As excitement builds for the Hong Kong Sevens blockbuster, one thing is certain: Robbie McRobbie will have his hands full, not only with pleasing a stadium filled with passionate fans, but bringing a sport long overshadowed by football back to the mainstream.
He will succeed Vernon Reid as chief executive of the Hong Kong Rugby Union after the Sevens, working alongside fellow Scotsman and tournament head Sam Pinder.
McRobbie, a familiar face in local sporting circles, joined the union as its first community rugby manager in 2003, and his responsibilities grew to include oversight of facilities, commercial and event organization.
In his new role, staff development will be top priority. He is also hoping to make domestic championships and youth participation more popular.
“We want to take rugby to every corner of Hong Kong. It is a game for all,” he says. “Just kicking a ball by itself is not going to change a youngster’s life. But sports, used in the right way, is a powerful agent for social change.”
A key project involves the promotion of touch rugby in primary schools. The union is working with the Education University to train coaches and to double the number of schools that teach the game in physical education classes to 240 by 2019.
“Wong Tai Sin, Tin Shui Wai, Tuen Mun, Sha Tin, Tai Po and Tsuen Wan are where we want rugby to really take hold,” he says. “A lot of the schools we are working with are not traditional rugby schools or sporting schools. It’s amazing what they can achieve.
“For example, Choi Hung Estate Catholic Secondary School emerged as one of the strongest teams in the past few years. It has been beating La Salle College, Diocesan Boys’ School and Wah Yan.”
Managing a game and nurturing teenagers might sound like unlikely aspirations for a former policeman like McRobbie. But the Scotsman discovered his true passion did not lie in extracting confessions following a course in sports and recreation management.
He was athletic in school, being into football and rugby when growing up in Gullane, a coastal town near Edinburgh. He remained an active sportsman, when reading history at Oxford, with football, rugby, cricket and rowing.
“When I started out, I was quite fast. I played in the back. As I grew taller, I ended up as a forward,” he recalls. “But I was never that good to go professional. And professional rugby did not start in Scotland from 1995.”
In 1992, he joined the Royal Hong Kong Police Force at 20. He spent 11 years in the force, serving as inspector in the New Territories, instructor of the tactical unit, presenter of the Police Report TV program, and assistant manager of the Police Officers’ Club.
“In my career, I only arrested one person, who was burgling my flat. So I didn’t feel I was making a massive difference,” McRobbie jokes. “I was hoping I might do a much better job by working in the sports industry.”
Interestingly, the Scotsman who calls the SAR home is perhaps the best mascot the Sevens can get, as the game has two spiritual homes – Scotland and Hong Kong, where it was invented and reinvented.
Rugby Sevens originated in Scotland in 1883, in a town called Melrose. It became the global game that it is today after Hong Kong started an international tournament in 1976.
Entering its 42th year, the tournament in Hong Kong promises an exciting lineup, he says. A festival held at Chater Garden will televise the game live for free. And bars and restaurants will provide discounts via an app.
Most importantly, Hong Kong will make strides toward qualifying for the World Rugby Sevens Series in a first, if the men’s team comes out on top.
“The men will be playing against some strong teams, such as Spain, which plays in the Olympics, and Germany, which is getting very good very quickly,” McRobbie says.
“It will be a tough competition but they are definitely a favorite. They have come close to winning and getting a promotion a few times. They have given us some really memorable moments. Fingers crossed, we hope that this year they can go that one step further and actually qualify for the series.”
“And Scotland is in the top series competition. So for me, the perfect weekend will be Scotland winning the cup, and Hong Kong the qualifier.”
The article first appeared in the Standard on April 7, 2017.