Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Rugby Sevens at the Singapore Cricket Club - November 2-4, 2012

Singapore may not have more than a single soccer league, but that doesn’t mean there are no other sports to watch. November has three world-class events being played on three separate weekends and I’ll be there for all of them. First up was the 65th edition of the Singapore Cricket Club’s International Rugby Sevens tournament. Initially contested in 1948, the tournament has grown in popularity since and is now one of the top international club competitions in Asia, with teams coming from around the world. This year saw 20 clubs from countries including England, Sweden, Kenya, and Malaysia, playing over three days on the first weekend in November.

As a bonus, the Asia Rugby Sevens Series held their World Cup Qualifying tournament at the same time, with 12 national squads doing battle on Friday and Saturday afternoon, looking to get one of three Asian spots in next summer’s event in Moscow. Add on a college tournament and even one for the kids, and there was rugby galore at the SCC.

Singapore Cricket Club

The SCC was established in 1852 and is now one of the premier social clubs in this small island nation. For the average person, there is little chance of getting into the Club without a member’s invite, but tickets for this tournament are available to the general public.

The action takes place on the Padang, the large field on which the SCC conducts its usual sporting activities. It is located smack in the middle of downtown, between the Central Business District (skyline above) and Marina Bay (that's the iconic Marina Bay Sands in the distance below). For this weekend, about 7,000 temporary seats are installed (the same seats used in the F1 race, interestingly) along with a reasonably large eating area. It is a remarkable setup and quite necessary as the tournament attracts a good crowd on the weekends.

Five local restaurants have small stands that provide decent fare such as fish and chips, Mexican food, pies, kebabs, and burgers for about the same as you would pay outside. There were a few tables where you could sit and a television was nearby if you wanted to follow the action on the field, which was blocked from view by the stands. There was also an extensive drinks menu, although it was slightly overpriced with cans of beer going for $9. Refillable jugs were a more popular option but at $40, not a huge savings over the option of going one at a time. Wine and spirits were also available. There were three bars around the ground, with the Guinness Bar at one end of the field the spot of choice for many fans looking to socialize. When the weather was good, Guinness girls provided beer service to your seat.

The main problem with this temporary setup is that there is little escape from a rainstorm. The wind blows the rain into the top and bottom rows of the stands, and the ground becomes drenched. Walking from one end to the other becomes a thoroughly unpleasant experience, as muddy water pops up between the cracks in the plastic path that you are forced to use, soaking your shoes. Despite the eating area being covered, the grassy area underneath became a mud pit and there is no way around it if you needed to use the facilities. It rains quite regularly in Singapore during this time of year, and both Saturday and Sunday saw storms, with Sunday’s causing an hour delay and forcing two matches to be cancelled. Bring an umbrella if you want to stay dry.

A three-day general admission ticket costs $70 (US $57), which is a bit much given the lack of infrastructure. There were discounts of 20% available if you had certain promotion codes provided by a sponsor or local rugby club, but even $56 is slightly overpriced in my mind. With the price of beer also a bit on the high side and the limited food selection, I felt the admission price could have been lowered somewhat. Still, there were three full days of quality rugby with three games every hour from early in the morning to well past sunset, a great offering for any sports fan.

Rugby Sevens

Rugby sevens is similar to rugby union, but with 7 aside instead of 15. With so much more space, tries are common and hence the game consists of two 7-minute halves with a 1-minute intermission. It is a fast-paced game, with speed more important than size. There are penalties but rarely are they taken for a goal, since tries are so much easier to achieve. Conversions are attempted via a drop (below) rather than kicking from a tee as in rugby union.  With just 20 minutes scheduled for each match, there is no rest for fans, with the next game’s teams racing onto the field before the players from the previous match have even left.

Rugby Sevens is becoming very popular worldwide and will be part of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. There are tournaments featuring national teams played all over the world, with one in Las Vegas in February, 2013. If you want to see a lot of action without all the stoppages that make rugby union difficult for novice spectators, check out a game when you have a chance.

