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Words of Wisdom

1883 in the Scottish Borders. Two butchers, Ned Haig and David Sanderson, tire of spending their days weighing and wrapping choice cuts of meat. Grow weary of cutting, trimming, grinding and tying. Seek escape from the boning knife, skewer, and twine.

And so, under the guise of a fundraiser for their rugby club, Melrose RFC, they cleverly concoct a new version of the sport, namely shortened games featuring teams of only seven players. The first ever contest takes place at the famous Greenyards, the local ground. It produces plenty of excitement, the unusual amount of open space and freedom, allied to silky running and handling skills, well received by both players and spectators.

The new code spreads like wildfire. Tournaments bloom throughout the rest of Scotland and the British Isles, even if England, until the formation of the famous Middlesex Sevens, is initially hesitant. The game also moves to the southern hemisphere, first to Dunedin in New Zealand. Then to Queensland in Australia and Buenos Aires in Argentina. And beyond.

Flash forward to 1973. A first ever sanctioned Sevens event for national teams is held at Murrayfield, as part of the Scotland Rugby Union’s centenary celebrations. And, although it takes a further twenty years to reach fruition, the World Cup Sevens, fittingly for the Melrose Cup, launches in 1993.

The formation of the annual Hong Kong Sevens tournament is another significant development. This event, in terms of both on field product and off field organization and sponsorship, proves to be a massive success. In addition, over time, invitations sent to Asian, Pacific, African and Americas sides not only give the competition a truly international flavour but also allow the minnows a chance to lock horns with traditional powerhouses.

It is now March 1997. A newly refurbished Hong Kong stadium is home to the second World Cup tournament. Even though much is at stake, a party mood prevails. The infamous South stand harbors hordes of fans, all in fancy dress, who scream passionately for the underdogs. There is plenty of food and drink, multiple Mexican waves, very possibly even a streaker.

The main stands, particularly the middle and upper decks, are also jammed to overflowing, the patrons perhaps more sober, but no less enthusiastic. Indeed, the 40,000 in attendance literally seethe with emotion, the Sevens a final major sporting event held in the British protectorate before its transfer to Chinese sovereignty.

24 teams chase the silverware on offer. The first day features 8 pools of three teams, after which the competition reseeds into three new divisions, labelled the Cup, the Plate and the Bowl. With the recent advent of professionalism, all the countries represented are talented, fit, strong and well organized. Physical, hard fought, high octane, lung busting contests are a given.

There is also a 25th team, the referees. Extremely fortunate to be part of this group, I can sense the electric tournament atmosphere as we arrive by bus. We edge our way through the various checkpoints, drive down the ramp under the North stand into the bowels of the stadium. This area is a hive of activity, as kitchen staffs prepare the food court, TV trucks ready to broadcast world-wide, volunteers hurry about, security guards patrol entrances and exits, teams move to and from the changing areas and medical stations.

My opening game is particularly special. South Africa, eventual Cup finalist, is drawn against Hong Kong. And what a battle it is. The Springboks might be definite favourites, yet the hosts, throwing caution to the winds, give as good as they get. Raw courage, backed at every turn by impassioned home support, keeps the Dragons in touch throughout.

In the end, South Africa prevails. Nonetheless, the crowd more than appreciates the gallant efforts of the losing side, rising as one at the final whistle. Waves of applause wash over the players as they exit the field. It is truly a moment to savour.

For me, things then get even better when, outside the dressing rooms, I encounter the referee chief. He gives a glowing assessment of my performance. I am on cloud 9, well satisfied, extremely pleased with myself.

I stroll along the underground corridor, replaying the game in my mind. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a young boy leaning against the wall. He takes note of my dark blue tracksuit, with its red trim and lettering. A single word, CANADA, emblazoned on the back, a maple leaf badge sewn neatly over the left breast. He approaches confidently, tournament program in one hand, pen in the other. He clearly seeks an autograph.

I am more than happy to oblige. Preening, strutting even. Chuffed that I am so immediately recognizable. Hubris at its worst.

In anticipation, the boy quickly opens the program to the Team Canada page. He looks up expectantly, offers me the pen. Gestures that I should sign under my photograph.

With a wry smile, then a small shake of the head, I go instead to the back of the booklet. To the Match Officials section. It is there I point to my head and shoulder shot.

The boy looks bemused, his disappointment palpable. He is distinctly unimpressed, then no longer even remotely interested. I am not a player, not a signature he covets. He snatches back the program and pen, turns on his heel, departs. I am reduced, in the space of a few seconds, from being a successful international referee to, effectively, a nobody.

I continue on my way, but quickly come to see the humorous side of the exchange. My bubble burst, by a ten year old no less! A smile creases my face and I start to giggle.

Words of wisdom, those of the Greek philosopher Epictetus, flood my brain.

"He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at."


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