Ben Ryan: an Englishman in Fiji
Nov. 13, 2013
SUVA, Fiji (AP) — On a palm-fringed training ground and under an unrelenting midday sun, Ben Ryan is busy proving Noel Coward's dictum about "Mad Dogs and Englishmen."
Red-haired and light-skinned, standing among the muscular giants who form his training squad, the former England and now Fiji rugby Sevens coach almost defies the sun to do its worst. The heat and high humidity, at the start of the rainy season, is cloying.
A tiny, tented pavilion at one end of the ground provides the only shade. Even the locals seek its small protection. But Ryan doesn't spare himself or his players. Quietly but firmly, he pushes them through a vigorous session.
This is Ryan's first training camp with the national squad in Fiji. He took charge of the Fiji squad in mid-October at the Gold Coast Sevens, the first of eight rounds in the International Rugby Board's world series. He had previously coached England in more than 250 matches between 2006 and 2013.
At the Gold Coast, Fiji lost to Wales but still emerged top of its four-team group. Then, in an opposite result for Ryan at the start of his new tenure, lost to England in the quarterfinals and finished fifth.
It's an accurate indication of where Fiji now stands. Once a colossus of the game, Fiji produced naturally-gifted players and harvested titles.
Fueled by international success, sevens became Fiji's national sport and usurped traditional 15-a-side as the most popular form of rugby.
It took on and maintains dimensions which extend beyond sport, becoming an adhesive ingredient of Fijian society — uniting Fijians in pride at the achievements of the national team and permeating life down to village level.
This recent scene is common across the country: At a rain-drenched quarry just north of Suva young boys, steeped from head to toe in mud, gleefully compete over a makeshift ball while above them, on a small piece of level ground, older men from the same village show off skills — running with the fluid grace, the deceptive pace of the natural Fijian athlete.
Ryan is familiar with the Fijian game from having coached against them. But now, transplanted from the northern hemisphere to the Pacific, his closer exposure to Fiji sevens in its natural element is a revelation to the 42-year-old Englishman.
"I'm amazed to be walking around and to see kids with plastic bottles filled with sand playing sevens," Ryan said. "It's quite staggering really."
It's the new reality for Ryan. The resources, facilities, funding, technical support and the privileges considered normal in England are not available in Fiji.
"I'm on the other side of the fence now," he said. "When I was with England we moaned at everything and wanted to get everything and I'm suddenly seeing that when we go to tournaments the Fijian guys get the worst (training) pitches, we get the worst rooms, the worst flights.
"It's not because we're being given them on purpose. It's because it's not the Fijian culture to complain. So they just assume you're happy with a flight that takes you through Korea for two days or a training pitch that is an hour away from the hotel."
Ryan says "the voice for the Pacific Islands is not as strong as it should be." And it's a great shame. Rugby Sevens will make its Olympic debut in Rio in 2016, which should be a time for celebration in the Pacific.
"This is the national sport in Fiji, there are some tremendous athletes. And looking ahead for Fiji, there are the Olympic games — and Samoa and Tonga I'm sure would feel the same," he said. "The Pacific Islands have never won a medal at the Summer Games at anything and we're suddenly going to go to the Olympics with men's and women's teams and there is a viable opportunity for this."
Fiji's pre-eminent standing in world sevens has diminished since winnings its last world series title in 2006. It finished third behind New Zealand and South Africa in last year's world series, second in 2011-2012 and fourth in 2010-2011. But Ryan said a sharp return to form was possible, certainly in time for the 2016 Olympics.
"I hate to use the term rebuilding phase. We're just not as high up the levels as I feel we are capable of being," Ryan said. "We're a Top 5 side at the moment but I've been around long enough to know we have easily the capability to be the top side in the world."
There are many reasons for Fiji's declining status in Sevens, among them the high turnover of players. Fijian players are eagerly sought by rugby clubs around the world and the sevens circuit provides a shop window through which Fijian's newest talent is exposed and quickly claimed by foreign recruiters.
"There's so many small things we can improve on but the player retention is a fairly significant one because (players) disappear for a number of reasons and you can't then build the program," Ryan said.
On this parched training field at Navua, an hour away from Suva, Ryan is working with a squad of 30 players which he will trim to 12 for the next round of the world series at Dubai on Nov. 29 and 30.
His session is short but intense and, in the stifling heat, players are quickly struggling to keep up. He presses them to work harder, emphasizing body language: not showing opponents you are tired.
He strives to preserve the unique style and athleticism which are at the core of Fijian sevens, to give players room for self-expression while developing attributes of discipline and structure.
"I will put a simple framework in place to allow them to play the way they want to play," he said. "We have to work hard on core skills and fitness and diet and make sure that our planning's done with that and other things where perhaps we're a little bit behind at the moment."
Ryan will return to England briefly after the third round of the world series before returning with wife Natalie to settle in Fiji. He knows how much he will be under scrutiny, how much emphasis Fijians place on the national team and the men who coach it. Newspaper sports pages are filled with the coverage of sevens at all levels and every performance of the national side is minutely analyzed.
"When I was here with my wife last time and we walked past a chain gang from the prison and they all knew who I was and who Natalie was," Ryan said. "That doesn't happen in England."