Thursday, November 29, 2012

Clash of Continents - November 25, 2012

I’ve been in Singapore for just over 4 months now and in that time, I think I’ve seen a wider variety of sports than any similar period I spent in Japan. Locally I’ve seen soccer, water polo, golf, rugby sevens, and F1, and taken a couple of quick overseas trips for cricket and basketball. Many of these events may not have the media recognition of their more famous counterparts in Japan, but it has been a lot of fun to be part of them anyway. As a result, I’ve become more interested in seeing things that I would have dismissed as “amateurish” just a few months ago. The most recent example is the inaugural Clash of Continents tennis tournament that was held this past weekend at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

The format of this tournament was a 2-day round robin between four top stars, each representing their continent. World #8 Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia represented Europe while Japan’s Kei Nishikori was the Asian entry, Argentina’s Juan Monaco came all the way from South America, and Yank Sam Querrey played for North America. Mardy Fish was originally slated for that spot but his personal issues forced him to withdraw just a week before. I would have preferred to see Canadian Milos Raonic instead but I’m guessing the organizers had limited choice and took the first big name they could find.

The indoor stadium is one of several facilities that will make up the Singapore Sports Hub, a sports complex with five distinct venues along with retail and residential space. Scheduled to open fully in 2014, it will be highlighted by the new National Stadium which promises to be the best in Southeast Asia. For now though, it is still under construction.

The indoor stadium is old by comparison, having first opened in 1988. Despite its age, the stadium seems brand new and is one of the nicest venues I’ve seen in Asia. It is also the home of the Singapore Slingers, a team that plays in the Asean Basketball League, so I’ll be back for a couple of their games next year and provide a more thorough review at that time.

Instead of discussing the stadium itself, I’ll talk about the event, which was OK for a first attempt but needs to improve to become a regular part of the sporting calendar. Saturday featured four of the six round robin matches. I did not attend as I had flown overnight from Chennai after a tiring business trip and I had no energy to even get out of the house. I did follow online and each match was won by the higher ranked player. Tipsarevic won both his matches, Querrey lost twice, while Monaco beat Nishikori in the other.

Sunday was the more interesting day, with an exhibition match between Daniela Hantuchova and Peng Shuai (serving above), who are apparently more famous for their looks than their tennis talent. I showed up as this was getting started and watched a few games before doing my stadium tour. Peng won in two sets.

After this, British pop star Leona Lewis (above) gave a brief concert which was much more enjoyable than I expected. A great number of fans were there for her rather than the tennis and it made for a very diverse crowd. Lewis sang 5 or 6 songs in her first live performance in Singapore which took about 30 minutes. I enjoy when live music is mixed with sport in these circumstances (i.e. an exhibition tournament) as I get to see something I otherwise would have no interest in.

After Lewis left the stage, Kei Nishikori came out looking very sad (above). The evening was supposed to end with the final two round robin matches. First Querrey would take on Monaco and then Tipsarevic would face Nishikori. I was quite looking forward to the second match but it wasn’t to be as Nishikori announced (in perfect English) that had hurt himself the day before and had to withdraw. The fans were not happy but there was little that could be done. We all waited patiently for the other two to get ready, but there was not much enthusiasm from the crowd or the players.

Monaco defeated Querrey (above) in a bizarre battle that seemed to indicate both players just wanted to go home. Querrey won the first set 6-1; Monaco won the second set 6-1, setting up a first-to-10 tiebreak for the match. At this point, it seemed like play began for real and Monaco came away with a 10-7 win to take the match and second place.

Nishikori’s withdrawal was not the only disappointment. The availability and cost of food and drink was simply not worthy of a sporting event of this stature. The major issue is that the hot food was served at 10:30 and had to be consumed by 2:30, so if you arrived after that (like I did), there were slim pickings indeed. Even if there was hot food, I don't know if I would have bothered; hot dogs were listed at $8.

