Welcome to vaka viti – rugby sevens the Fijian way!

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

By Nicholas Bishop, Nicholas Bishop is a Roar Expert

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    Fiji players and staff huddle after winning their gold medal. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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    It is late in the evening of 11th August 2016, on the far side of the rugby world. Englishman Ben Ryan swells with pride as he is hoisted aloft on the shoulders of his Fijian players in the gathering dusk at the Deodoro stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

    They have just won Olympic Gold, the first medals of any kind won by Fijian sportsmen or women at the Olympic Games. Moments earlier, they had set another precedent, one by one sinking to their knees to receive their medals from Her Royal Highness Princess Anne at the awards ceremony.

    It is a simple, humble act that epitomises the Fijian spirit. It is bula – hello, goodbye, a blessing given or received. It is the simplicity of life, warmly-embraced on its own terms.

    When he was appointed coach of the Fijian Sevens rugby team back in September 2013, red-headed Cambridge University graduate Ryan did not realise how much the truth of that spirit would be reinforced over the course of the next three years.

    Already the successful coach of a heavily-subsidised England Sevens side, after interview Ryan was given twenty minutes to decide whether he wanted the new role, with no guarantees about contract or salary. He said yes to the unknown.

    Ryan understood he would not be paid for the first few months of his tenure by the Fiji National Sports Commission. The IRB was withholding its grant of $1.75m to the Fiji Rugby Union pending a review over alleged financial mismanagement.

    “I didn’t get paid for four months. Once I signed up I could see that the funding wasn’t there. There was no point in my kicking up a fuss. I’d agreed to something, and I was going to keep to my word.”

    Ryan accepted the situation as it presented itself, knowing that if he insisted on payment, it would lead to the laying off of other workers in the FRU administrative offices.

    That strained beginning provided a pause for thought. The days of central contracts, of conditioners and nutritionists, of psychologists and analysts and the laboratory testing of micro-gains in preparation, were long gone. The present was brusque, uncertain, and stripped back to the bone.

    Fijian players kneel while receiving their gold medals

    (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

    “We weren’t able to train adequately. We didn’t have any kit, we didn’t have any bottled water, we weren’t able to book places to stay at because we didn’t have the money. Petrol ran out on the bus on the way to training as we couldn’t afford petrol… In Fiji, it was just me – I had a physio and a manager.”

    On an island where the reported GDP per head is only $9,000 per annum, Fijian rugby players roam the world to sustain themselves and their families financially. They are spread to all points of the compass. They frequently take up school scholarships in New Zealand in their teens, or later in their careers play in the French leagues all the way from the Top 14 (premier division) down to the amateur fourth division (Federale 2).

    More often than not, they do not understand the contracts they are signing, especially when they are only delivered in French, but they are too polite to decline the invitation. Almost immediately upon his appointment as head coach, Ryan found a majority of his top players playing in a sevens tournament in Sri Lanka, where they could earn $500 per day for a fortnight’s work – or “almost a year’s salary in two weeks”, as Ryan put it.

    It is a pattern which is not likely to change in the near future, even after Fiji’s success at the Rio Games. At the Cape Town Sevens in December 2016, Ryan tweeted that team sponsorships had been lost, and the Fijian players were all off contract having been left unpaid for three months after their historic triumph.

    But that startling naiveté, and the economic uncertainty underpinning Fijian rugby, is also the flipside to its endearing simplicity.

    “Other teams are more developed, have more money, have more back-up, have more things in every category except that ability and that heart, that nation behind them. A lot of other teams can say that they are doing it for their country but this is actually the case here. Everybody on the island is behind this team, it’s a unique situation”.

    Out of the 180,000 males between the ages of 14 and 40 listed in the CIA World Factbook, 155,000 are considered to be rugby players by the governing body, World Rugby!

    The game of rugby is omnipresent in Fiji. Ryan said he could drive the fifty miles from his home in Navua to the FRU’s offices in Suva and watch a game of sevens igniting spontaneously – played barefoot on pitches marked only by trees, with maybe a plastic bottle filled with sand or coconut for a ball – for every single one of the miles he travelled.

    Sometimes he would even find one of his elite squad players participating in a local village match just for the fun of it.

