Half a year without pay, appointing a ‘troublemaker’ and the Hong Kong Sevens: Ben Ryan on his Fiji odyssey – Part 2
Fiji’s Olympic gold-medal winning coach talks about his decision to leave England for Fiji and the obstacles he faced in the Pacific islands
Ben Ryan wanted to explore the rugby world beyond the cocoon that was England but Fiji was the last place he had in mind until a friend told him about an opening for a sevens coach. The risk factor in Fiji is a double-edged sword. You have no idea what kind of environment you are entering but one thing is for sure, you will have world-class players at your disposal.
In the end, that is what kept Ryan going.
South China Morning Post spoke to Ryan ahead of the launch of his book, Sevens Heaven: The Beautiful Chaos of Fiji’s Olympic Dream, chronicling Fiji’s journey to the Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio Games. In the second and final part of our conversation with Ryan, he talks about his decision to take up the Fiji job, the Fiji Rugby Union and his relationship with the players.
What made you go to Fiji in the first place?
Good question. I was ready to leave England, and I talk about it in the book. It wasn’t my decision really. I had a job lined up and my mate told me that Fiji were looking for someone. To cut a long story short, I was offered the job and I didn’t know how much I was going to get paid, how long my contract was and who my bosses were and I’d never been to Fiji, but I said yes because I knew I needed to take a risk. It was one of those decisions where you are feeling very excited about what could be a new chapter and also sick in your stomach because you don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for, and I kind of learned that you’ve got to take leaps of blind faith sometimes and I knew I needed to. Luckily it all worked out and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
Was there ever a time when you felt “what am I doing here?”
Oh man, load of times in the first two years and when they told me in my first week that I wasn’t going to get paid for almost half a year, and when the union went bust and was investigated by World Rugby, and when my best players were disappearing to France – all those things made me wonder whether I was in the right spot. But what always brought me back to centre was training with the boys, they’re always laughing and smiling and you can see how much it means to them and it overcomes all of the negatives, it just sweeps over you. Very infectious Fiji and Fijian rugby players, you have a love for them very quickly.
Was it difficult to get the boys on your side?
It took about three months for them to even really start talking to me but luckily what I had was Osea Kolinisau, the captain. They didn’t want me to select him and they said he was a troublemaker. I had a sense that we would get on and that he would be the guy who would be my cultural architect and he and I struck it off immediately. He was dropped by Fiji and he was about to go ... his dad would tell me we were fated to meet. We were both at a point where we needed to help each other. And he really accelerated everything. I could not have won the Olympic gold medal without Kolinisau.
Will it open up doors for the guys who won gold?
Yeah, one went to play for Toulouse and is earning a lot of money, another went to Edinburgh and another to the NRL. They were all given money so they could extend their family homes. It’s not enough, they deserve more and there’s more things they should have got, but it’s a good start.
Waisale Serevi recently revealed in his book that he had problems with drink and depression. How did it happen?
Lots of players are coming out now and he’s very brave to say what he did and share his story but when players are at such a high and have such adulation and they have to retire because we all get old and that’s no longer around, you’re “why you do things” has suddenly disappeared and it’s really hard if you don’t have the right people around you.
I can see how that spirals and how people can get depressed, how people can turn to other things to get those highs and it’s great that Waisale has come out of it. You know he is a deity in Fiji and he can do what he wants and even though we are watching magnificent players playing the game of sevens, they still don’t match up to Waisale in his pomp. He was a once-in-a-generation player and I still hold him in the absolute highest regard.
Does the Fiji rugby union need cleaning up?
Yeah, it does. Most of the stuff is public, not everyone knows the characters and where they’ve come from. It needs to be cleaned up. As I’ve talked about in the past, if they cleaned their house up, the Fiji Rugby Union, they have good people there, they organise their finances properly, Fiji will win every tournament every year and dominate the world sevens and that’s the problem. They are like Usain Bolt in the 100 metres: they’re the favourites, they’re the quickest but there’s always someone throwing a stone or a boulder in front of them to slow them down and that’s the Fiji Rugby Union.
Fiji organically develops players; do they need someone to go in there and put in a structured development programme?
We talked about this. When people are trying to help us saying ‘yeah, we’ll build a load of artificial pitches and give us brand new rugby balls’, and we say, ‘no, don’t do that’. We don’t want that because our natural advantage is undulating pitches. It’s plastic bottles filled with sand that gives you hand-eye coordination and gives you all sorts of positives. I hope that doesn’t happen. Give us more money, be more organised, have more education around our coaches, our managers and our physios and our administrators but keep those beaches and those rubbish pitches there please.
Why can’t the best sevens nation in the world get more money?
They are not short of attracting sponsors but the sponsors then get worried about where that money goes. And they don’t necessarily have the right people there for the right reasons. They often can bring in overseas consultants who are there for the short term and they end up doing things that might help them but might not help the union. They are not particularly educated in that and even the guys they bring into the union haven’t been very good. It’s the biggest area for them. It was like me, all my work to improve the team was off the field, not on the field. The boys make it easy on the field but trying to align everybody off the field was incredibly difficult.
What do you feel about the Hong Kong Sevens?
Let’s for one moment take the weight off this year’s, that the whole of the Hong Kong Sevens is still the number one in the series. It doesn’t matter if it has the same number of points, or there’s no prize money involved, you still want to win in Hong Kong more than anywhere else. This year, it’s been sullied by some very poor decisions by teams to rest their main players for the Commonwealth Games, and I got quite angry about it to watch New Zealand get thumped by Fiji in the group, and why are they not putting their main sides out?
We are used to going to another tournament the following week, you’re just not very good at your planning or you don’t trust your players. Fiji put their main side out, Kenya put their main side out, I think you’ll probably see those two in the final later (said one day before Fiji beat Kenya in the final).
Read Part One of the interview here.