Alcohol, on the other hand, was widely available, but rather overpriced with two bottles of beer going for $25. Booze is expensive here in Singapore due to high taxes, but this was crazily overpriced. Cocktails and wine were also on the menu but I saw very few patrons trying any sort of potent potables. Most preferred Coke at $4 or mineral water at $3.

The price of tickets ranged from $150 for arena seats to $60 for balcony (from where the above picture was taken), with the terrace seats in between at $90. Given that this would allow you two full days of tennis (seven matches in all) along with the concert, I think that the lower priced options are fair value for tennis fans, but if you only want to go one day, then it gets a bit much. I think they need to include single-day options for those of us who don’t want to spend our entire weekend watching the same players over and over again.

On the positive side, there were some "kids' courts" (below) at the south entrance where children could practice with soft tennis balls, as well as a section sponsored by "Tennis for the Blind" where you could be blindfolded and try to hit large tennis balls that were equipped with bells. This was not marketed as well as it could have been, but was still crowded with fans throughout the afternoon.

Overall, this was the first Clash of Continents and it was deemed a success with around 7,000 fans showing up each day. There is no guarantee that the event will be held in 2013, but if it is, organizers will have to improve their offerings to make it more attractive to tennis fans who have high expectations as Singapore becomes more and more of an international sporting hub.

Next Up

Nothing remaining for this year, although I am still planning my Christmas trip and that could end up somewhere with a sporting event. As well, the 2013 schedule is being firmed up and should include some new destinations and events and no NHL regardless of how the lockout finishes. Check back on occasion for announcements on both fronts.



Saturday, November 24, 2012

Dear NHL Fans - Don't be suckers!

For the second time in nine seasons, the NHL is locking out its players. In 2004-05, the lockout lasted the entire season and no Stanley Cup was awarded. This dispute looks set to end similarly with games up to mid December canceled along with with the Winter Classic and the All-Star Game. Sure, there is a chance that games will begin in January and the playoffs will run until July. But it is becoming more likely that the entire season will be wasted while the two parties bicker incessantly.

Whatever the case, I think it is time for NHL fans to realize that they are being played for suckers and respond in the only logically possible manner. When the league finally returns from this embarrassment, fans must resolve not to attend any games or even watch a single period on television. There are so many other opportunities to watch hockey in North America where you won’t be strung along and treated like a revenue generator rather than a true fan.

My friends at Stadium Journey provide dozens of great examples of quality hockey within an hour or two of nearly every NHL team. The Canadian cities all have their junior teams including the Edmonton Oil Kings, Vancouver Giants, Calgary Hitmen, and Ottawa 67s. Toronto even has an AHL franchise in the Marlies, who are entertaining and far more affordable than the Maple Leafs.

The AHL has 29 other teams scattered around North America, including a club in Chicago. The ECHL is another option with the Trenton Titans a short drive from the New York and Philadelphia metro areas. The recently reorganized Central Hockey League has a new team in Denver and two squads in the Dallas area: the Allen Americans and the Fort Worth Brahmas. These are just a few of the hockey clubs that are still playing; all three of these leagues provide team maps on their websites, making it easy to find a nearby rink.

The NCAA also offers entertaining ice hockey, with several teams in Boston, including Boston College and Boston University, and of course teams all around Minnesota and Michigan. The point is clear – you don’t have to watch the NHL to watch live hockey. In fact, you should be taking this opportunity to seek out new hockey destinations. It is still cheaper to drive for an hour or two each way and buy a $20 ticket to sit close to the ice at an AHL game than to buy one overpriced NHL nosebleed seat.

Let’s be honest. The main sticking point in this lockout is hockey-related revenues (HRR). Fans generate those revenues. Sure, sponsors pay millions to associate themselves with the game, but they do so in the expectation of increased sales to hockey fans. Television contracts are based on the expectation of increasing viewership and hence increasing advertising revenue. Finally, fans pay directly for tickets, concessions, merchandise, and other incidentals such as the NHL’s Game Center Live package. All of this adds up to around $3 billion, a very large amount of money. Yet the owners and players are yet again unable to figure out a fair way to divide the spoils.

