Fans walk the talk at Hong Kong Sevens

The Hong Kong Sevens opened on Friday night as three rugby-packed days of merriment kicked off. Julian Linden experienced the thrills of one of the most popular events in world sport.

12:00 – The HKSEVENS Fan Walk is officially open for business and what better way to kick-off the new initiative than with an appearance by the little magician Waisale Serevi. The Fijian legend, who was part of five-Cup winning teams in Hong Kong, may be about to turn 49 but he looks as fit as ever as he casually answers questions from the master of ceremonies then happily signs a few autographs and poses for some photos with fans.

It is lunchtime so Lee Gardens is already packed with people getting ready for the official start of the tournament but there is an extra buzz this year because the streets have been decked out with the participating team’s flags and there are performers dotted on every corner.

There was a buzz among the fans who entered the HKSevens Fan Walk early. Calvin Kwan for ESPN

13:00 – The Hangovers have started their set at the Fan Walk and the band’s name could be ominous for some of the early revellers.

The music has got everyone in a good mood and the bar staff are having to start pouring the beers quicker as the orders start flooding in. The street performers are proving a real hit with the crowds as well. A couple of kids just tried to high-five the stilt walker but missed their target by a fair distance but got a balloon for trying, so they are happy. The kids are also impressed by the unicyclist but the man dressed as a bronze statue gave them a fright, then some giggles, when he suddenly rolled his eyes and glared at them. In defence of the kids, he was pretty convincing when he was playing dead and fooled plenty of the adults as well.

14:00 – More stars have just turned up to have a chat and mingle with the crowd, who are watching some of the early games at the stadium on the giant screen. Huriana Manuel – who won a silver medal at last Rio Olympics with New Zealand’s Black Ferns, is talking eloquently about the rising standards in the women’s game. And Steve Menzies, the former Australian rugby league international, sounds like he’s having the time of his life. The 42-year-old has never played rugby before but was invited to play for the Classic Wallabies in the Hong Kong 10s and sounds converted already: “This is my first time in Hong Kong but I’ll be back,” he tells the crowd. Hong Kong have just won their first qualifying match against Namibia, 22-7 so another roar goes up.

The HKSevens Fan Walk provided fans with an interactive rugby experience. Calvin Kwan for ESPN

15:00 – There’s so many people dressed in costumes wandering the streets that’s it takes something special to stand out from the crowd – but three lookalike performers who have just turned up at the Fan Walk have created a real commotion. There’s a Donald Trump, a Barack Obama and a Kim Jong Il – and I have to admit these guys have all got the look and the mannerisms bang on.

There’s no talk of politics here and people are queuing up to get on stage and have a picture with the unlikely trio. At the same time, a really sweet sound was coming from a neighbouring street so I went to investigate and discovered an instrument I had never heard of before – a handpan – which is basically a steel drum that performers play with their hands. This one is being played by a Japanese man called Taka who tells me it’s so easy to play that he taught himself. Not far from him, is a saxophone player, Michael Griffin Saunders, belting out some tunes. Originally from Philadelphia, he now lives in Hong Kong and has succeeded in getting some Fijians off their feet and dancing on the sidewalk.

16:00 – Former England international Charlie Hodgson and ex-Springbok Neil de Kock are the next rugby legends due to appear on the Fan Walk but they’re running a little late so I’ve headed down the street to check out the Cathay Pacific Fan Booth and HSBC’s Try Rugby. The Fan Booth – build in the shape of a giant rugby ball lets people pose in front of a backdrop of the stadium for a 180 degree time-slice photo, taken by 12 cameras. The attendants explain that it’s a graphics interchange format, which sounds way too complicated for me, but the result is pretty nifty and they’ll post it straight to your Facebook page if you want to remind all your friends you are in Hong Kong while they are at home. The Try Rugby is less complicated for any techno dinosaurs – but involves three physical tests – one for skill, one for speed and another for reaction time. I’m leaving that one to the youngsters as well.

Fans could have their photo taken as part of a fun, vibrant HKSevens Fan Walk. Calvin Kwan for ESPN

17:00 – Owen Campbell – an Aussie blues singer – has just taken the stage at the Fan Walk and the crowd, from all corners of the globe, are providing some backing vocals. I just had a chat with some Canadians — dressed as Mounties — who are at the Hong Kong Sevens for the first time. From Calgary, they’ve decided to attend every round of the HSBC World Series as part of their Bucket List. They’ve already been to Dubai and Las Vegas so Hong Kong is number three on their list, so still seven to go! I also spotted a bagpiper who looked like he’d just arrived from the Scottish highlands but he informs me that he’s Hong Kong born and bred.

18:00 – There’s a really festive crowd at the Fan Walk now and most eyes are fixed on the big screen as the action at the stadium starts to get serious. Japan have just caused a huge boil over by winning the women’s title for the first time — beating South Africa 22-10 in the final — in what is a sure sign of Asia’s continued improvement in the game as Japan prepares to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup then the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

The on-field action pauses for a moment for the Opening of the tournament and the traditional Chinese lion eye-dotting ceremony, featuring British Olympic rowing legend Steve Redgrave, Fiji’s Olympic gold medal winning coach Ben Ryan and former South African captain Jean de Villiers. Australia get the World Series competition under way by beating Samoa 22-19 in Pool A. England, one of the favorites to win in Hong Kong after they won the last round in Vancouver, thrash South Korea 52-0. Dan Norton was among the try scorers, taking his career tally to 245– inching past Kenya’s Collins Injera as the all-time leading tryscorer in World Sevens.

There was a welcome message at the opening ceremony of the Hong Kong Sevens. Calvin Kwan for ESPN

19:00 – It’s non-stop action at the stadium now as New Zealand, the United States and Argentina all win. New Zealand beat Wales 19-7 despite losing their captain Scott Curry just before the kick-off. The New Zealand head coach head coach Scott Waldrom explained that Curry had come down with the flu and had been replaced by Sam Dickson. DJ Forbes was promoted to captain and scored a try. The Americans beat Russia 14-7 with Perry Baker, a real speedster who has become a big hit in Hong Kong, chalking up his 25th try this season. Argentina see off Scotland 22-19 despite the support from the lone bagpiper.

20:00 – The crowd goes wild as Fiji step out for their first match. The Pacific Islanders have won a record 16 Hong Kong titles, including the last two, and if their 36-0 thrashing of Japan is anything to go by they will take some stopping this weekend. The Rio Olympic gold medallists racked up six tries with Jerry Tuwai crossing for two of them.

All of the results have been fairly predictable so far but Canada have just changed that by beating Kenya 17-14. The scores were tied at 14-14 after Nelson Oyoo scored for Kenya under the sticks in the last moment but the Canadians marched right back down the field and banged over a penalty after the siren. No tries for Injerra, so he stays one behind Norton. There was almost another surprise in the last match of the day when the World Series leaders South Africa took on France. After leading 10-0, the Blitzboks allowed the French to level at halftime before eventually winning 17-10 to end a fantastic first day at the tournament. And there are still two to come.

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