make it a system for the players, it was designed by the players in true democratic style. Each player had to write down a fine and place it in a hat. Any miscreants would then pick from the hat and do whatever the hat decreed. Almost immediately after the system became operational, half our squad were late back from another trip to the market. Into the hat they went.

Highlights were probably “for the next 5 days you must start every pool session with a belly flop entry” and “you must offer tea and coffee to everybody at breakfast and dinner for the next 3 days.”

This just about shows the diversity of how our squad thinks.

We were afforded a little time off on Wednesday afternoon. Training, pool recovery (including a belly flop entry) and physio were completed by lunchtime. So we headed off to the 10s tournament to support the Scottish Barbarians. They looked good as they comfortably swept aside their first two opponents. We then had to depart as we were being hosted by the St. Andrews Society. Unfortunately they lost their final group game. This was not all that surprising considering the Pacific Barbarians included Justin Marshall, Mils Muliaina and Seilala Mapusua in their line up and went on to win the entire competition. Our boys did really well to finish as Plate runners-up.

As Rory and the boys faced up to several former All Blacks, we put on our brand new chinos and shirts and mingled with some Scottish ex-pats now living in Hong Kong. Also in attendance was Scottish Sports Minister Shona Robison and Ambassador to Hong Kong rugby, Graeme Morrison. Whilst catching up with Graeme we were joined by the MC for the evening. Graeme suggested to him that the team might like to sing to the assembled guests as a thank you for hosting us. Unfortunately his suggestion was taken seriously. I think that approximately four words in to O’ Flower of Scotland everybody in the room agreed that this was a terrible decision. I hope this was not the reason that we departed a short time later.

It was getting a little late and young Sam was beginning to get tired, while Ross was itching to get back to complete his drawing of a dinosaur to send to Turny. We also had to rest up as the tournament was just around the corner.

We only had one more session to fine tune our preparation and then it would be game time. Training later in the day (to replicate the start time of our game the following day) we had a day of relaxing and video analysis before we set off. Training was the sharpest it had been all week and there was a real buzz as the session ended. Hamish was even more excited. He had been permitted to attempt a drop goal by coach Shiel because he had caught a few balls over his head. Shiely has also realised Hamish is similar to a dog (see also previous blog) and functions best on a reward system. Only when Hamish had caught a certain number of balls above his head (a relevant skill to Hamish) could he hit a drop goal (Hamish’s favourite rugby past-time but not totally in keeping with his on-field play as an openside.) For an unknown reason Hamish decided that on the 10m line and right on the touch-line was where he would strike it from. Unbelievably it sailed through the posts. We all thought this must be a sign for the weekend.

As we all know now, this was not to be the case.

Colin Gregor plays for Glasgow Warriors and has also represented Scotland A. He is currently contracted to the Scotland Sevens team on the IRB Sevens Circuit.