So let’s make it easy on these poor, tortured souls by bringing HRR as close to zero as possible. This is my plea to NHL fans: stop going to NHL games; stop watching games on TV; stop buying NHL merchandise; stop supporting companies who sponsor the league. Start spending your entertainment dollar elsewhere, whether it be at one of the rinks mentioned above, or at another league or sport near to you. Or take all that money that you were about to waste on the NHL and donate it to charity; you’ll actually feel good about yourself rather than feeling like a used piece of furniture when you give your money to the owners and players.

When the lockout began, Gary Bettman said that the NHL has the “greatest fans”, a backhanded compliment indicating that fans will return regardless of how long the lockout lasts, given what happened in 2005. Let’s prove to him that the NHL has the smartest fans instead. By making a collective decision to spend our cash in other arenas, we can change the dynamic that has driven this league into the sports wilderness over the past decade.

So stop spending money on the NHL! If enough fans heed this plea, and the NHL sees its revenue drop significantly, the league might actually begin to care about their fans rather than treating them like garbage every eight years.



Note: This was originally posted on Stadium Journey but I've added it here for as much exposure as possible.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Philippine Basketball Assocation at Araneta Coliseum - Nov 18, 2012

In 1975, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought their third and final bout in Manila, Philippines. Known as the “Thrilla in Manila”, the match is now considered one of the greatest sporting events of the 20th century. Despite the magnitude of the bout, few fans in North America could actually name the venue that hosted these two great boxers that early October morning. Well never fear, that is why I do these sports road trips, to find out trivia like this and bring it to you. The answer: the Thrilla took place at the Araneta Coliseum, in the Cubao district of Quezon City, Manila. Unlike older stadiums in the U.S., which are torn down with alarming regularity, Araneta still stands and I visited there on my recent trip to the Philippines to see some Philippine Basketball Association action.

Araneta Coliseum 

The coliseum was opened in 1960 after a three-year construction period. Named after the influential Araneta family, it quickly gained the appropriate if unoriginal nickname “Big Dome”. It is clearly reminiscent of the ancient Roman coliseums and at the time of its inauguration, it received international recognition as the largest covered coliseum in the world. Even today, it remains the largest indoor facility in Southeast Asia with a dome diameter of 108 meters.

In July 1999, the coliseum underwent its first major renovation when the lower box and patron sections had their seats replaced while a four-sided scoreboard was hung above center court. This scoreboard was replaced in December 2010 with a large LED screen dubbed the "Big Cube" in keeping with the tradition of simple yet accurate nicknames.

Midway through 2011 it was announced that the Araneta family entered into a naming rights deal with Smart, the mobile subsidiary of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company. The resulting moniker, Smart Araneta Coliseum, can be confusing for those of us not familiar with telephony in the Philippines; in reality the coliseum is no more intelligent than any other venue. Still, with the new name bringing further renovations, the Araneta Coliseum has kept up with the times and is in surprisingly good shape for being 53 years old.

These days, the Philippine Basketball Association plays many of its games here with weekend doubleheaders the top draw. My friend Jun and I drove over on Sunday afternoon to catch some of the action and I left suitably impressed.

For one, food options are more than enough. There about a dozen restaurants that are part of the dome, but still outside the entrance. Try Mang Inasal if you want something truly local, the unlimited rice is what gets most Filipinos inside. Inside there are a few stalls including American stalwarts Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Wendy’s, but I would recommend the Sio Pao at Snaxxs on the second level. For 45 pesos (about $1.30) you get a sweet chicken bun that I have not seen at another venue anywhere in the world. It was quite tasty and a better bet than that burrito you can always buy stateside.

