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(In March of 1997, the USA Women’s 7s’ team journeyed to the first Hong Kong tournament for women. After going undefeated in Pool play 5-0, they were routed by New Zealand 43-0 in the final. The Black Ferns had also gone 5-0 without ceding a point in the pool 188-0, and finished the event with no points conceded. The USA coach, Emile Signes, provided Rugby Today with an additional anecdote from the beginnings of Women's sevens in the USA.)
By Emile Signes
How a Hungover Thanksgiving in Dubai led to the Olympics in Brazil
It was the morning after the 1995 Dubai Sevens tournament (which took place on Thanksgiving and the day after), probably around 6 AM at the Dubai airport. The Atlantis men's team was on line to check in for a flight back to New York after they'd participated in the Dubai Sevens. We had a good team, but even then it was a great tournament and we went out in the Plate Semifinal. We'd been out partying and I would guess most of the team was, er, very tired if not flat out hungover.
Next to us on the line were the Hong Kong Police Women. They'd won the women's bracket of the tournament and were still celebrating after an entire night of partying. They must have crashed on their flight, but they were flying high at the time.
Despite being less than alert, thoughts started spinning through my head. As assistant national coach to the US Women's 15s team from 1991 to 1993, simultaneously with managing the US Men's 7s team, preceded by 4 years of coaching the US men's 7s, I had been inundated with questions from the women like "Emil, when are we going to have a US women's SEVENS team?" to which I responded "well not until we have someone to play against!"
Sallie Ahlert of Oklahoma thought that was a copout, and challenged me; the way I heard it was, "You're Mister Sevens, you find someone for us to play against!!" That comment really irritated me, but here on the Dubai line, I realized I was standing next to a bunch of representatives of the best international sevens tournament on earth! And they were women!! I asked if there was someone there that knew the people that ran the Hong Kong Sevens. I was immediately introduced to Anne Marie O'Donoghue and Ruth Mitchell of the Hong Kong Women’s RFU.
When I mentioned that I would love to bring a US Women's National Sevens Team to Hong Kong, they grew a bit quiet and noted that the international tournament was reserved for the men, but ... maybe we could have a club sevens tournament that you could bring a bunch of American women to ...
I was a bit underwhelmed by the idea, but ... we followed up and the day before the 1996 Hong Kong Sevens we brought an Atlantis Sevens team to a poorly attended tournament (we only played 3 games, against not very powerful opponents [we had 8 Eagles] and won easily). I was very disappointed in the event, but BBC's Ian Robertson - one of the best known rugby announcers on the planet - was on the sidelines watching us and went back to the Hong Kong RFU raving about our performance.
Ian's comments, plus my pleading, resulted in the Hong Kong Women putting on an international women's tournament in 1997. It was a week before the men's sevens - which was disappointing, but a most of the major rugby powers sent teams. The US upset England in the semifinals but lost to New Zealand in the finals. A week later, on the first day of the men's tournament, we had an early AM "Hong Kong vs. the Rest of the World" women's game in the main stadium. Ruth Mitchell of Hong Kong, one of the HK women we had met in Dubai, got to play with the rest of the world in a spirited match.
Hong Kong's commitment to hold a women's tournament in 1998 fell by the wayside when several teams cancelled due to the 15s Women's World Cup that year. I got Ed Hagerty of Rugby Magazine to fund my trip to Hong Kong that year as a journalist and when I was there was able to meet with Karen Robertson and Dick Airth of the Hong Kong Rugby Union to discuss how to proceed with the women's tournament starting in 1999. I pleaded for the women's semifinals and finals to be held during the men's tournament. We got the finals. In that 1999 final, held immediately after the first day of the men's tournament, still in front of a nearly packed house, New Zealand beat the US in a wonderful game. Fans afterwards told us how much they enjoyed the game.
In 2002, when the tournament had been established, Jamie Scott of the IRB (now World Rugby) announced that the IRB was now going to support sevens rugby becoming an Olympic sport. He noted my meeting with the HKRFU and the resulting HK international women's tournament as the impetus that made this happen. (No new sports have been chosen for the Olympics for many years now without both a men's and women's presence.)
So ... from hungover in Dubai to the Olympics in Rio ... To paraphrase talk show host Paul Harvey, "and now you know the rest of the story."