Singapore's winning Rugby Sevens formula

The 'ruck, rock and rumble' mantra has certainly worked well in Singapore, writes Andrew Alderson.

Singapore Sports Hub, with the National Stadium.
Singapore Sports Hub, with the National Stadium.

A successful rugby sevens tournament needs a thriving British expatriate or colonial culture, visitors willing to invest in the experience, and the capacity to slake thirsts and hunger at will.

The formula has worked for Hong Kong since 1976. If you build a quality footy spectacle, create a glamorous destination and stock your bars and restaurants, the rugbyheads will come.

Visits tend to take one of two forms; either a "boys weekend" or — the GDP-friendly version — with families for a spot of shopping and tourism to boot.

Singapore recognises this timeless equation. The city regained its place on World Rugby's sevens circuit in April 2016 and emulated Hong Kong with a "ruck, rock and rumble" mantra.

The same methodology has worked in Dubai, Cape Town, London and Wellington, at least until the latter's dominance was usurped by the NRL Nines.

At 71, Low Teo Ping knows the history and ambitions of the Singapore Rugby Union as well as anyone. As the organisation's president, he is three years older than the union itself. The retired merchant banker and former representative halfback still looks capable of a cheeky snipe down the blindside.

"We had a history of playing against teams from the [Commonwealth] armed and naval forces, but the expat community has changed," he says.

"It used to be predominantly British, Australians and New Zealanders, now Indians, Americans, Canadians, Europeans and Japanese have morphed it quite a bit.

"We must evolve to include our 'local nationals' in the sport."

Low says they're competing with more than rival codes to push rugby's case.

"We've got 30 per cent participation at primary school and 20 per cent at secondary school, but we're up against shopping centres, laptops and phones. An urbanised society like Singapore is very much exposed to the bright lights and beautiful things in shop windows. There's a tendency to get distracted. Why should kids want to sweat it out on a rugby field? That's our biggest challenge. We bid for the sevens tournament so we could re-popularise the sport."

Almost 30,000 seats of the 55,000 capacity stadium were filled on each day of the 2016 event, exceeding SRU forecasts.

"We can't forget it's a commercial enterprise," Low says. "Hopefully enough profit goes into a development fund so we're not over-dependent on government grants. Singapore is already a global sporting city hosting the likes of Formula 1, women's tennis and golf tournaments. The sevens helps build content into the stadium. We can't rely on hosting Madonna all the time."

Jean Ng, the Singapore Tourism Board's sport director and former national netball captain, agrees.

"Partying fits well with its [rugby sevens'] image. It's no magical formula, given what others have done with this space.

Collins Injera signs the camera at the Singapore Sevens.
Collins Injera signs the camera at the Singapore Sevens.

"We want to make Singapore more than just a shopping destination. We need to diversify our experiences and provide visitors with a rolling pipeline of content."

A catalyst behind the sevens' return to Singapore is the Sports Hub, a 35-hectare recreational magnet, handy to the heart of the city. The facility caters to most pursuits and works on a user-pays basis, although the government offers subsidies, particularly through school and community activities. A fit society is seen as a means to alleviate pressure on the health system.

The facilities reflect this holistic approach. A mall provides shopping and hospitality options, blocks of condominiums are within strolling distance, and transport arterials are close.

For armchair fans, a library of 90,000 sports books is at hand. During the Herald's visit, readers could get a "blind date" with tomes such as Supercoach: The Life and Times of Jack Gibson, All Black and "professional author" Andy Haden's Lock, Stock and Barrel or Ed Hawkins' Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy, presumably a bedside accessory for any Singapore pools' punter.

The sports hub's piece de resistance is the national stadium, an oasis for those seeking respite from 30C temperatures and 80 per cent humidity.

The complex can be sheltered by the world's largest free-spanning dome, measuring 310m. The retractable roof repels sunshine or monsoon thunderstorms. The 8000 sq m of Bermuda Celebration grass held firm against the rugby players' thundering hooves. A bowl cooling system sees four chiller rooms underneath the stadium reduce the water supply to 8C, from which it is released through pipes, and subsequently vents, into targeted seating blocks. The result is a refreshing zephyr tickling your calf muscles. The 4000sq m of solar panels on the roof make the system carbon-neutral.

However, nothing could cool the stadium when Kenya delivered their inaugural tournament win after 17 seasons on the world circuit.

Collins Injera once earned infamy for pulling a permanent marker from his sock after scoring his 200th series try and etching his name Roland Garros-style on the camera lens. He damaged the $150,000 piece of equipment because he didn't realise tennis players sign a protective film that is removed between autographs.

In Singapore, his only indelible mark was scoring two tries in the 30-7 rout of Fiji in the final.

The Kenyan ruckstars roared their victory dance to the heavens, the crowd roared their respect, and the audience's appetite was whet for an evening of merriment at Clarke Quay, the city's social hub. That's an equation that should keep Singapore in World Rugby's reckoning indefinitely.

Kenyan players celebrate after winning the Rugby Sevens Series.
Kenyan players celebrate after winning the Rugby Sevens Series.

Singapore's top events

The Sevens

Look a little further than Wellington and take in the excitement of the Sevens in Singapore. Held in April at the National Stadium, Singapore hosts the World Rugby Sevens Series for the next four years. This year's tournament saw Kenya take a historic first cup win - who knows what 2017 might bring? Either way, there's plenty of time to plan the ultimate group costume.

The Grand Prix

Head to Marina Bay for some Formula 1 action; next year's Singapore Grand Prix is sure to be an event to remember. As well as the roar of fast cars, there are nightly concerts to enjoy — and they've attracted some pretty big names. While the 2017 programme is yet to be announced, this year featured Kylie Minogue, Queen with Adam Lambert and KC and the Sunshine Band.

Great Singapore Sale

Shopping is a year-round national obsession in Singapore, but you're sure to get the best deals if you're in town for the Great Singapore Sale. Department stores, malls and smaller boutiques all offer crazy discounts, with late-night shopping events to keep you out all night. Tourists can also score extra-special deals and gifts, so be sure to carry your passport.

Chinese New Year

Singapore puts on a spectacular Lunar New Year bash, with the festive mood beginning three weeks prior to the event itself. It's an energetic festival that doesn't stop, with colourful parades, intricate lanterns and of course, plenty of incredible food. Be sure to check out the markets of Chinatown, where lion dancers and fire-eaters perform. The vibrant Chingay Parade around the Marina Bay Waterfront is not to be missed.

Singapore Biennale

This huge festival of contemporary art is currently taking place, with more than 60 Asian artists on show. The exhibition is divided into a number of zones around the city, covering plenty of interesting galleries. There are also plenty of events and special tours to take part in - including after-hours viewings with the curators and special insights from the creative director. For those looking to buy some art, the city also hosts an Affordable Art Fair every November — buy a cheap piece and it might end up being worth a lot more one day.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies daily between Auckland and Singapore.

Further information: For itinerary suggestions including information on food, events and hotels, go to yoursingapore.com.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 08 Dec 2016 06:40:52 Processing Time: 1122ms