The other thing that surprised me was the immediate area around the stadium. Araneta Center is a relatively nice part of Manila, which is a run-down city nearly everywhere else. The Coliseum is surrounded by shopping malls, including the Ali Mall, naturally named after Muhammad Ali. It was opened in 1976, just a year after the fight, and was the first major shopping mall in the nation. You can try exploring the various malls during the day but always be aware of your surroundings as Jun mentioned that the area is known for pickpockets and other shady characters, particularly in the evening hours. If you happen to visit during the holiday season, be sure to note the large Christmas tree at one corner of the coliseum grounds; it is famous throughout the Philippines for the lighting that happens every year.

The best way to get there is by taxi. There is an LRT stop right next to the arena if you wish to try public transportation, but it is not a particularly useful line with few stops near a hotel that you might be staying. Ask your concierge for details on how to get here, most likely he will recommend the taxi option, which is more convenient than the train, though it may not necessarily be faster given Manila's stop-and-go traffic.

The main entrance is behind a new glass atrium and this is where you will find the ticket windows and a few scalpers who can safely be ignored. If you have a few minutes, stroll around the neighbourhood and try to imagine what it was like when this place was the center of the sporting universe so many years ago.

The Games

These days, the PBA is the main tenant at Araneta and there are two games for every PBA event. There are several ticket options with the most expensive at 820 pesos, about $24. This might sound cheap until you realize that 820 pesos is a lot of money in the Philippines and could easily buy 3 or 4 nice dinners. Rather, try the 70 peso general admission option that I much prefer as you get to choose your seat in the upper deck, which is not that far away from the court anyways. Ticket prices are 20 pesos cheaper for weekday games.

Once inside, if you have the upper deck ticket you will immediately be shuttled upstairs (above), which is annoying if you want a full tour. The upper concourse is wide enough (below), although it did get slightly jammed up during the intermissions. 

The seating area is really interesting and smartly designed so that there are no problems walking around the entire dome once inside the bowl. With capacity around 60%, there was no problem finding a seat.

As mentioned, there were two games. I am not even going to bother with recapping them because I was really didn't follow them that closely. The first involved the Petron Blaze Boosters (in white below) taking on the worst team in the league, Globalport Batang Pier. The game was close for about five minutes before Petron went on something like a 10-0 run and they never looked back, cruising to a 110-81 win. 

The second game was more entertaining as it featured the most popular team, Barangay Ginebra taking on the Alaska Aces. The crowd was into the match from tip-off and both teams fed off this energy, playing a much more technically sound game than the opener. Neither team dominated though, and Alaska took a three-point lead into halftime. At this point, Jun and I left as we had to meet friends for dinner, but Barangay came back and won the game 96-93. 

All-in-all, a fun afternoon and heartily recommended if you are in Manila during the season. It is true that Araneta Coliseum will always be remembered for that bout nearly 50 years ago, but it is still a very good place to watch some local basketball action. See it if you can.



Sunday, November 18, 2012

Texas Triangle Trip Planned

Now that I live in Singapore, getting back to North America is a long and painful process. There are two direct flights (one to LA, one to Newark) but those are not affordable and won't be around into 2014 anyway. Instead, I am forced to transit via my old stomping grounds in Tokyo, which adds at least 8 hours to what used to be a half-day trip, depending on my destination. So it takes a fairly big event to get me back across the Pacific. Next year sees my parents celebrating a milestone anniversary, so I'll be heading home for that. But with no sports left to see in that area of the world, I'll be stopping off in Texas to knock a few venues off the Quest for 400 list. The centerpiece is the NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston, which is probably the second most difficult ticket behind the Super Bowl. Fortunately, there are backup events should I not find my way inside the Toyota Center on February 17th.

I'm also hoping for a trip to New York during that time, which would allow me to see the resurgent Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. All this is still to be confirmed, but who knows, maybe this schedule will inspire some other roadtrippers.

