Singapore home to rugby sevens heaven

Of all the memorable Australian moments at the Olympics, the triumph of the women's rugby sevens team was one of the best. There was the dynamic running and tackling by such new sporting heroes as Ellia Green, Charlotte Caslick and Emilee Cherry, the wild celebrations as the Pearls won gold and the New Zealanders' touching tearful haka after losing the final. 

As rugby sevens rejoined the Olympics, many people saw for the first time what an athletic, skilful and dramatic sport it can be at the highest level. 

My introduction to the helter-skelter world of international rugby sevens is in Singapore a few months earlier. And the scenes are just as jubilant as, in one of the year's biggest upsets in any sport, rank outsiders Kenya thump the highly favoured Fijians in the final. 

When the final whistle blows, the delighted Kenyans link arms in a circle and sing a gospel song before being crowned champions of the Singapore leg of the World Rugby Sevens at the culmination of a lively weekend.

The world's top 16 men's teams have been competing in a vibrant festival atmosphere in a new stopover in the men's seven series – joining tournaments in Dubai, Cape Town, Wellington, Sydney, Las Vegas, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Paris and London.

While Hong Kong has long been the place to watch international sevens, the sport's success at the Olympics is expected to boost interest in other events, including the five in the newer women's series – in Dubai, Sao Paolo, Atlanta, Langford in Canada and Clermont-Ferrand in France. With women's rugby sevens one of the world's fastest-growing team sports, there's a good chance of more tournaments as World Rugby capitalises on what it calls the "Rio 2016 halo effect".

From the stands in Singapore, the attractions of sevens are obvious. Fans enjoy the non-stop action on the field – with seven v seven over seven-minute halves, there's a try every 70 seconds on average –  as well as all kinds of entertainment off the field. 

For the country's return to the international circuit after a decade's absence, spectators are encouraged to dress up on day one, so the buzzing tiers are filled with 1970s tennis players, superheroes, Singapore Airlines flight attendants, Minions and other colourful characters.

The matches – 45 over the weekend and all fiercely contested – roll out rapidly. Australia loses to Argentina but bounces back to beat Japan then Wales. 


By early afternoon, it's 36 degrees outside but the National Stadium has a roof and is air-conditioned so conditions are ideal for both playing and spectating.

I'm more a general sports fan than a rugby tragic but it's easy to pick out personalities to follow on the field. New Zealand champion Sonny Bill Williams. Jerry Tuwai, Jasa Veremalua and just about anyone else among the flamboyantly talented Fijians. And for the Kenyans, who start well by beating Russia and drawing with Scotland, try-scoring-machine Collins Injera is a blur of speed.

Once the last match finishes for the day, English DJ Pete Tong takes over the stadium. Some spectators stay; others head for free shuttle buses to Clarke Quay, the "after-party zone" on the river for live music, restaurants, bars and clubs.

The attractions include a Spanish Mega Party ("for eligible bachelors and bachelorettes") and a Moonbeats Warehouse Party ("find your way into Singapore's underground party scene"). 

On day two, as the tournament heads into the finals, announcers keep up the crowd's energy between matches with encouragement to dance, flex or cheer for the giant screen and join in a singalong. Sweet Caroline, anyone? In longer breaks, bands and DJs play a set.

Where Hong Kong aims to be party central during the sevens, Singapore also caters for families with children.

In fan zones, adults have competitions to pass a rugby ball or push a car. Kids can dress "like a rugby superhero", practise passing, scrummaging, kicking and catching and try something called inflatable rugby bunjee. There is also a "kids drop-off zone" offering outdoor activities for up to three hours while parents watch matches.

The chairman of Rugby Singapore, former national team scrum half Low Teo Ping, says the tournament's motto of "rock, ruck and rumble" reflects the different elements of the weekend. The "rock" refers to the music and other entertainment. The "ruck" is the action on the field. And "rumble" refers to the entertainment at these fan zones.

