Fijian rugby union hit international sport’s consciousness when the country won rugby sevens’ inaugural men’s Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016. Despite being the reigning world and Olympic champions of rugby’s smaller-sided discipline, the South Pacific Island houses no professional rugby team and its Union is one of the poorest in world rugby. Speaking to SportsPro at the World Rugby Confex 2016 in London, Ben Ryan - the architect of Fiji’s success - points out the extreme differences between coaching in England and Fiji, the difficulties he faced on his way to reaching success and whether or not he feels that there is an infrastructure in place for future successes.
Before 2016, the small island nation of Fiji had never won an Olympic gold medal. To be perfectly frank, it hadn’t ever looked like winning one of any colour. However, when rugby returned to the Olympics after a 92-year hiatus - through its seven-player variant - Fijian expectations were raised.
The country has long been one of rugby sevens’ most illustrious teams and they arrived in Brazil as tournament favourites in the men’s competition, despite rival countries adding recognised players from the 15-man code. The All Blacks, for example, were able to call on two-time Rugby World Cup winner Sonny Bill Williams and the young centre Rieko Ioane. Fiji, on the other hand, had a starting seven that included policemen, prison wardens and hotel porters.
Sure enough, Fiji won the final: following a blistering start they humbled a startled Team GB 43-7. The speed, physicality and skill was, to some wise observers, a display of rugby sevens perfection. The result was perhaps what rugby and the Olympics required.
The players, swollen with national pride, provided the 2016 Games with some of its most enduring images, most memorably when each player bowed to their knees to collect their medals from the UK’s Princess Anne. Following the ceremony, the victorious players’ returned to the Deodoro Stadium pitch for a lap of honour but in amongst the humble, overjoyed Pacific Islanders was one delighted Englishman. It was the coach, Ben Ryan.
Ryan arrived in Fiji “disillusioned with professional rugby” but left his role - after the Olympics - with three acres of land gifted to him and a Fijian name, Ratu Peni Rayani Latianara. He won nine international sevens tournaments - including two HSBC World Sevens Series and the aforementioned Olympic gold - in a three-year period, all from a country with a population of under one million.
His disillusionment with the sport arose after an acrimonious split with the Rugby Football Union (RFU), English rugby union’s governing board. He is, to date, the longest-serving head coach in the history of the England sevens side, presiding over 300 games in a seven-year period.
“I left England after having a fall out with my boss at the RFU ultimately,” says Ryan. “They would say that I stood down but I would say that they fired me. I got the boot from England.
“Fiji heard of my availability and told me that the sevens national coach job was available. They asked me if I wanted to apply for it. I did, and I had an encouraging Skype call with the chief executive at 2am. However, the following morning I discovered that the chief executive that I had spoken to had been sacked straight after my interview. This was when I first discovered the ‘interesting’ politics of Fijian rugby.
“Two weeks later, I was out having a meal in Richmond and received a phone call from the new chief executive saying that they have a press conference in an hour to announce me as Fiji’s new coach. I ordered another glass of wine and thought, let’s give it a go.”
The Cambridge Blue accepted the job - not too perturbed by its “interesting politics” - and left the relative comforts of the UK for a wholly different world in Fiji in 2013. The distinct lack of funding in the country meant that when Ryan arrived the training facilities were far inferior to a vast majority of teams on the HSBC Sevens World Series, and their player pool much smaller.
Rugby’s wealthier unions are able to provide players with the best nutritional advice, ice baths, training pitches, high-performance apparel, and first-class travel and accommodation. The Fijians were rumoured - when actual rugby balls were unavailable - to use sand-filled plastic bottles to train with, often playing on beaches or patches of scrubland instead of dedicated rugby pitches.
But, it wasn’t just the quality of the team’s training facilities that was severely affected by the FRU’s ongoing fiscal issues.
“I was getting ready for our first tournament, when they said to me, ‘There is just one problem: we won’t be able to pay you,’” remembers Ryan. “I said, ‘OK, this week?’ The actual time was going to be four to six months. In fact, I wouldn’t ever get that money.
“I had had a decent pay-out from England and I thought that I would use that money and commit to the rest of the season, whatever happened. That was my part of the bargain. My first proper tournament in charge, the Dubai Sevens, we won and beat New Zealand by a record score. We played some wonderful rugby.
“The government decided in January  that they would change their budget to allow a line in there would be some funding available for any national coaches of Fiji that were non-Fijians – basically me!” continues Ryan. “Eventually, the government started to pay my salary from January and February.
“In my first year we got another new chief executive, who was my third in that timeframe. In fact, through my entire tenure I went through five chief executives and three boards. The prime minister - who was a dictator and then won a democratic election - is also the president of the Fiji Rugby Union (FRU), so I had to up-manage politically on a day-to-day basis both with the chairman of the FRU and the prime minister of the country.”
A blurring of lines between politics and sport is commonplace in developing countries, especially when the teams achieve on-field success. In Fiji, Ryan would, on occasion, have players sent into camp from the army with their commanding officer demanding their inclusion: a request that the coach would have to politely decline. Ryan argues, however, that rugby politics is not the reserve of the smaller nations and political interference was, at times, more problematic when he worked within the vast structure of the RFU.
