SO VERY SEREVI
'Wizard' is back to lift Fiji's sevens team, but the controversial coach has put a few noses out of joint. Paul Moon reports
Although Waisale Serevi's return as Fiji's Sevens coach elated his army of fans throughout the world, officials at the Fiji Rugby Union (FRU) are considerably less gleeful.
The 40-year-old's reappointment came through pressure applied by sponsors and supporters bitterly disappointed at the Islanders' 2007-08 IRB Series efforts, and was made on the sufferance of his paymasters.
Since 'The Wizard' resigned as Fiji's player-coach in July 2007, FRU administrators have been scathing of his earlier conduct, although none was prepared to make their allegations on the record.
Chief among the assertions were he had a cavalier attitude to financial budgets, was exacting to work with, had scant regard for paperwork, constantly exceeded his responsibilities and undermined the team's 2008 Hong Kong campaign with criticism of his successor, Joe Savour, while mingling with the team.
Nor did Serevi endear himself to the Fijian rugby hierarchy when verbally approving a contract offered to him in August - prior to informing the media he held reservations about several conditions it imposed and not signing the document.
Serevi then departed for England, where he received an honorary degree at Leeds Metropolitan University and participated in a rugby league tournament. A month passed before Serevi returned to continue negotiations. The eventual result was him accepting each and every one of the union's original terms. The major concession for him was his agreement to retire as a player and, henceforth, concentrate solely upon coaching.
Also, Serevi allowed an FRU appointee to become team manager, rather than the applicant he favoured; permitted national XV counterpart Ilivasi Tabua to assist in selecting players; accepted the initial salary offer (understood to be about half of the HK$400,000 per annum he wanted); conceded the contract will end with the World Cup in March of next year, instead of August 2010; and failed to elicit guarantees that sevens would receive a similar amount of financial support as the 15-a-side game.
When interviewed, it was clearly hard for Serevi to acknowledge he had finally hung up his boots.
'I was still enjoying playing and believed I had something left to provide in that role,' he lamented. 'It was difficult retiring. Once you give up, you won't be playing for the rest of your life. I also felt it a big advantage being the one player-coach on the sevens circuit, because only I could communicate with my side directly on the pitch. But, they [the FRU) say I can't play, so that is it.'
The most significant of Serevi's failures though was his inability to persuade the FRU to divert some of the cash spent on developing the 15-a-side code. This enjoyed a huge boost in the islands when Tabua's charges reached the 2007 World Cup quarter-finals, eliminating Wales en route.
Also influenced perhaps by the parade of visiting overseas dignitaries who, for many years, bemoaned Fiji's focus on sevens and, allegedly, its detrimental affect on the traditional game locally, the union now puts much of its resources at Tabua's disposal. The High Performance Unit, established in 2004 through International Rugby Board (IRB) funding, concentrates almost exclusively on fifteens.
The IRB sponsors the Pacific Rugby Cup, featuring two teams each from Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, and the Pacific Five Nations Cup - contested by the senior selections of the Pacific islands trio, plus representative combinations from Australia and New Zealand. Both started in 2006.
In comparison, local sevens has received very little money from world rugby's ruling body.
All of this helped the conventional version of rugby regain its old importance in the affections of the more athletic Fijians, at sevens' expense, as has the modern professional game's wide global base.
Fifteens provides far greater opportunities to escape the poverty of Fiji than sevens. Consequently, there are dozens of Fijians playing in Japan, France, Britain and New Zealand.
Not long ago, the dream of the majority of Fijian men was to represent his country at Hong Kong; today it is to be paid handsomely for trotting around stadiums in provincial France every weekend.
As a consequence, Fijian sevens no longer boasts the depth of talent which gave it an edge over all its rivals and is the major reason for the team's dramatic decline.
Swinging the pendulum back towards sevens will be a monumental task for Serevi, who realises it can only be achieved through glory in Dubai or Hong Kong. He is confident he knows the key.
'It was frustrating watching the same mistakes made, over and over, during the last IRB season,' Fiji's favourite son said. 'I will be doing my utmost to rectify them through hard work and intense training drills. I am sure a lot of our problems can be resolved with the boys simply practicing moves continuously until they come right on the training field.'
And the training field is where Serevi spends much of his time, preparing a provisional squad of 27 for the Dubai and George events. A surprise inclusion is rugby's enfant terrible, winger Rupeni Caucaunibuca.
Caucaunibuca - who was recently courted by English Premiership side Leicester Tigers but failed to reach an agreement - is among 25 locally based footballers selected. Serevi intends to spread his net wider for Hong Kong and the World Cup.
'I will endeavour to secure William Ryder, plus a few more from overseas for those tournaments,' he advises. 'Though there are contractual matters with their clubs that have to be determined first.'
A Fiji with Caucaunibuca back firing on all cylinders and Ryder at flyhalf inspired by the re-appearance of his old mentor Serevi would be irresistible.
So is sevens' most celebrated exponent confident of reviving the World Cup holders' fortunes? 'I believe it will be done,' he answers. 'Because God will be our leader to victory.'
Waisale Serevi factfile
1 Serevi is one of the greatest sevens players of all time. He appeared 16 times at the Hong Kong sevens from 1989-2007, winning seven and four times being named player of the tournament
2 In May 2007 Serevi was made a Special Inspector of the Fiji Police Force to boost community policing
3 He is a devout Christian, and has Philippians '4:13' written on his boots - 'I can do all thing through Christ who strengthens me'
4 Serevi has an honorary sports degree from Leeds Metropolitan University
5 Serevi is extremely well-travelled, having played in Japan, England and France and been coach of Taiwan's sevens team
6 In 1994 while playing in Japan for Mitsubishi, Serevi was approached by two Australian rugby league clubs to switch codes. A pay rise and reported pressure from Fiji's Methodist Church persuaded him to stay
Waisele Serevi has finally been persuaded to hang up his boots and concentrate on coaching at the age of: 40