    “They can’t stop playing; they love it and it is a central part of culture in the villages. You’ll see sevens everywhere, most of the time being played on uneven surfaces, and very rarely with an actual rugby ball… It’s unstructured structured, so a player’s overall game awareness is of an incredibly high level.

    “It may look like complete chaos, and that the Fiji players don’t know what they are doing, but all they are thinking is how to manipulate defenders. That comes from a young age, playing for hours on end with their brothers, sisters, mates, uncles and aunties.”

    Fiji sevens player Vatemi Ravouvou

    (Photo: Martin Seras Lima)

    In other words, Fijian players are acclimatised by their culture to function in exactly the ‘chaotic’ environments that many top coaches (like England’s Eddie Jones and Scotland’s Gregor Townsend) now like to cultivate artificially in their training sessions.

    It is neat reversal which explains why Fijian talents are so highly valued in both hemispheres. Indeed, it’s becoming well-nigh impossible to imagine a French Top 14 side without at least one Pacific Islander in its back three!

    Physically, the shorter version of the game suits the Polynesian body type, with its fluid, long-limbed hardness and leaning towards powerful, explosive movements, particularly well. According to one prominent Fijian anthropologist, Dominik Schieder, “playing the game also gives expression to physical and moral values which Fijians identify with warfare and martial traditions, both important elements of pre-colonial Fijian societies.”

    There is a true sense of a ‘return to origin’ in Fiji’s sevens philosophy which predates both the structured European attitude to rugby, and its tendency to colonise the world outside it with its own narrow rules. That philosophy is now ironically being seen as the more progressive approach in both forms of the game – even by coaches who have previously been noted for their prescriptive coaching style, like Jones. The wheel is slowly turning full circle.

    The climb toward Rio was punctuated by one other important staging post, the Hong Kong Sevens in April 2016. Hong Kong remains the touchstone for all serious sevens aspirants, and Fiji have won the competition on 17 occasions, six times more than the next best team, New Zealand.

    “When we left Hong Kong having won, it gave us real confidence that we were on the right track for preparing for the Olympics. Hong Kong is the closest you can get to the Olympics. It’s still the spiritual home of sevens and will remain so. I don’t think you can ever say you’re a successful sevens coach if you haven’t won the Hong Kong tournament.”

    The first landmark sevens tournament of the modern era had been launched in Hong Kong back in 1976.

    Although the Fijians didn’t win the inaugural event, they won it for the following three years and were branded ‘the fantastic Fijians’ by Jock Campbell, promotions manager of the original tournament sponsors, Cathay Pacific. Both they and the tournament were ‘here to stay’, as Campbell rightly said.

    With the help of the organisational graft added by Ben Ryan, Fiji Sevens has reached the ultimate summit, one which previously only massive preparation time and financial resources had been permitted to conquer.

    The final against Great Britain at the Deodoro stadium (won 43 points to 7 by Fiji) was described by the British captain Tom Mitchell as “the best performance I’ve ever seen on a sevens field, from any team… We were gutted, but to lose to them, on top form, somehow lessened the blow. When Fiji perform like that, as they have done so often in the past, it makes sevens so exciting.”

    For one or two priceless hours after the game had finished, ‘Fiji’ was the highest-rated search topic on Google.

    There is a lesson for the game as a whole in the simplicity of the Fijian approach, in their receptiveness to chaos on and off the field, and in their connection with the larger community.

    Fijian sevens gold medal parade

    (Feroz Khalil/AFP/Getty Images)

    Being comfortable in chaos is clearly a happy infection that Ben Ryan caught during his time in Fiji, if he didn’t have it already:

    “For me, the simple life is the beautiful life, and that transfers out on to the field. My leadership is a simple style, it’s the obvious and it’s about team-ship and loyalty.
    You don’t need a software program or a sports scientist to tell you that and we’ve proven it as a team – that having a simple framework and simple practices can get you to the top of the game, keep you there and push the boundaries.

    “[These boys] come from some of the lowest start-points in life but achieve the highest honours in the game…

    “Everybody’s watching at home. If you don’t make that pass, or give it that energy, they all see it. If you don’t get up, everybody sees it.

    “They don’t care if we haven’t got any money or if we’re playing teams that are fully professional and working day-to-day together and have planned and plotted to beat us for years while we’re scrambling a team together… It makes no difference to the Fijian public.

    “It’s refreshing. I don’t know why, but I don’t feel the pressure.”