Feb 14 Miami Heat at Oklahoma City Thunder 7:00 (NBA finals rematch)
Feb 15 Oklahoma City Barons at Texas Stars (AHL) 7:30
Feb 16 NBA All Star Saturday at Houston or Sacramento State at Texas (NCAA Baseball)
Feb 17 NBA All Star Game at Houston or UIC at Texas A&M (NCAA Baseball)
Feb 18 Central Baptist Mustangs at New Orleans Privateers (NCAA Basketball) 7:00
Feb 19 Chicago Bulls at New Orleans Hornets 7:00
Feb 20 Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets 7:00
Feb 21 Florida Atlantic Owls at North Texas Mean Green (NCAA Basketball) 7:00
Feb 22 Houston Aeros at Oklahoma City Barons 7:00
Feb 23 Texas Strikers at Dallas Sidekicks (PASL) 7:00
Feb 24 LA Lakers at Dallas Mavericks 12:00
Feb 27 Golden State Warriors at New York Knicks 7:30
Mar 01 Dallas Mavericks at Brooklyn Nets 8:00

This year, the Central Hockey League went from 16 teams to 10, knocking the 400 venues on the quest down to 394. I added the Appalachian League to bring the total up to 404, but will be playing with other leagues over the next little while to see if I can get it back to exactly 400.



Thursday, November 15, 2012

Singapore Open Golf - Nov 10-11, 2012

When I first moved to Singapore, I noted in a post that the city is considered the 6th top sports destination in the world, beating every U.S. city except New York. After a half-year here, I can see how that might be true if you are not particularly geared toward American sports, For such a small country, there are a lot of interesting international sporting events filling the calendar. Golf is no exception, with the Singapore Open the annual highlight.

It was first played in 1961 as part of an Asian circuit that included a handful of tournaments in Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan. When the more official Asian Tour began in 1995, this tournament became one of its key stops until 2002, when it took a three-year hiatus due to a lack of sponsorship. Barclays came to the rescue in 2005 and in 2009 the European Tour co-sanctioned the event as part of its year-end tour to warmer climes. With these additions, the Singapore Open is now Asia’s richest tournament and attracts top golfers from around the world.

Tickets were $20 for Thursday or Friday and $50 for Saturday or Sunday, a great value given that some top talent was in attendance. However, I found somebody selling two tickets for $40 and asked a colleague if he would like to join me, and he told me that he had already received a pair of freebies from a sponsor and wouldn’t be using them. A fortunate turn of events as I was able to attend both Saturday and Sunday and enjoyed a thrilling finish to a top-notch event.

The Serapong

The tournament is hosted by the Sentosa Golf Club, which has two championship golf courses, the Serapong and Tanjong. The first two rounds are played on both courses, but the final two rounds take place only on The Serapong, which has great views of the harbour.

The Serapong was opened in 1982 and measures 7,300 yards from the championship tee, with a par-71 in place for the Singapore Open. In 2007, the course underwent an upgrade that included improvements in both course design and greens technology. That renovation helped The Serapong win Asian Golf Monthly’s “Number 1 Championship Golf Course in Asia". No doubt that award helped the course win favor with the European Tour, who bring along some of their best every year.

One feature that really impressed me here was the main hand-operated scoreboard, particularly between the 2nd and 3rd rounds when the volunteers had to quickly reset the players' groups based on their score after two rounds.

The course is on the island of Sentosa, which is fairly close to downtown. You can take the MRT to Harbourfront and then a monorail over the small channel that separate the two islands, or walk along the boardwalk. There is even a cable car, but at $28 return, it is not worth it. Once on the island, you can take the free Yellow Line bus to the golf course. All of this sounds relatively simple, but it takes time, so I would recommend taking a taxi from downtown, which would likely cost less than $20. If you have a car, you can drive and park on the island for just $3.20 but traffic on the way out will be slightly bothersome.

If you have time, you can also tour Sentosa itself. The island has dozens of themed areas, with Universal Studios the main attraction. There is also a casino for visitors (locals must pay $100 to enter) and several beaches (and beach bars) that lie on the south coast. There are also plenty of special areas for kids and families. Some local funnymen say that Sentosa stands for So Expensive, Nothing TO See Anyway, but these days there is enough to keep you busy for a day or two.

