This article was published in 2019.
Neither kids nor parents are fazed by the monsoon showers that poured down on Happy Valley on this chilly Sunday morning in March. The full-sized football pitch in the centre of the racecourse is divided into four quarters, allowing different rugby games to be played simultaneously. At one of the sidelines, between parents and coaches, one familiar face stands out. Leung Yeung-kit, better known as Rambo, is following the game attentively, his eyes fixed on a boy in white boots.
Sharing the same roots as football, rugby arrived in Hong Kong in early colonial times, at the end of the 19th century. A part of the modern wave of sports that emerged in Britain’s elite schools, the game became also a popular leisure activity across the British Empire. However, in contrast to football, which was enthusiastically embraced by Hong Kong’s local population, rugby remained mainly a niche for the Europeans in the colony. In fact, it took more than a century to break this cultural barrier.
In 1993, Rambo made history when he became the first local Chinese player to represent Hong Kong in a rugby union international against Taiwan. The symbolic power of this achievement could not be underestimated, breaking with a century-old stereotype that locals would not be up to the game. Now, 26 years later, he sees his legacy being carried on by his nine-year-old son Tane.
In this March afternoon, Tane is playing “mini rugby,” a lighter version of the game, though no less exhausting. Without any break, the kids constantly change between attack and defence, with instructions flying in from the sidelines. Occasionally, even Rambo cannot hold himself back, shouting a resounding “Tackle!” from the top of his lungs.
Nowadays, children start to learn rugby at the age of four, usually in a playful way without any body contact. Once they are eight years old, the game becomes a bit more physical and competitive, but still with the emphasis on fun, teamwork, and collaboration to keep the boys and girls interested. That is a far cry from how Rambo was introduced to the game.
“I was already 17,” he says while observing the future generation of Hong Kong’s rugby players just a few yards away. Although mini rugby already existed back then, it was hardly able to attract any local kids. Growing up, Rambo was more inclined towards basketball, but a newspaper advertisement for “touch rugby” piqued his interest and eventually he gave it a try. The timing turned out to be perfect, as the Hong Kong Rugby Union had just launched a new development project to spread the game into the Chinese community, and Rambo was among the first batch of young local talents to catch the eyes of the coaches. His parents were less delighted about his new passion, however, constantly voicing their worries about his health and safety.
After playing for the Causeway Bay Rams for several years, Rambo was called up by former Fiji national coach George Simpkin. As soon as the New Zealander arrived in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, he made it his mission to make the game relevant to the local population. One of his main projects were the so-called Hong Kong Dragons, an all-Chinese rugby squad that took up the role as a shadow national team. In 1992, Rambo was elected Development Player of the Year and started impressing in the position of a hooker, a front row forward with a big amount of responsibility. One year later, he made history as the first ever Chinese player in the full national squad.
Reaching the upper echelons of the domestic rugby world, Rambo nonetheless also experienced his fair share of setbacks, particularly in the form of injuries. He finally retired in the year 2000, but his involvement in developing the sport has just begun. For the following decade, Rambo devoted his energy to promote the game not only in Hong Kong, but also in mainland China, where he worked as a consultant for the International Rugby Board as well as the Asian Rugby Football Union.
The challenge was big enough. He had to build up a grassroots structure, find allies in the educational sector and eventually reach a legitimate existence for rugby within the Chinese sporting landscape. Probably the biggest task, however, was to change the mindset of parents.
“They often think they just pay a class for the kids, and then think that will bring results,” he says. But rugby goes beyond the class. “We are a community and we want everyone, kids and parents, to get involved in the game as much as possible. Enjoy [being] together and respect each other. This is what rugby culture is all about. Some parents are not ready yet for this, but they start to learn.” Even when it comes to his son Tane, finding joy in the game and learning about the social dimension of the sport has always been the priority. “Maybe at this age the kids still struggle to concentrate on the game, but you can already see who is loving the game and who may have potential in the future,” he says.
Of course, there is still one question that is hard to avoid when it comes to Hong Kong rugby: since Rambo’s historic moment in 1993, what has changed? Has rugby become more local in its appeal? “It’s tricky,” he admits. Salmon Yiu is currently the only Chinese player on the elite team. “As you know, our rugby standard is very high at the moment,” he says. For short-term goals it is understandable that Hong Kong needs the best results in important competitions. But Rambo is confident that this will change in the long run. The Rugby Union has been very committed to bringing the game to the community, establishing its own foundation in 2013 that tries to promote the values of an inclusive society. They also work with local schools to increase participation and there are certainly players in the making that could make the cut in the future.
Even though Rambo stepped down from some of the time-demanding jobs in recent years to spend more time with his family, he will not miss out on the annual Rugby Sevens, in which he first got involved in 1995 as a local ambassador. Established in 1976, the Hong Kong Sevens are widely regarded as the most prestigious rugby event in Asia and they are also credited for popularising the game over the last few decades. With Asia’s ever-growing interest and quality in rugby, there were ever more reasons to make the sport an Olympic competition. Since 1998 rugby was accredited for the Asian Games, and in 2016 the sevens format officially joined the Olympic Games in Rio. This year’s Hong Kong Rugby Sevens will be the 44th edition, drawing more than 100,000 people to Hong Kong Stadium from 5 to 7 April.
On the chances of who may win the trophy this year in Hong Kong, Rambo cannot hide his bias. “I am an All Blacks fan,” he says, referring to New Zealand’s national team. But he immediately concedes that Fiji should be the favourite to win. The Pacific Islanders have won the tournament for the last four years and 18 times overall. The United States and Wales could also be title contenders.
Is there anything in particular Rambo will watch out for at the Sevens? “To be honest, the men’s teams have all developed a similar playing style over the years,” he says. “So I think the women’s games are more interesting to watch, particularly when it comes to tactics and skill.” He is still waiting to see if his three-year-old daughter will one day decide to follow into the footsteps of her father. If she does, she can surely count on the best support possible.