Man Of The People

During his six years as head coach of the England sevens team, Ben Ryan can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times he was recognised on
19 May 2015 08:31
Man Of The People
Vodafone Fijian 7s coach Ben Ryan with fans at Twickenham. Photo: Ian Muir

During his six years as head coach of the England sevens team, Ben Ryan can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times he was recognised on the street.

Now in charge of Fiji, his celebrity status is on a par with that of a Kardashian.

“I can’t go to the supermarket without getting mobbed,” Ryan told Telegraph Sport. “If I am out in the city, in Suva, I will probably get 200-300 photographs a day. It is very surreal. The closest thing I can compare it to is being manager of the Brazil football team. Everyone knows who you are. I mean everyone so I get mobbed like I am Brad Pitt whenever I step out the house.”

Rugby 7s is both front and back page news in Fiji after the Fijians qualified for the Rio Olympics by winning the Glasgow 7s two weeks ago. And yesterday the Fijians sealed their first Sevens World Series title in nine years at Twickenham after defeating South Africa 19-7  in the Cup quarterfinal. Win the country’s first ever Olympic medal at Rio and they might as well shut the islands down for a month.

Ryan was appointed Fiji head coach in September 2013 just a month and a half after being pushed out the door at Twickenham. The contrast in surroundings and facilities could not be more stark. There is no equivalent of the Lensbury Club in Fiji who operate on a budget of £300,000 when many of their rivals are on more than £2 million (F$6.32m).

For the first six months of his tenure, Ryan was not paid, but was still having to dip into his own pocket to pay for petrol for the team bus. It was a “dire situation” that has now been resolved but the 43-year-old could not be happier to have left behind the internal machinations of Twickenham.

“It has recharged and refreshed me after what was a pretty depressing six months when I was leaving England.

“I got disillusioned on so many different things so I am grateful that Fiji gave me this opportunity. It has given me my energy back and just allowed me to be myself again.

“With Fiji, I could run the programme the way I wanted to run it and strip it down to the basics, which I would do I had my time again with England. I was just getting chipped away with certain individuals at the Rugby Football Union who were trying to standardise everything.

“At times you couldn’t see the woods through the trees. You forget 7s is an incredibly simple game and looking back at it we should have been investing a lot more time in our talent identification. I was in charge of the programme so I take responsibility for that but I am a different coach now and see things differently.”

England joined Fiji in securing their place at the Olympics last weekend, but in discussing the debate over whether sides should draft in XVs ringers at Rio – a XVs superstar composite team would beat the specialists with a couple of months’ training, he argues – Ryan has some pointed advice for his former employers.

“If England were No.1 winning the world title then you would say they are a group of players you can maybe form a team around at the Olympics, but they are not,” Ryan said. “Unless you are saying they are going to develop from the fourth to the first-placed side over the next few months, you have to bring people in.”

Fiji have such a depth of talent that he has no need to send for XVs reinforcements even if he will lose a fair number of this current side to foreign clubs. There is little he can do to stop players earning £5000 (F$16,000) a year from leaving.

“I have been to the villages and seen where they live. Some of the boys don’t have electricity or running water,” Ryan said.

“As an overseas coach for me to say ‘you must turn this offer down’ would be ludicrous.”

Last year, almost the entire team was dismantled and there will be no shortage of suitors this time around either. Semi Kunatani, a prominent contender for World Player of the Year, has signed for Toulouse, but in a first for Fiji he will be released for four series events and the Olympics. Others have rejected life-changing riches for a chance of playing at Rio.

“Some of the boys have turned down six-figure contracts this year. It means that much to them. Fiji is a small island in the middle of the Pacific. The Olympics would be their moment to announce themselves to the rest of the world,” Ryan said.



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