Fiji’s stunning Olympic success forged in Hong Kong, says coach Ben Ryan
Victorious coach credits HK showpiece with helping his team prepare for Olympic glory
Fiji coach Ben Ryan hailed his team’s Hong Kong Sevens win in April this year as key to fulfilling a nation’s dreams and winning their first ever Olympic gold medal.
Fiji blew Great Britain away in a sensational 43-7 onslaught that had their prime minister dancing in the stands and sparked parties in every village in every inhabited island in the archipelago.
It was the tiny country’s first Olympic medal of any colour as they put on a stunning advertisement of Sevens at its finest as rugby returned to the Games for the first time in 92 years.
And Ryan said it might not have been possible without the “dress rehearsal” they had at Hong Kong – which he described as “Fiji’s Olympics”.
WATCH: golden moments on Day 6 at the Rio Olympics
“It was pretty important,” said the English coach. “Back-to-back wins in Hong Kong and the pressure is on for Fiji in Hong Kong – that is the Olympics for Fiji so I think it did fill us with confidence.”
Ryan tried out every aspect of the Rio mission in Hong Kong, he revealed.
“We had literally done a dress rehearsal in the last two weeks before Hong Kong for what we were going to do in the last two weeks before coming here and it worked pretty well and went pretty well and it gave trust that the plan that you put together is working.
“It was in our prep before each game, Hong Kong is [also] a three-day tournament, in how we approach things, how we got over jet lag, nutritional strategies ... Our boys have only just had carbohydrates for the first time in the last two months and as you saw it gave them plenty of energy!”
Fiji’s PM Frank Bainimarama stopped short of declaring a national holiday, but then he probably knew he didn’t have to.
For the tiny nation where rugby is a religion, this was the fulfilment of a dream that had been building since the sport was accepted back in the Games in 2009.
“It’s history in the making, first gold medal in the Olympics and we’re all proud to be Fijians,” said Bainimarama, who was among the Fiji fans in a packed crowd cheering along. “They’re all celebrating [in Fiji] – in fact they’ve been celebrating for the last three days.
WATCH: relive the action involving Hong Kong athletes on Day 6 at the Rio Olympics
“I want to thank the Olympic committee for including rugby sevens in the Olympics and I hope the brand of rugby we played today showed that was a good decision.
“Rugby has always lifted the spirit and brought us together,” he added in reference to the devastation wrought on the islands by Cyclone Winston in February. “Maybe this will give us a GDP boost!” he joked.
Great Britain were simply annihilated by Fiji, who rampaged over them straight from kick-off and barely let up, even after taking a 29-0 half-time lead as they ran in five tries in 10 minutes.
The British, most of whom were from the England sevens team Ryan used to coach, were left to just shake their heads and accept their opponents were simply unstoppable.
“I feel very lucky that I’m in charge of such an unbelievable group of athletes that are so passionate about rugby sevens, I certainly wouldn’t have had this success if it wasn’t for them, I’m a small part of this,” said Ryan, who seems certain to leave when his contract expires in September.
“We set those goals, of winning in Hong Kong and winning gold here, had a bit of luck along the way ... today was our day, we’re thankful and it’s the team really, the coach just blows and points his whistle.”
Ryan said a normally three-hour journey from the airport to the capital city had taken nine hours the last time the team returned after winning the Sevens World Series, with families bringing their kids in front of the bus for pictures and the like; their triumphant return this time might last days.
“I try to explain it to people who’ve never been to Fiji, it’s impossible. The boys are front-page news, back-page news, six o’clock TV news, they’re superstars.
“I can have an hour drive to work and see 50 villages all playing rugby, it’s the passion, it’s the national sport, the islands wont be having parties in sporadic parts of the country, it will be all parts of the country in every village across 350 islands.
“These boys come from very humble backgrounds, and I think that makes them unique.”
The names ‘Ben’ and ‘Ryan’ have been surging in popularity in Fiji since he took over but the coach, who left his job at England under a cloud, said: “I’m hoping some of the babies are named after the players – they’re the ones getting smashed on the field. I’ll have a few months off, weigh up what move is next and enjoy some time out. But the last few years have been amazing and I’ll always be thankful for helping Fiji find my fire again.”
Captain Osea Kolinisau, gold medal around his neck, admitted he still didn’t believe it was real: “It’s a massive achievement to get a first medal for your country – I told the boys on the podium, ‘Is this really happening, are we really gold medal winners?
“We’ll probably wake up tomorrow, it will dawn on us – this achievement will be part of our history back home.”
He credited Ryan with reinstilling the flair the country’s rugby is famed for.
“Our performances speaks of how good a coach Ben is and we’re really blessed that he chose to come and coach Fiji and set things straight with the boys and bring out the real Fiji.
“For years we’ve been trying to bring back the Fijian flair and Ben brought that out and brought in consistency. I hope after his break he decides to stay with Fiji rugby a bit longer.”