    After the Olympics were over and the dust cleared, Ben Ryan was made a Companion of the Order of Fiji, he became chief of Serua (his home province) and he was granted three acres of Matagali land, land which he can never now sell to anyone else.

    It is unlikely that he would ever wish to do so, as the Fijian bula has already become a part of him. That is where Ben Ryan will always stand for the remainder of his rugby life, on the cusp of ‘Hello and Goodbye’, and looking out at the ocean beyond his home.

    Experience the best of rugby sevens’ finest nation with a holiday to Fiji and discover why everyone can’t get enough of the stunning country which has dominated the seven-player game. Check out Tourism Fiji for more details.

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    The Crowd Says (106)

    • Roar Guru

      March 14th 2018 @ 5:28am
      Carlos the Argie said | March 14th 2018 @ 5:28am | ! Report

      What a great story! Thank you so much for posting this.

      The combination of true amateur spirit and professionalism without cliches. It is never about the money, it is about the love of it.

      Pity that Porta would not read this. Or if he did, he would get the wrong impression.

      • March 14th 2018 @ 8:37am
        Ex force fan said | March 14th 2018 @ 8:37am | ! Report

        Great article Nick. There are many similar stories in Samoa, Tonga and other areas that are neglected by the rugby community. Would.be great to hear the struggles that others countries have that also struggle to get regular funding that comes from a major competition. At the moment it suits major rugby nations to force.these players to move to their country instead of playing for the Fiji.

        • Columnist

          March 14th 2018 @ 10:29am
          Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:29am | ! Report

          Yes EFF, and glad to see a Fiji ‘home’ team carving out a niche in the NRC, let’s hope it develops into a fully-fledged SR franchise one day in the not too distant future…

          • March 14th 2018 @ 12:08pm
            Ex force fan said | March 14th 2018 @ 12:08pm | ! Report

            The NRC is not long enough to retain their players, so they will always struggle to build a competitive team. What they need to do is play in a competitive tournament that runs parralel with Superugby and then the NRC. This will allow them to retain their home grown talent, appoint permanent staff and build a local team. If we can only find a rich guy that is willing to sponsor such a tournament…..

            • Columnist

              March 14th 2018 @ 5:55pm
              Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 5:55pm | ! Report

              Ah, I think we’re circling back to Mr.Forrest EFF 😀

          • March 15th 2018 @ 12:29pm
            Muzzo said | March 15th 2018 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

            Yeh, Nick, as I would like to see it happen, but with the issues they have in Fiji, we can’t expect that to happen any time soon. Let’s see how their current NRC goes, first mate.

      • Columnist

        March 14th 2018 @ 10:27am
        Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:27am | ! Report

        Thanks Carlos – it inspired me while I was doing the research too. We could all learn a lesson from the Fijian love of the game!

    • Roar Guru

      March 14th 2018 @ 6:20am
      Nobrain said | March 14th 2018 @ 6:20am | ! Report

      Fantastic!! NB

    • March 14th 2018 @ 6:35am
      Cynical Play said | March 14th 2018 @ 6:35am | ! Report

      Beautiful.

      The Fijian influence on Rugby is wonderful. It’s invigorated and elevated the game. Terrible that the huge monies doing the rounds in World rugby can’t find more to contribute to the community in Fiji that contributes so much. The very definition of exploitation.

      No biggers smiles than on the Fijian players face after a twinkle toe try. Think Kerevi and Nabuli combining to tie up defenders and run In untouched. Those smiles could light Ballymore.

      • March 14th 2018 @ 8:21am
        Fionn said | March 14th 2018 @ 8:21am | ! Report

        When Samu got injured in Bledisloe 3 2016 and couldn’t go on the Spring Tour he went back to his home in Fiji and helped with building houses. Seemed completely happy with his situation. It was lovely to see.

        As far as I see it, the more Fijian rugby players come to Australia the better. I like to think it’s mutually beneficial for us and for Fiji.

        • March 14th 2018 @ 10:25am
          Mzilikazi said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:25am | ! Report

          “When Samu got injured in Bledisloe 3 2016 and couldn’t go on the Spring Tour he went back to his home in Fiji and helped with building houses. Seemed completely happy with his situation. It was lovely to see.”

