Fiji have finally won an Olympic Gold medal and there are few who didn’t celebrate their victory.
It took the IOC’s introduction of Rugby Sevens to the Olympic Games to give the pacific island nation their most realistic chance of gold. Fiji is the nation that put Rugby Sevens on the world stage. Their free-flowing, majestic-handling and fast running game helped elevate Sevens to the place it holds now on the world’s sporting calendar. Fiji were the team to watch. Fiji were the team who embodied the spirit of the game. Fiji were the masters.
However as the game turned professional Fiji somehow managed to stay in touch with nations who invested heavily in this format of the game. They have won two of World Rugby’s six Seven’s World Cup titles; only New Zealand can match that achievement.
If you look at the HSBC World Sevens Series the two nations have again dominated. New Zealand has won 12 of the 17 titles. Fiji is the only other nation to have won multiple titles having won three Series, including the last two titles. They have been runner up five times.
Fiji’s resurgence is almost a fairytale story on so many levels. Their coach is an Englishman, Ben Ryan. Ryan played his rugby for Nottingham and West Hartlepool but was never a player to set the world on fire. He taught at St Edwards school in Oxford and then decided to focus on rugby full time. In 2007 he coached England’s Sevens team and guided them to their first ever World Cup win. in 2013 he stepped down and took the head coach’s job with Fiji. He has garnered the talent that the Fijian players had and made them an undeniable force in Sevens rugby, and the Gold medal is the icing on the cake.
Ryan is already a superstar in rugby loving Fiji, and is rumoured to have had numerous babies named after him, and even a rock song released about him. What will come now can only be imagined. The Fijians are already asking for him to be given citizenship.
It is an unbelievable story, and will no doubt soon be made into a movie. Ryan went unpaid for months when he arrived in Fiji as the game was in financial crisis. They could not even put fuel in the team bus, so he paid.
The players were talented but naive to the ways of the professional sporting world, so he coaxed them off Facebook late at night telling them it would be worth it on the pitch the next day.
However Ryan was rewarded in a far greater way, and no doubt knew that he had a special group of players following Cyclone Winston striking Fiji in February of this year. The Cyclone ripped its way through the region with a fury killing 44 people. It destroyed 50,000 houses and impacted the lives of approximately 350,000 people; 40% of the entire population.
Two of his players were left homeless. Most of the population were forced to live without electricity or running water. Communication became impossible. Four days after Cyclone Winston hit the team had a training session as they prepared to head to Las Vegas for the World Sevens Series. As Ryan revealed when the team arrived in Rio, most of his players walked for up to eight hours on dirt roads to get there.
That was where they won the Gold medal.
In a world that sees many of our top sporting stars shun their fans and adopt an extravagant and at times outrageous lifestyle, it is refreshing to see top athletes be so dedicated and so humble. How many of the top players in teams around the world would have walked for so long to get to training?
There are some who will, one player in the state league football her win WA used to catch the train from the Northern Suburbs and then cycle to the ground twice a week to play for his side, so there are people to who the game and their team mates come first. Not surprisingly that particular player also was part of a victorious team.
Congratulations to Fiji and Ben Ryan. A great lesson in what a team is all about, as their post match celebration showed. Thank you for a wonderful Olympic memory. Thank you for some magical rugby.