Fiji want to put smile on faces of cyclone-devastated compatriots
Coach Ben Ryan says the whole country was affected with some players losing their homes
The fact that Fiji lead the Sevens World Series comes as no surprise. They are reigning champions and masters of the sport’s finer arts.
But the fact that they have been able to maintain their composure through the devastation that wrecked the island this past month sits in tribute to just what a remarkable group of men the Fijians have gathered.
When Tropical Cyclone Winston hit the islands around February 20 it left 44 dead and billions of dollars of damage behind. It was the biggest storm in history and every single person in Fiji was affected in some way, with more than 60,000 still homeless.
“The country is still very much doing all it can to get back to its feet,” said Fiji's English coach Ben Ryan. “A month on and there are still lots of power cuts as the national grid gets restored. Much of the hotel business is back up and running successfully but the villages in the north and many of the islands like Koro are still decimated and in huge need of help.
“It was a natural disaster of very significant proportions and it’s been a tragedy but the nation is very robust and have taken it all in their stride. Same for the players. Some lost their houses, others lost family businesses and all were affected in some way.”
Ryan and his team have touched down as they look to repeat their victory at last year’s Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens and add to the quite incredible collection of 15 titles in total. The fan favourites brought the house down last year, not allowing New Zealand a chance to get their game flowing as Fiji ran out 33-19 winners.
In the Sevens World Series they sit atop the standings by one point from South Africa with the Kiwis a further point behind after victories in Dubai and Las Vegas.
Again, the remarkable thing to note here is that victory in Vegas came two weeks after the devastating struck and as some players were still trying to piece their lives back together.
“The guys were affected in Vegas and Vancouver a lot,” said Ryan. “I think raw emotion and the desire to win Vegas to put a smile on the nation again drove us hugely there. It caught up with us a bit in Canada and I was not surprised at all by that – half our team were ill or injured and no doubt that was a result of the affected preparation.”
Fiji welcome back the rampaging Semi Kunatani along with forwards Apisai Domolailai and Viliame Mata for Hong Kong, where they have drawn Wales, Canada and South Korea in pool D.
While Hong Kong is the immediate goal, there is no escaping the fact that history awaits this Fijian squad. Come August they’ll be in Rio as sevens makes its debut at the Olympics – and they’ll be searching for the island nation’s first ever medal at the Games. The smart money, as always, has them going for gold.
“The focus is on Rio – no doubt about that,” said Ryan. “Of course we also want to go back to back on World Series titles but our primary focus is the Olympics. For many, it will mean they will go overseas after Brazil and many will move to the 15s team and look to get a 2019 RWC spot.
“They also understand the pressure on them to gain selection and perform and also the chance they have to create a piece of Fijian and rugby history.”
Ryan says his players welcome the weight of expectation from a sevens-obsessed nation back home.
“We face the pressure square on and openly talk about it,” he said. “We have no clever plans here from a mental viewpoint – we all know we have to be at our absolute best for that tournament. It’s going to be unforgettable.”