Come this time of year, Vernon Reid is a popular man. The chief executive of the Hong Kong Rugby Union oversees the organizing of the Hong Kong Sevens – the annual event that attracts people from all over the world. Tickets are sold out months in advance with people desperately begging for more.
The Australian was hired three years ago for a special mission: to continue promoting rugby to more local people, something that the rugby union started two decades ago.
“The general population think rugby is still a gweilo game, even though half of the 10,000 or 12,000 people who play on Saturday are locals,” he says. “So for me, the chairman and the board, we have a clear commitment to grow the game in the local community.”
A man of vast experience, Reid is the right man for the job, having been involved in sports administration since the early 1980s.
He was a marketing manager of the Fremantle Dockers, an Aussie Rules football team, and general manager for the Perth Wildcats in the National Basketball League in Western Australia.
Prior to his move to the SAR in 2013, he was a board member, and later chief executive, of the Western Australian Rugby Union that owns the Western Force in the international Super Rugby competition.
“Sports is not a very good industry if you want to be steady because you go up and you go down,” Reid says. “If sometimes you are successful, you do the work. And when you are fantastically unsuccessful, you are still doing exactly the same work.”
Reid did more than a few odd jobs during the first 10 years of his work life: primary school teacher, TV sports reporter, event organizer of the Miss Universe pageant and Bob Hope show, and shipbuilder.
But sports – for business or pleasure – has always been special.
It was the only pastime that he could afford growing up in the Western Australian rural town of Maya, 280 kilometers north of Perth. “I’m a farmer’s son – the eldest of six children,” he says. “The town that I was born in had one house, two shops and four wheat bins. My parents created a wheat and sheep farm out of a bush. It was an ordinary sized farm of 2,000 hectares.
“I went to a local school, which had 36 children in it. The nearest neighbors were five kilometers away. The nearest high school was about 70 kilometers away, but there was no bus. I used to play sports with my brothers when I was younger.”
When Reid turned 12, his parents sent him to go to school in Perth.
There the boy met his hero – a high school teacher named Derek Chadwick, who was also an Aussie Rules center.
Back then, Reid was a ruckman.
“What great sportsmen and sportswomen have and others don’t is time. They have an ability to position themselves properly, to move away from an opponent and then work out what they are going to do next,” Reid says. “He [Chadwick] was a man who had time.”
Reid originally wanted to be a great Aussie Rules star like Chadwick.
His brothers later made it in the big boys’ game in Perth and in Melbourne. Sadly, Reid was not good enough. He discovered that fact when he was 20 years old.
So he turned to rugby.
“I had more success as a rugby player in Perth,” Reid recalls of his younger days. “I played a bit of rugby in London and in Sydney – not at a particularly high level. But I played first grade rugby in Perth.”
Now 66, he has stopped playing the physically intensive game nine years ago because of a bad left knee.
But he did make a rare reappearance at King’s Park last year during a friendly against a New Zealand team.
“I had no intention of playing. But the guy who was supposed to organize the Australian team forgot to do it. So nine young local boys and one guy from France went on. Australia got absolutely smashed by the Kiwis.”
Reid asked for the boots to play as part of the makeshift team after the Frenchman took off. “I shouldn’t have played. I realized I was totally useless,” he recalls.
Then why he did it?
“I got rugby malaria when I was about 20 and I still suffer from it,” says Reid.
The article first appeared in the Standard on April 1, 2016.