Sevens loses true champ in Ravonu

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 October, 2005, 12:00am

The Hong Kong Sevens has lost a true champion with Rupeni Ravonu's death at the age of 59. Not only did the Fijian taste glory at the Sevens as a player and coach, he also energetically argued for the March carnival to gain wider recognition as one of sport's great events.

'Hong Kong is undoubtedly the best [Sevens] tournament. It is irrelevant which is second; all the others are far inferior,' Ravonu said in an interview last February. 'The organisation, the crowd's contribution, the stadium, and the history make Hong Kong stand out.'

'The World Sevens Cup should always be held there. To consider staging it elsewhere is as ridiculous as moving the US Masters away from Augusta. I am still hopeful of going back there one day as Fiji's coach.'

Alas, it was not to be. Ravonu, who was fired as national coach after insisting that his charges discard jerseys bearing their sponsor's name in favour of biblical reference, grew increasingly bitter at the state of the game in his native land and he never returned to his favourite tournament again.

His links with the Sevens extended back to its second edition in 1977, when the Suva forward played a significant role in Fiji's initial victory. Although regularly likened to the Michelin Man due to his bulk, Ravonu was deceptively mobile. He read the game well and motivated teammates with a never-say-die attitude - qualities which enabled him to lift the Perpetual Cup as captain at the next fiesta.

Injury ruled Ravonu out in 1980, but he was present 12 months later, again as skipper. Once more he tasted success and when he announced he would hang up his boots Fiji appointed him as coach.

But Ravonu was not yet ready. Fiji were beaten in the semi-finals in 1981 and, after allowing himself to be prompted into having another crack, in the 1985 quarter-finals.

For the best part of a decade, he had little involvement in sport; concentrating instead upon his career with the Royal Fiji Police. Success with the Eastern Division selection at the Fiji International Invitation Sevens, where they beat New Zealand, Argentina and, in the final, the full Fiji national combination, led to his return to the Hong Kong Sevens in 1996.

Beaten 19-17 by the Kiwis in an epic final, Ravonu and his boys returned the following year with the World Cup at stake. They were not to be denied; beating South Africa 24-21 in an equally thrilling encounter. A 28-19 win over Samoa in 1998 confirmed Fiji - and Ravonu - to be at the top of the sevens tree.

The police officer's format for success was simple. He imposed on his players a degree of discipline rare in South Pacific rugby, his teams gelled through participation on Fiji's domestic sevens circuit, he gave the gifted Waisale Serevi a free hand on the pitch and his eye for spotting talent ensured a constant flow of youngsters. Ravonu ended the traditional pre match cibi war dance; giving his charges bible tracts before kick off instead.

That is thought to be the main reason for the ever-conservative FRU deciding to replacing him in 1999.

He was re-appointed just two years later, with New Zealand having eclipsed Fiji as sevens masters, but it proved to be short-lived. In the Wellington competition's decider with Australia, he insisted his players discard their official Vodafone-sponsored strip in favour of jerseys, they made famous at the 1997 Sevens World Cup, with the biblical marking 'Phil 4:13' from the book of Philippians, which reads: 'I can do all things in him who strengthens me'. That move led to his dismissal, along with manager Jone Buakula.