          What a great guy….just looks like a really nice person. Would have been good to have volunteered to go out as well and help. Fiji is on our radar to visit sometime in the not too distant future.

          Fionn, what about Ireland ! My nephew, who works in London, just sent me this photo of the Natwest Tower in the City…NW sponsors of Six Nations. He also has a ticket to the game on Sat. at Twickehham.

          IMG_2607.JPG Hope this will open..will post it and see.

          Actually been a good week Qld. winning on weekend, Ireland doing so well in Dublin, and earlier in the week Armagh Royal School reached the final of the Ulster Schools Cup. A small school, they beat one of the big schools in Ulster, Inst, who were unbeaten this year, and going for a 4th consecutive Cup.

          http://www.bbc.com/sport/rugby-union/43320137

          The best player I ever coached, Kenny Hooks,has been the driver of rugby at the school for 25 plus years. The current team is coached by old boy Willie Falloon, who played for Ulster and then finally Connaught. Kenny also coached as schoolboys Tommy Bowe and Exeters Gareth Steenson.

          Armagh will remember John McCall, as they prepare for the final….he may well have gone on to be one of Irelands top flankers of all time.

          https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/rugby/schools-cup/schools-cup-semifinal-bowe-and-faloon-recall-inspirational-mccall-as-armagh-look-to-2004-as-a-spur-36678039.html

          The team I helped coach in 1978, with K. Hooks as captain, are having a 40th reunion in Bangor on the night of 17th…only myself and one guy now living in Borneo won’t make it in person…hope to have a Skype link up though.

          • March 14th 2018 @ 10:29am
            Mzilikazi said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:29am | ! Report

            Damn..won’t open. Will try this…might need to separate the link

            IMG_2607.JPG

          • Columnist

            March 14th 2018 @ 10:34am
            Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:34am | ! Report

            Blimey MZ – did your nephew get his ticket for face value? 😀

            • March 14th 2018 @ 11:00am
              Mzilikazi said | March 14th 2018 @ 11:00am | ! Report

              Did not ask him. Will do…he earns well….works for Morgan Stanley…so would probably be prepared to pay a bit for a big game.

              • Columnist

                March 14th 2018 @ 5:57pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 5:57pm | ! Report

                I guess those will be circulating for four figure sums later this week…

          • March 14th 2018 @ 1:56pm
            Fionn said | March 14th 2018 @ 1:56pm | ! Report

            It’s quite incredible the way that Ireland have been building for the past few years since the RWC, isn’t it? They now look like the real deal, and look like they’re probably favourites for both the Grand Slam and also to beat Australia in June if they send their strongest team.

            That’s great, mate, congrats for your mate – are you able to take any indirect credit? 😉

            It’s pretty cool some of the stuff that technology allows now.

            Going to Fiji would be fantastic. I would like if Super Rugby keeps taking matches there.

            • Columnist

              March 14th 2018 @ 5:59pm
              Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 5:59pm | ! Report

              Going to Fiji would be fantastic. I would like if Super Rugby keeps taking matches there.

              Always great to go to places where you can locate your own interests and remember why you love them so much F. No price too high for that.

            • March 14th 2018 @ 10:09pm
              Mzilikazi said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:09pm | ! Report

              No indirect credit…all a long time ago now.

        • Columnist

          March 14th 2018 @ 10:33am
          Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:33am | ! Report

          Remember Radike Samo Fionn??

          • March 14th 2018 @ 11:25am
            Cynical Play said | March 14th 2018 @ 11:25am | ! Report

            Radike is hard to forget.

            He comes down to the Byron Bay Rugby 7’s and towers over any other spectator.

          • March 14th 2018 @ 6:29pm
            Fionn said | March 14th 2018 @ 6:29pm | ! Report

            Could never forget him, Nick. Great Brumby and Wallaby.

            • Columnist

              March 14th 2018 @ 9:33pm
              Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 9:33pm | ! Report

              Aye Fionn, and could play 8 or wing with almost equal facility!

          • March 15th 2018 @ 12:38pm
            Muzzo said | March 15th 2018 @ 12:38pm | ! Report

            Yep, I remember Radike well, as I actually met him in a bar, with Tana Umaga, in Hong Kong a few years back, before Tana became Blues coach. Tana was over there at that time coaching in a 12’s team tournament, in which he won. Samo, was one of his players. This tournament, was played prior to the start of the World Rugby (IRB then) sevens tournament.

