By Bea Asprey in Dubai
THE SUN is up and the spirits are high in Dubai, and Fiji are chasing their first HSBC Sevens World Series win of the season. The islanders finished third in last year’s series, and were knocked out in the plate semi-finals by Wales here last year. With England, Canada and the USA in their pool this time round, we asked new head coach, Ben Ryan, to tell us a bit more about the team…
“Fiji is the only country in the world where they just play one game. Sevens is major there, and it’s played in the same style across the entire country. The players all play the same practice match, ‘one touch’, which is why you see them come up with some miraculous offloads. If they get touched before they offload the ball, they lose it, so you see them throwing some miracle passes.
“You see people playing sevens and touch every night in the villages. When I drive from my home to the Pacific Harbour, you see people playing rugby on the sand banks surrounded by water! They don’t wear any boots, and in Suva in particular, in the east of the island, it rains a lot and the pitches are very wet. Running around in bare feet on uneven surfaces gives them good balance. The balls can be old and slippery, so they’ve got good handling skills too.”
Things to work on
“On the field, their game understanding is brilliant. It’s their key skills they need to work on, like one-on-one tackling, long passing and kicking. My aim is to have them keep their strengths, while reminding them we want to keep the ball. They’ve got to be able to apply pressure when it counts, and work on their discipline.
“Off the field, they need educating about good nutrition, and tapering before a tournament. Fijians eat a high-carbohydrate diet – a lot of taro and cassava, both vegetables high in carbs, and a lot of rice, because they’re easily available. They are planted in the villages, and are able to survive harsh conditions.
“This has made them inconsistent. Fiji have rarely won back-to-back tournaments, and while they can get up for the big ones like Hong Kong and Wellington, they might crash the week before or after. Protein is also more expensive, but sportsmen need a different kind of diet.
“Traditionally, Fiji have had success in sevens because it’s a pretty simple game, and if you play it better than everyone else, you’re going to win. But in the last five to six years, with the advent of the Olympics more emphasis has been put on the set piece, lineout, kick-offs… technically things have improved, and you can’t get away with things now like you could before.
“It’s been very unstructured in Fiji in the past. There’s no sports nutritionist on the island, there are no gym programmes and I don’t have an assistant coach, analyst or conditioner.”
“The group is really settling down with me now, but when I first arrived it was very much a matter of getting to know me – a new, foreign coach. Their culture dictates that when someone’s in a position of responsibility, they don’t talk back and don’t complain. This makes them good listeners and fast learners, but I’m trying to get them to be bigger talkers on the pitch.
“It’s important to have discipline within the squad and I’ve put in some strict rules. Sevens players are superstars in Fiji, and in the past that’s gone to some players’ heads. It’s important to behave appropriately, to set the right examples for those who are coming up behind them.
“I recently dropped one of our best players, Ilai Tinai, for off-pitch indiscipline. I sat him down and explained to him why I was doing it. It does have a ripple effect and comes out on the field. We were leading England in the Gold Coast quarter-final when Tinai got a yellow card, and then we lost the game. Though dropping a talented player may have a short-term effect on our results, it will be beneficial long-term.”
“If we do all the things I want to do in the next few years, Fiji will go to Rio as gold medal favourites. Their talent is unquestionable, and they have an ability to raise their game for the big occasions.
“We’ll have some good and bad performances along the way, but the union understand this and are supportive of what I want to do. They recognised that it was time to make a change, and bring in someone from outside.”
Players to watch in Dubai
Osea Kolinisau: “Our captain, he has been in and out of the team in the past few years. But he’s a very important leader for us on the field.”
Waisea Nacuqu: “He’s only 19-years-old and plays scrum-half, Serevi’s old position. He’s got a huge amount of talent but is incredibly quiet. I’m looking forward to seeing him develop.”