By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Rugby sevens coach Ben Ryan is mobbed every time he ventures into Suva these days as locals impress upon him how much a first Olympic medal would mean to Fiji.
The bookmakers’ favorites to win the first Olympic rugby union gold medal in 92 years, albeit in the sport’s shorter format, Fiji have wedded a new-found consistency to their traditionally strong skillset under Ryan’s guidance.
The 44-year-old, who can no longer just go into the capital for a “quiet cup of coffee”, is well aware of the expectation piled on him and the side as the countdown continues to the Aug. 5-21 Rio de Janeiro Games.
“In Fiji there is pressure to win every game. There are questions if we don’t,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“It doesn’t matter if we don’t have any money or our best players are injured. They expect us to go onto the field and beat New Zealand South Africa and Australia.”
Fiji has produced some of the greatest players ever to have played the shortened version of the game, such as Waisale Serevi and William Ryder, and their success has allowed the country to wave its flag on the global sporting stage.
Since the introduction of the world sevens series in 1999, however, the team have been struggled with consistency, romping through one tournament only to crash out early in the next.
Ryan was brought in to rectify that.
In the 2014/15 season, his second year in charge, he guided the team to their first world sevens series crown in nine years.
They backed that up earlier this year by winning three of the 10 tournaments, but it was their consistency in making at least the semi-finals nine times that has firmed them as Olympics favorites.
A BLANK CANVAS
After coaching the England sevens side for six years, Ryan joined the Fijians in September 2013, perhaps the worst possible time to have made the switch.
The Fijian Rugby Union encountered financial difficulties after World Rugby cut off funding and he was not paid for months. There was no national training center, no sponsorship.
The were no clear pathways to the national side, no proper nutritional planning or strength and conditioning programs.
On the field, a number of players had signed for overseas clubs and were unavailable for sevens selection.
“We were basically starting from scratch,” said Ryan. “In some ways it was a challenge because nothing was working, but as long as I negotiated my way around it properly then it was almost like a blank canvas.”
Ryan began painting.
He brought in a strength and conditioning coach, changed the players’ nutrition away from their traditional high carbohydrate, high sugar diets, and introduced specialist skills coaches and conducted more video analysis.
“You are now seeing the results on the field,” said Ryan.
The players are now centrally contracted, while a crowd-funded national training center has been built in Pacific Harbour, about an hour southwest of the capital Suva.
“They have really got to grips with the training, the quality of recovery and because we have planned what were going to do in each tournament.
“Prior to that it was a bit unstructured.”
While Ryan’s revamp of the high performance environment undoubtedly played an important role in the team’s improving consistency, there are intangible factors he has discovered that are just as important.
Fijians play rugby sevens from a young age and Ryan suspects most of his players have played as many 300 tournaments before they even hit the world circuit.
That experience ensures Fijian players have an innate feel for, and better understanding of, space on the rugby field.
“Better than anyone else in the world”, Ryan suggests.
In Rio, they will have the chance to prove it.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)