ABU DHABI // Amateur rugby players from the capital who stayed awake into the small hours to watch Fiji win their first ever Olympic gold might have sympathised with their opponents from Great Britain.
Being thrashed so thrillingly by the Flying Fijians? It is like that every November in Abu Dhabi, too.
For the past few years, Ben Ryan’s Fiji side have started their season with an acclimatisation week in Abu Dhabi before the Dubai Rugby Sevens, the opening event on the World Series.
That has involved practice matches against Abu Dhabi Harlequins, as well as, most recently, senior pupils from British School Al Khubairat.
At least the UAE-based players have not had to worry about the bruises the British silver medalists will be bearing this morning. Their encounters with the Fijians are usually touch matches, rather than full contact.
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The ties have become so deep that Fiji even recruited Jeremy Manning, the former Harlequins coach, as their kicking consultant last season.
Manning travelled to a number of legs on the World Series with the side, and spent five weeks at their pre-Games training camp in Fiji before they left for Brazil.
The New Zealander stayed up to watch the gold medal match, which kicked off at 2am UAE time on Thursday night, and was thrilled by the 43-7 win for the Pacific Islanders.
“I stayed up for the whole night – I couldn’t go to sleep after the semi-final, I was too excited,” Manning said.
“Having been part of the road to Rio with them, it felt that bit more special to be supporting the Fijian boys.
“I was massively nervous. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t really get anxious, but in the quarter and semi-final I was so nervous I was sweating, and had to walk out of the room.
“Fiji didn’t play their best game until the final – which was the best game I’ve seen them have for a long time. The quarters and final were the two most nervous times I’ve had since working with Fiji.”
Manning spoke to Osea Kolinisau, the Fiji captain, over the telephone from Abu Dhabi in the aftermath of the medal success.
“It was a couple of hours after the match and he had some very nice words to say to me,” he said.
“I was super proud for him as the first man to lead Fiji to a gold medal as a country. He was pumped. He was pretty shattered, but happy our plan had come off and that they have gone all the way.
“The players are superstars in Fiji, everyone looks up to them and they have been under a lot of pressure. I couldn’t be more proud to be associated with coaching a team that won an Olympic gold medal.”
Mike McFarlane, who succeeded Manning as the Abu Dhabi Harlequins coach, also watched the final entranced, while on holiday in Ireland.
“I was always supporting GB in the final but Fiji are a team everyone supports – a fans’ favourite because of their style, but also due to our ties with them,” the Englishman said.
“It’s great to see them succeed. To think we had the opportunity to play the world champions last year and score the first try against them was what dreams are made of.
“But to see these guys actually chase their dream with no frills, and all based on hard graft, to achieve a goal like Olympic gold medallists is inspiring for everyone involved in rugby.”
After the final, Fiji’s players sung a hymn – as they have done as a matter of course after their training sessions in Abu Dhabi, too.
The medal ceremony were also conspicuous for the fact the players knelt when being presented their golds.
“The way the celebrate is so modest considering what they’ve achieved,” McFarlane said.
“Their first instinct is to thank, whether it is their religion or opposition, and this is certainly something many sports and athletes can learn from.
“They are very humble gents and the song at the end of our game, as they did in the Olympic final, was one of the most memorable parts for us.
“It just shows how much they love rugby, be it a friendly against Abu Dhabi Quins, a world series final, or an Olympic gold medal win.”
Ryan, the Englishman who has taken Fiji to two World Series titles and now a maiden Olympic medal, says taking part in the team songs is a good way of learning the language. Manning, too, has been happy to join the players’ choir.
“I do join in, even though I don’t know all the words,” Manning said. “The songs generally have a lot of Fijian in them, with a few English words.
“There are a couple of songs I absolutely love because I know the lyrics and the meaning behind them. When I have been there I have tried to get involved as much as I can.
“Osea has been trying to teach me as much as he can, and there is something amazing about it.
“They are such great people, it is really humbling, knowing what they are singing about.”
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