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Snuffed out by England, Ben Ryan’s fire is reignited by Fiji as he seeks pastures new after incredible Olympics gold grab

The English coach will return to Fiji for the remaining few weeks of his contract while he considers his next move

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2016, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2016, 3:19am

Ben Ryan said he was going back to Fiji “to try and hide” before leaving his job as coach of their rugby sevens team.

After nearly three years in the job, Ryan’s contract expires on September 3, and he’s not of a mind to renew it.

That despite admitting the islanders had helped restore his “fire” – on a personal and professional level – after his spell as England’s longest serving sevens coach from 2007 to 2013 left him disillusioned with the power brokers at the Rugby Football Union and questioning his future in the game.

Three years on and Ryan will return to Fiji as a national hero after his team won the country’s first ever Olympic medal with a victory in Rio that had strangers to the game of sevens all over the world almost as blown away as Great Britain’s players were in the final.

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He’s going back for the celebrations and to see out his contract and then it’s on to pastures new. He hopes.

The archipelago’s prime minister was at the Deodoro Stadium on Thursday to watch the team – and bask in the reflected glory with an eye on the polls, no doubt. You suspect he’d provide Ryan with anything he demanded to sign another contract, but the Englishman seemed determined to try something new even as he looked back fondly with a small group of us on the life lessons Fiji had taught him.

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Whether his next step is Super Rugby, England’s Premiership, or another job on the sevens scene, it was clear that the people of Fiji have given him enough memories and experiences to last a lifetime. Captain Osea Kolinisau said Ryan had brought back Fijian flair, but it was clear that the eloquent Cambridge educated 44-year-old had been given plenty back in return.

“I’d done seven years with England, my last year – although my last tournament was a World Cup final, we got battered by New Zealand. I just got a bit disillusioned and flat with a few things that were going on at the RFU.

“The way things are packaged – sometimes it’s you deciding to ‘step down’ and behind the scenes there’s one or two other reasons and other decisions,” he said. “What happened, happened, you sign various things, so you can’t actually tell the real truth behind all of that.

“But I came to Fiji and I just got back to basics again. I stripped away all the other stuff that sometimes comes with these programmes, too many people, too many layers – I have simple leadership, we have a very simple framework of what we do. We set simple standards, everybody knows what’s going on, there’s no politics around our group of players or our management – and it works.”

It certainly does, as Great Britain’s steamrollered players could attest after 20 minutes of rugby where they barely got a look at the ball and lost 43-7.

Ryan will now try to leave a country and people that seem to see the red-haired coach as something just shy of a living God.

“I’ve had an a 80-year-old walk eight hours to training to shake my hand and I was just lost for words,” he recalled. “He was telling the truth – I saw his shoes.

“There’s things like that all the time. I go to the boys’ houses and see their upbringing ... Fiji’s amazing and we’re lucky – it’s a unique sporting team and I’m just delighted we’ve managed to win an Olympic gold medal and show ourselves off for a while.”

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Fiji have been a tight-knit group, the men’s and women’s rugby teams sharing a table with the small contingent of athletes the country has from other sports in the Athletes’ Village. Several of the players were on the first flight back to Fiji for a week’s celebration before returning to their French clubs, but Ryan was aiming to do some sightseeing with those staying on in Rio.

“It’ll be nice to spend some R&R with them and enjoy this moment, because it’s once-in-a-lifetime and nice to savour.”

Ryan will be glad to return to London, and his beloved Brentford FC, although he admitted he’s unsure if he should “jump off the sevens train” in pursuit of a 15s job just as that train is gaining serious momentum.

But having “learned so much and grown” in his spell in Fiji, he hopes not to forget those lessons as he returns to London then wherever the next move takes him.

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“Living in West London you worry about where you’ll go out for your next meal, is your Sky TV box filled up with your latest series. Back at home in Fiji it’s the simple things you really enjoy – the company of everybody else, talking to each other, not being on your phone all the time.

“People are so happy – they have so little in Fiji and when my mates talk about all their first-world problems…” he shakes his head.

“When I go back to London, I’ll certainly try to keep that Fijian way of thinking.”

That’s if the Fijians ever let him leave, of course.