The Tournaments

ARFU Rugby Sevens World Cup Qualifier

As mentioned, there were two separate tournaments over the weekend. The Asian Rugby Football Union was holding their last competition of the series here, with the top three teams earning a berth in next year’s World Cup in Moscow. Japan, Hong Kong, China, and South Korea were the heavy favourites and each easily won their two pool games, played on Friday afternoon. I spent my lunch break watching Hong Kong (in red below) defeat the Philippines 29-12 and Japan humble Sri Lanka 35-0 and neither game was particularly interesting.

The knockouts were on Saturday, with the top two from each pool taking part. The four favourites should have had no problem, but plucky Philippines bested China 14-7 to reach the semifinals. The other matches happened as expected, and with no upsets in the semis, Japan and Hong Kong advanced to the final, guaranteeing their spot in the World Cup. The 3rd-place game featured South Korea taking on underdog Philippines for that coveted final spot and it was actually quite exciting. The Philippines were dominant from the start, bursting out to a 22-5 lead and holding on after the Koreans scored twice in the last few minutes. The 22-19 victory can be counted as a huge upset in Asian rugby. After the match, the winners took a lap of honour and were heartily cheered by the fans. Congratulations to the Philippines and good luck next year!

In the essentially meaningless final, Japan beat Hong Kong 14-12, using a last minute conversion to clinch the match. A drizzle had started midway through the game and I was happy to see the ball make it through the uprights so I could head home before the storm hit.

SCC International Rugby Sevens

Despite having 12 national teams competing in the World Cup qualifier, the real event of the weekend was the club tournament featuring 20 sides from around the world. Divided into five pools of 4, the round robin was conducted on Friday and Saturday, with the playoffs taking place on Sunday. I skipped the round robin, mistakenly expecting that the clubs would not be as good as the national sides. I found out shortly after I arrived on Sunday that this is not the case; the players here have been involved in rugby since they were wee ones and it showed. The top clubs likely would defeat even the Japanese or Hong Kong national sides.

To ensure that each club gets to play in its share of games, there are three knockout competitions. The bottom four teams play for the Bowl , while those teams that lose in the first round of the playoffs take part in the Plate tournament. The other eight teams compete for the Ablitt Cup, named after a former president of the SCC. The quarter-final matches featuring these top sides were gritty and hard-hitting, with fewer drops and far better tackling than I saw over the previous couple of days.

I spent some time standing right behind one of the goals and found that to be a great spot to watch, particularly when the action is right in front of you. Most of the photographers had set up here but there was still plenty of room for fans to stand as well. Seeing players fight for a try just a few feet away is an experience that you cannot get elsewhere, especially when the teams are so similar in quality. The picture above is actually from the previous day with Thailand and Kazakhstan playing but illustrates just how close you can get.

Unfortunately, midway through the afternoon, the skies opened and it rained hard and heavy for over an hour. With lightning threatening, players left the pitch and many fans took advantage of a rare opportunity to strip down to their skivvies and run onto the field, sliding face first, hydroplaning across the grass. The grounds crew did not seem to mind, so those of us who prefer to stay dry were entertained for a while by these body boarders, some of whom began tackling each other in the muck. It is certainly not something that would happen in a regular venue, were field access is restricted, and really added to the overall experience.

When the rugby resumed, the field was still soaked and the quality of play suffered, with far more mistakes. After watching a couple of matches like this, I decided to head back before the situation got worse. Daveta, the team from Fiji, defended their title by beating a team from Scotland in the final.

Overall, I found this to be a great event in terms of atmosphere. Fans from all over the world were in attendance and they made lots of noise when a team from their country was on the field. Even when the game featured two teams from other nations, they watched closely, cheering the great plays and laughing at the more embarrassing errors. When it was announced that the president of one club was celebrating his 60th birthday, the crowd broke out in an impromptu rendition of Happy Birthday, and they sang along to songs played during the rain delay. It is unfortunate that it is only held on an annual basis, but I’ll definitely be back next year, and with an umbrella this time!

Next Up

This weekend sees Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and other top golfers in town to contest the Singapore Open and I’ll be there for one day. The following weekend I will travel to Manila and revisit the Araneta Coliseum, one of the Philippines biggest stadiums. After a stop in India for work, I’ll return to Singapore and check out the final day of the Clash of Continents tennis tournament, featuring Kei Nishikori, Mardy Fish, Janko Tipsarevic, and Juan Monaco in a round-robin. November is another busy month so check back often for updates.



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