English rugby coach Ben Ryan tells the story of his three years in charge of the Fiji sevens rugby team and their historic quest for gold at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
There is something truly special about the Fiji sevens rugby team. Despite a severe lack of resources, players competing amid abject poverty, and a wider culture at odds with the environment required to nurture elite athletes, Fiji continue to hold their own at the top-tier of international rugby.
Then there’s the population of less than a million people – and what should be a limited talent pool – the constant threat of players poached by bigger, richer nations, and a lack of necessary structure and support.
Yet, Fiji don’t just compete and contend, they do so while capturing the hearts and imaginations of fans around the world. As Ben Ryan says in the first few pages of Sevens Heaven:
Every rugby nation has its special charm … yet none of them play rugby like the big men from the little Pacific nation … and nowhere is the beautiful chaos of Fijian rugby distilled in sweeter form than in its sevens
It was this “charm” that first drew Ryan in and made him go with his instincts – to leave the comfort and stability of London, fly to the other side of the world, and revive Fiji’s sevens team with the ultimate goal of a historic Olympic gold. No idea of salary, budgets, or working conditions. “Gut feelings don’t tend to run due diligence,” Ryan explains.
What ensued – between the initial Skype interview and the memorable Olympic final in Brazil three years later – would prove to be one of the most incredible sports stories of modern times, one wonderfully retold by Ryan and Tom Fordyce in Sevens Heaven.
Ryan soon discovered that being the Fiji sevens ruby coach – particularly a white, ginger, English outsider – presented a whole set of unique challenges; players with inferiority complexes, shocking diets and woeful fitness; a strongman Prime Minister with whom a relationship must be nurtured and delicately balanced; and an absence of financial and structural support, even when travelling abroad for World Series events.
Then there was the Fijian culture that needed to be quickly and deeply understood if Ryan was to address the problems that had beset this iconic, proud, but struggling sevens team.
By absorbing as much of the local culture as I could, I hoped to be able to sieve out what could drive us on and what was holding us back
It seemed like mission impossible. How could Ryan implement the physical, mental and cultural changes needed to transform Fiji from contenders to dominant force in just three short years?
But with a dedicated and tight-knit support staff – team manager Ropate “Big Bear” Kauvesi, physio William Koong, and captain Osea Kolinisau, all of whom bought wholeheartedly into Ryan’s vision and methods – Fiji gradually started to move in the right direction.
Of course, it was not without its setbacks and obstacles. Ryan often deploys a simple analogy in Sevens Heaven, comparing the two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress with the famous Fijian weather:
Beautiful sunshine and storm clouds
The significant and dramatic changes were only possible due to Ryan’s complete dedication to his role. Sevens Heaven is filled with stories and anecdotes – some lighthearted, others much more serious – of Ryan extending himself far beyond the role of humble rugby coach.
And it was these remarkable man-management skills that earned Ryan the trust and respect of his players, and laid the foundations for their historic success in the World Series and Olympics.
This dedication inevitably took its toll, particularly on Ryan’s marriage, but nothing could deflect from the singular focus of attempting to win Fiji its first Olympic medals.
At the centre of every sports story are the humans responsible for creating it, and Sevens Heaven has far greater depth than a simple feel-good, rags-to-riches tale.
Ryan may have had a seismic impact on Fijian rugby and delivered sporting success that inspired a nation, but his own journey of self-discovery and the personal development of his players are of equal importance to the story as the medals and titles.
I had been unhappy and unable to recognise it. Fiji blew all that away. Three years of relentless work, of failures and disappointments as well as success, of tragedy and great friendships
Sevens Heaven is a story we should all be inspired by: a story of gut instincts, facing new challenges, broadening horizons, hard work, grit and determination, teamwork, trust and respect. Ryan is proof that nice guys can finish first.