"We're creating this whole experience so that it's good for not just the individual who wants to get high on alcohol but the family who will find it very worthwhile coming," says Low, a veteran sports administrator who recalls playing against the crew of HMAS Parramatta ("we made sure that we played them at 4 o'clock so we had an advantage in the heat") and other Australian military teams during his rugby career.

Singapore dropped out of hosting international sevens rugby when its old stadium was demolished. But the new National Stadium, seating 55,000, gave the country the chance to rejoin the circuit when World Rugby announced plans to expand.

For the Singapore Government, rugby is another step towards becoming a global sporting city – adding to the Formula 1 grand prix and tournaments on the women's tennis and golf circuits.

"This event fits very nicely in the whole variety of different sports," says Low in the stadium's media room between matches. "We also wanted to build content into this stadium so it can't be all the time hosting concerts like Madonna."

But being a rugby die-hard – one with broad enough sporting interests to be also chef de mission for his country at the Olympics – Low sees other benefits in Singapore hosting the sevens.

"We felt it would definitely help to popularise and grow the sport," he says. "Rugby has been played here for a long time. We are very much part of the British Commonwealth. People from Britain who were involved with the missions, who were involved with the schools, they helped to introduce the sport.

"And we had New Zealanders who were teaching us how to play and Australians – the armed forces, the different military groups who were here, they were playing with our locals."

With a strong grassroots rugby culture in Singapore – although soccer is more popular – Low says the sevens tournament ties in with plans to build it as a sport. That plan also includes schools sevens competition for different age groups, a tag sevens program and rugby clinics. 

But growing the game is not without challenges.

"The biggest problem in this part of the world is that for the kids growing up, it's not so much competition with other sports like soccer or athletics or hockey," says Low. "It's about competing with shopping centres and the laptop.

"We're an urbanised society, very much exposed to all these bright lights and beautiful things you see in shop windows. There's a tendency for kids to get very much distracted so why do you want to sweat it out? That's our biggest challenge.

"And, of course, this is also a commercial enterprise that hopefully over the years will make a profit that will go into our rugby development fund. That will then free us from being too over-dependent on government grants, which are very difficult to get because they are spread between so many other sports."

First time up, the Singapore Sevens attract a better-than-expected crowd – more than 49,000 over the two days. While largely a mix of Singaporeans and expats from rugby nations, some fans fly in from Australia and other countries for the event.

"It's really surprised us," says Low. "We thought it would take some years but now we're very optimistic."

According to Jean Ng from the Singapore Tourism Board, the rugby sevens adds to a strong mix of attractions in the country that includes shopping on Orchard Road, the theme park and aquarium attractions of Sentosa Island, the new National Gallery, Chinatown, Little India and dining and gambling at Marina Bay Sands.

"Some markets love to come to Singapore for the shopping," she says. "But we think that sport – becoming a city of sports events – can bring people to Singapore for a slightly different experience. Sport is one thing that brings people together. You're out there cheering for your team, cheering for your player or cheering against somebody. This bringing people together we think has the potential to bring people to Singapore."

Low has some advice for anyone from this part of the world who is considering heading the Singapore sevens next year.

"Traditionally Singapore has been a favourite destination for Australians and New Zealanders," he says. "For Western Australians, it's easier than going to Sydney. Costwise, we might be a little more expensive but it's a very safe place. Very organised and very safe.

"And the sevens, it's fast and it's furious. You see them running, you see them tackling. Then after that, you laugh about it, you have a beer then you continue watching the next game. And it's the same pace!"

The HSBC World Rugby Singapore Sevens is on April 15-16 next year.




Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Emirates are among the airlines that fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Singapore.


​​Hotel Vagabond is a stylish new boutique hotel (39 Syed Alwi Road) next to Little India. Rooms from $A277 a night. ​


Coriander Leaf (30 Victoria Street) at Chijmes features contemporary Asian dining.

The writer was a guest of Singapore Tourism.