The Tournament

This year, Rory McIlroy headed a list of European Tour stars that included Colin Montgomerie (below) and Adam Scott. Phil Mickelson earned a sponsor’s invite as well, so there were certainly some big names to attract fans. 

Friday’s play had been postponed by rain, which meant that many golfers had to finish up their second round on Saturday morning. I arrived at 4 pm just as the third round was getting started. I first stopped at the practice green where Miugel Angel Jimenez was warming up with a cigar (below).

McIlroy was two groups later, so I headed over to the first tee to watch him begin his round, and then I scurried over to the 10th where Mickelson (below), who had just made the cut, was getting ready.

After that, I headed to the sponsors suites (above) near the 18th green. Verizon was the Premier Sponsor and offered free food and drink all day long as well as providing a great viewpoint from above the green (pic below). The food here was from the nearby Shangri-La and spectacular, so I did not have to eat anything from the regular concession stand.

Play was called on account of darkness around 6:30, with some players having completed only three holes of their third round. This meant that Sunday would be a full day of golf and I therefore returned early Sunday morning to see as much of it as I could.

When I arrived, the third round was in full swing, and Matteo Manassero was leading after shooting a stunning 7-under in the morning. I spent some time walking to most of the holes on the back nine and enjoying the perfect weather, although my afternoon was almost ruined by an errant tee shot from a still unknown golfer. The ball landed about two feet behind me, and then rolled back down the sidewalk, forcing me to jump out of its way. It was quite fun to watch the other fans scatter as the ball gathered pace on the downhill slope before it came to rest in a small patch of grass next to the path. I did not realize how close it had come until my friend told me that I was mere inches from a hospital visit, if not worse.

This was not the only time that the golfers were unable to keep their shots in play. Above is Pablo Larrazibal of Spain shooting from well off the 1st fairway.

Now that I had learned about the dangers of golf spectating, I continued to walk back to the 18th green grandstand (above) more alertly than before. I sat at the edge of the green and watched a few players finish up their rounds. When McIlroy reached the green in two, he had a 35-footer left for eagle, which he drained in spectacular fashion, earning him 3rd place at -10 and the money title on the European tour to go with his PGA title as well. That is him below acknowledging the fans after his eagle putt.

The two golfers in front of him were Masters runner-up Louis Oosthuizen (below, chipping out of the rough) and Manassero, who both finished at -13. The tie meant a playoff between the two would be necessary, with the 18th hole to be replayed over and over until a clear winner was announced. By this time I was back in the Verizon box and with most people having left for the day, had a clear view of the action from tee to green.

Both golfers made birdie on their first attempt, and so they were driven back to the tee to try again. Manassero bogeyed and Oosthuizen had a fairly easy birdie putt for the win but it lipped out and a third playoff hole was on tap. This time Manassero’s approach shot was near perfect and he holed the eagle putt to win the title, his 3rd on the tour despite being only 19 years old. It was an exciting finish to a very interesting event.

This was the first pro golf tournament I attended and I realize that it doesn't compare to the majors in the United States, with only about 12,000 fans here on the final day. Still, the atmosphere was great and with the rain holding off for the weekend, the weather couldn’t have been better, save for a bit of humidity. Mickelson said that Singapore fans are the best behaved in the world and for the most part he would be right. When there was no immediate action, fans chatted amiably with strangers, or took pictures of the golfers. But when a tee shot was about to be struck, or a key putt was being lined up, people shut up and watched, as good golf fans should. A really enjoyable weekend.

Unfortunately, Barclays has not renewed their sponsorship contract, leaving the tournament without a major benefactor. Reports indicate that the event will be held for at least the next five years, but the long-term viability is in doubt. If you like to watch golf in a tropical climate and see a vibrant city at the same time, make your way to Singapore for their Open Championship in a November in the not-too-distant future. It just might be the Singapore Open by then!



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.