“With England we had a very good budget but politically they were often not prepared to fight your corner,” notes Ryan. “If I wanted to call up a young player from the Premiership, I could go in and ask for Johnny May, for example. I would say to Gloucester, ‘I know he isn’t in your team and I know he hasn’t got an A-League game. He would be perfect for us to come along to Hong Kong and play for the England sevens.’
“The club’s director of rugby would say, ‘You are absolutely right. He would be awesome for your team and he is available. However, the RFU aren’t playing ball with us regarding something else.’ The player would stay at his club; I would run into this issue all of the time.
“I would, of course, return to the RFU and tell them that I wanted this player. ‘Can you fight my corner?’ But they wouldn’t do that for me. That situation was really painful because the public didn’t know that we couldn’t get the players that we wanted and we were putting in understrength teams all of the time, even though we did have the budget to really push on to win things.
“Whereas with Fiji, we didn’t necessarily have any money but we had a very good talent pool of players the opposite would happen,” Ryan continues. “If the player is a hotel porter and I wanted him to come to camp for a week they would see that as like going to war: it was his national duty. They had to release the player on full pay from his hotel porter job and he would come with us.
“Both jobs came with different political problems but at least with Fiji they were there in front of you. Whereas I found at Twickenham – at the time – too much of it was done in a very roundabout, behind your back way that made it very difficult to work out where the original problem was and then try to solve it. In Fiji you would know where the problem was and then you would just have to use good relationships and negotiations.”
Ryan’s driven nature, together with his thoughtful diplomatic competence, was perhaps, what was needed for sustained success in Fijian rugby. However, the country’s rise to dominance in sevens was not an overnight shock like Premier League soccer side Leicester City’s 2015/16 title win, for example.
The finest player in rugby sevens history is widely considered to be the now-retired Waisale Serevi. In a career that ran from 1989 to 2007, the diminutive Fijian’s dazzling feet and extraordinary footballing skills made Fiji the most popular and, at times, the most feared team on the sevens circuit. He put the nation’s rugby side on the map and is the only player from the country to be inducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame.
From Serevi’s era until recent years, Fijian players were able to win the occasional elite tournament but would drop down to third or fourth place at the next, often because of the perennial problems of fitness or players being understandably lured away by the riches of professional foreign clubs.
Somehow, the trend was bucked and Ryan’s team won back-to-back world championships - in 2015 and 2016 - and have been the number one ranked sevens team for the past three years.
“It was tough in my first year to retain any players because we couldn’t pay them - any contract from abroad and they were gone,” says Ryan. “My player turnover was massive in that period. This meant that getting consistency was tricky but we definitely managed it. Then, a year before the Olympics all the boys saw that we were world champions and about to win another one.
“They realised that an Olympic gold medal was definitely very a doable thing and they had the nation’s pride behind them. We had never won a medal and the Pacifics had never won a gold medal. This meant that they were turning down overseas contracts or they were signing contracts that weren’t activated for a year until the Olympics was finished.
“The boys were allowed stay on the island and concentrate on training towards the Olympics. They were paid UK£6,000, that was it, but they did get some bonuses after they won the gold. Holding on to the boys in my last year was actually easy and I had contracted them as well. It was a process that we had to get to because there are no professional teams in Fiji, so to earn money playing rugby you have to go overseas. Particularly if they go overseas when they are young then they turn up playing for Wales, England, Australia or New Zealand because they will be given residency.”
The gross disparity between rugby’s haves and have-nots was never more evident than in the recent Test match played between England and Fiji’s 15-a-side teams. Ryan felt that it was “a very uneven playing field for them [Fiji]”, citing their lack of training time together and paltry salary - “they are getting paid 60 quid (US$74) a day” - as issues that would make victory virtually impossible, particularly when set against the England players’ new match fee of UK£22,000 (US$27,000).
That said, World Rugby has repeatedly stated its desire to push the game into new markets and develop the growth of the sport worldwide. Furthermore, 95 per cent of World Rugby’s revenue is reinvested directly back into the sport, with a large proportion now being invested into these emerging rugby countries.
World Rugby’s chairman Bill Beaumont, who gave the opening address at the World Rugby Conference and Exhibition, expressed his delight at what he called a “golden period of exceptional growth” for rugby. The former England captain highlighted the inclusion of sevens at the Olympics, hailing the Fijian victory as the perfect result.
It is easy to predict a period of success and affluence for the FRU but World Rugby is undeniably focusing on development in the American market as a priority.
Nevertheless, one optimistic Fijian government official estimated that the gold medal could generate FIJ$500 million (US$238 million) in tourism and investment, and with the country successfully hosting - and winning - the recent Oceania Sevens Championship it is not unfeasible that it could host a leg of the lucrative HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series before long.
The real issue for the departed Ryan, though, is whether he feels that he has left an adequate structure to ensure the continued success of Fijian rugby sevens.
“The problem in Fiji is that things can change very quickly and people can suddenly lose their jobs and be replaced by people that might be put in there for political reasons,” he notes. “I do believe that I have put in place a system in Fiji but it could fall apart in seconds. We crowdfunded to get a gym put in next to the pitch - that’s not going anywhere - and we got the pitch renovated through the same process.
“We agreed a partnership with a local hotel where we stayed in a dorm. We now have extra facilities for physiotherapy and recovery, and we have the beach there, so that is set up as a performance centre. That is not going anywhere, unless they decide to move to the army barracks because the commander in chief said so. That could happen.
“I would say the structure is there but whether it remains is up to the guardians of the game in Fiji.”