Our Ben Ryan On His Biggest Challenge

In Part One of a compelling account of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2014-15, Fiji’s title-winning coach Ben Ryan gives his thoughts on Olympic qualification and the challenges on
06 Nov 2015 08:34
Our Ben Ryan On His Biggest Challenge
The Vodafone Fijians 7s team in one of the legs of the World Rugby Sevens Series last season. Photo: World Rugby

In Part One of a compelling account of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2014-15, Fiji’s title-winning coach Ben Ryan gives his thoughts on Olympic qualification and the challenges on the road to Rio.

For me, it (the 2014/15 season) was probably the biggest challenge I have had in almost a decade coaching international sevens; Fiji, a country addicted to the short version of the game, expects.

The worst financial period of the union’s history had just occurred and over the close season we had lost over half our team to overseas contracts.

Other changes had manifested too with new coaches for Scotland, USA, Canada, Australia and a reshuffle with Kenya, although only Scotland’s Calum MacRae was new to the series.

As the teams assembled on the Gold Coast for the first day of term, there is always a question mark within the teams.

Have you got your pre-season right? Played enough games going in? Will the off-season adjustments have added value? We garnered some confidence the week before in Noosa, winning the Oceania tournament with our second string side – of which half would go on to play in the series.

I always have a chat with the groundsman if I can find him. Forget about anyone else at the ground – the most important person to chat to about conditions, the field and any other gems is him and he underlined what I thought – the pitch was running fast and hard … perfect for us.


Up and Running

We started to flow both sides of the ball early in the tournament, culminating in a very physical performance against Australia on Saturday night.

Sunday I felt calm as we went through the gears and then put in a fantastic performance against England, who had played incredibly well to beat New Zealand in the Cup quarters.

That 48-7 win put us into the final against Samoa, racing into a big lead before our Island rivals came pounding back, showing how easily momentum can swing in a final. Luckily we scored again to seal the opening title.

We had scored more points in the tournament than anyone had managed since the Singapore leg of the series in 2006, where Serevi, Ryder et al ran amok.

That comparison with the only previous Fijian side to win the World Series would come up regularly across the year – a sign that this particular vintage would be talked about in the same vein.


Desert Delights

Dubai, a simply marvellous tournament, was next. We landed back in Fiji and almost immediately lost four of our 12 players to overseas contracts in Sri Lanka.

That momentum hit a serious speed bump as the consistency we so yearned for was getting affected, again from the outside.

We had some excellent replacements but it was certainly not ideal when combined with half the squad having already gone the previous season.

I must be close to Dubai’s number one fan. When the night begins to fall on the Saturday evening for the semifinals and finals, you feel blanketed in noise and drama.

The competitions that take place on the outside pitches have ended and the stadium is filled with a swirl of sound from the stands. Hong Kong on a Sunday is just as good.

While other tournaments have had their moments over the years, finals day at these two spots are ahead of the rest. I get hairs to rise now thinking of some of the memories at these two places – what an honour to have ever been part of the proceedings.

Dubai also showed South Africa had indeed stiffened their sinews. They were to reign supreme in the next fortnight, playing some outstanding rugby.

The Australians played a terrific semifinal against us to win a thriller and get their season moving. By the end of Dubai they would occupy an automatic qualification place for Rio but it wouldn’t be until their visit to Tokyo that everything changed for both them and Simon Amor’s England.


Titch: A Giant of the Game

Fiji’s first match of the series against New Zealand in the third place play-off gave us victory in a hugely uncompromising 14 minutes.

When I took the job to lead Fiji, one of the most salivating thoughts was to be pitch-side, part of a Fiji/NZ battle. There is mutual respect and reams of rich tales and battles between the two.

Hits are that little harder and tries are more often than not all top drawer, as each side brings the best out in each other.

It would end up an unbeaten set of results for us this time, but I have no doubt we will have some unbelievable match-ups next year as Gordon Tietjens tinkers and tweaks to get them ready for Rio.

In almost nine years of head to heads with the knighted one while with England and now Fiji, it’s 24-17 to Titch.

We are the two head coaches with the most tournaments left on the circuit and he has been instrumental in leading the International game of sevens in the last 20 years.

His name will forever be engrained in the game and no one will achieve the number of victories he has. I remember all the New Zealand games probably more than any other, such is the respect they and their coach have.

Their two losses to South Africa in Dubai and PE, combined with their record against us would be their downfall this year and push them into third place come London.

New Zealand Rugby’s foresight to centrally contract their 15s stars and their financial backing by government plus the expertise they have either side of the white-lines, means they will be a very different animal next season. Beware all.


Coming up Part 2 …

V is for Vegas – Fiji take centre stage

The HK hoodoo – how Ryan kept his players focused

Ben Ryan’s unabridged account of the 2014/15 Sevens Series will appear in the next edition of the World Rugby Yearbook, available to buy on general sale later this month.  World Rugby



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