HONG KONG (AP) — Thousands of revellers returned to Hong Kong Stadium on Friday to enjoy a highly anticipated international rugby sevens tournament for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
It wasn't a celebration for everyone, though, with some international fans unaware of the city's pandemic restrictions turned away at the gates.
And the Canadian men had a rude return to the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, blanked 36-0 by Argentina after conceding four first-half tries and trailing 26-0 at the half at Hong Kong Stadium.
Argentina scored two tries in the first two minutes, winning the ball back from the restart both times before slashing through the Canadian defence.
Canada, which finished 14th overall last season in the sevens standings in the wake of a slew of retirements following the Tokyo Olympics, completes Pool D play against Ireland and Kenya on Saturday. The top two teams in the pool advance to the Cup quarterfinals.
Argentina won the Vancouver stop on the circuit last season en route to finishing fourth overall.
The Hong Kong Sevens, a popular stop on the World Series circuit, is part of the government’s drive to restore the city’s image as a vibrant financial hub after it scrapped mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers.
Hundreds of spectators, some in fancy dress and superhero costumes, had gathered by mid-afternoon. The estimated crowd built up to around 20,000 fans by 5 p.m., according to the event organizer.
The city's pandemic rules require spectators to show a photo of their rapid virus test results and scan a risk notification app upon entry. Fans were required to wear masks except when eating or drinking in their seats. The stadium in Causeway Bay was capped at 85% of its 40,000 capacity. Not all fans kept their masks on as required, amid music, fireworks and entertaining rugby on the field.
Hong Kong lost 36-0 to Australia in the final game of the opening day which saw defending champion Fiji beat Japan 59-12.
The world's leading teams are competing in Hong Kong, where the tournament for the condensed rugby format started in the 1970s and really took hold in the 80s, accelerating rugby seven's eventual inclusion in the Olympics in 2016.
Overseas patrons, who used to account for a significant percentage of ticket sales in what has always been a party-like atmosphere at the stadium, need to comply with extra rules set for arrivals, such as undergoing other COVID tests and monitoring their health. Restaurant and bar visits are not allowed during their first three days in the city.
While some local fans and international spectators weren't bothered by the controls, the rules proved to be an upsetting experience for others.
Businessman Renier du Plessis from South Africa arrived in the city with three friends on Thursday to watch the tournament but he was barred from entering the stadium because he failed to meet the health code requirements.
They were unaware of the rules partly because they bought the tickets months ago, du Plessis said.
“It's disappointing, you know, the fact that we cannot do anything. I'm not allowed anywhere. So where am I supposed to be for the next three days?" he said.
Normally half of the spectators at the stadium would be international visitors but the percentage this year is likely to be in single digits, according to Robbie McRobbie, the CEO of Hong Kong Rugby Union.
Most of the 27,000 tickets sold went to the domestic market, McRobbie said.
“Having three days when you can't go to bars and restaurants, to be honest, is a big deterrent for the type of clients that came in for something like Rugby Sevens,” he said.
But he was hopeful that there would be a further relaxation in COVID-19 rules for next year's games.
Some German exchange students were already used to the precautionary rules and did not find them troublesome.
“It's probably one of the biggest events that we will attend in Hong Kong over our time, and we only have one month left. So we're really looking forward to this," 21-year-old university student Bella Müller said.
Hong Kongers, who mostly came in groups, were excited to attend a long-awaited large scale event. IT specialist Janssen Chow, 26, was happy that he could at least eat and drink in an enjoyable atmosphere.
“It's already better than just sitting here,” he said.
At a separate forum Friday, Regina Ip, a leading member of Hong Kong’s cabinet, the Executive Council, described the Hong Kong Sevens as a “test.” If the infection figures have not surged rapidly after the three-day event, she said that the city would have the conditions to further open up.
The former British colony also kicked off a five-day “FinTech Week,” and a major financial conference that featured more than 200 global financial executives this week.
With files from The Canadian Press
Kanis Leung, The Associated Press