      • Columnist

        March 14th 2018 @ 10:32am
        Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:32am | ! Report

        Thank you CP, it was a pleasure to research and write it. Amazing that all the pressures involved in world rugby now haven’t managed to corrupt the Fijians’ pure pleasure in living and loving the game…

        • March 14th 2018 @ 3:12pm
          Ex force fan said | March 14th 2018 @ 3:12pm | ! Report

          The “pure pleasure of living and loving the game” is the soul of rugby. You see it in the pubs in Ireland, a braai and rugby song in South Africa, a haka in New Zealand, when the Welsh and Scots sing…. without this soul there is nothing special about rugby.

    • March 14th 2018 @ 7:20am
      John said | March 14th 2018 @ 7:20am | ! Report

      Thanks Nick – I think I was smiling as I read the entire story. So many questions and thoughts come to mind.

      So glad for Fiji and for these athletes that the HSBC World Sevens series is alive and prospering. The Fijians are always there or thereabouts and their brand of rugby is refreshing.

      Was it France v New Zealand a few years ago where all four wingers were born in Fiji? From memory that was the catalyst for the IRB announcing it was time to do something.

      If this is the Fijian way, why not Samoa? What are the differences?

      Glad there’s a team in the NRC. Is there a Fijian side in the Mitre 10 Cup?

      Also glad they’re part of Forrest’s plans

      • March 14th 2018 @ 8:22am
        Highlander said | March 14th 2018 @ 8:22am | ! Report

        France v Aus 2016 i think John

        • March 14th 2018 @ 9:17am
          John said | March 14th 2018 @ 9:17am | ! Report

          That’s right – thx

          Vakatawa
          Speight
          Nakaitaci
          Naivalu

      • Columnist

        March 14th 2018 @ 10:35am
        Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:35am | ! Report

        Cheers John – and ofc for a very long time the best two wingers in NZ (and prob the world) were Joe Rocokoko and Siti Sivivatu!

    • Roar Guru

      March 14th 2018 @ 7:42am
      Kia Kaha said | March 14th 2018 @ 7:42am | ! Report

      Is this the first track off your greatest hits album, NB? Still makes for great listening. 😉

      • Roar Guru

        March 14th 2018 @ 7:47am
        Machooka said | March 14th 2018 @ 7:47am | ! Report

        Haha!

        Good call Kia Kaha! 🙂

      • March 14th 2018 @ 9:56am
        Highlander said | March 14th 2018 @ 9:56am | ! Report

        Are we doing requests yet?

      • Columnist

        March 14th 2018 @ 10:37am
        Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:37am | ! Report

        He he, very good KK – the remix by Doctor Bish

        • Roar Guru

          March 14th 2018 @ 10:41am
          Machooka said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:41am | ! Report

          Boom Bish Boom… da Doctor is in da House 🙂

          • Columnist

            March 14th 2018 @ 10:43am
            Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:43am | ! Report

            I wish I hadn’t said it now Chook 🙁

          • March 15th 2018 @ 12:41pm
            Muzzo said | March 15th 2018 @ 12:41pm | ! Report

            Ting tang, walla,walla, bing bang…….. more like the Witch Doctor, mate.

            • Roar Guru

              March 15th 2018 @ 6:30pm
              Machooka said | March 15th 2018 @ 6:30pm | ! Report

              Haha Muzzo… you be like partyin’ down the ends of the earth eh?

              You and your Witch Doctor mate??

              Bless ’em 🙂

        • Roar Guru

          March 14th 2018 @ 5:05pm
          Kia Kaha said | March 14th 2018 @ 5:05pm | ! Report

          I’m glad others are gaining an appreciation of your work, particularly the younger fans. But I consider myself privileged that I was there when you were just starting out. The underground clubs are nowhere near as big as the stadiums you now sell out, but there was an unrefined energy to your words that was mesmeric.

          • Columnist

            March 14th 2018 @ 6:01pm
            Nicholas Bishop said | March 14th 2018 @ 6:01pm | ! Report

            Yep KK – (over-)refinement can sometimes be the enemy of honesty…

    • Roar Guru

      March 14th 2018 @ 7:47am
      Machooka said | March 14th 2018 @ 7:47am | ! Report

      Correct.

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