DUBAI // Which actor would play you in a film of your life? A staple light-interview question, and one that is almost always hypothetical.
For Ben Ryan, it could become a reality. The Englishman, who coached Fiji to sevens gold at the Olympics, started work this month on a book about his experiences.
Given its richness – outliers from a Pacific paradise that had never before won an Olympic medal, destroying the competition in a sport that is their national obsession – he is hopeful the story might be picked up and repackaged for the silver screen, too.
So who will play the role of Ben Ryan? For once, the Londoner who is one of sport’s most loquacious coaches is non-committal. “It is easy to dye someone’s hair, so it could be anyone,” the red-headed Ryan says of the most distinctive feature of his appearance.
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Perhaps he is holding out for Brad Pitt with a ginger rinse, but is too modest to say. On his behalf, Chris Cracknell, his assistant coach with Fiji, plumps for Damian Lewis, of Homeland fame, to play Ryan. Or Michael Fassbender, perhaps.
Ryan, who lived in New York and worked with the Knicks NBA side after taking a break from rugby following the Olympics, is serious about the movie.
"I came home and my mum was watching Chariots of Fire," he says. "I was thinking, well, our story is not far off that. Especially when you dig into the boys' lives and what they have come from."
Like the one who learnt his rugby on a roundabout in his settlement in Suva. Whose father, an unemployed fisherman, slept on the floor of the airport to wish him well when he was first picked to tour with Fiji.
Or the one who has “knife” and “fork” written on his boots to remind him he has to play well to feed his family.
Or the one who was rescued from the selection wilderness by Ryan, then became “the best player I have ever picked,” according to the coach. Who inspired the side to successive World Series titles – despite losing his wife after a long illness in the midst of it – and then was the last player cut before the Olympics.
Even Cracknell’s role adds a deep layer. A highly successful playing career ended too soon by serious injury, he was dragged out of his hospital bed and given a start in coaching, on the other side of the world, by his former mentor.
Cracknell’s favourite moment from his 18 months helping ready Fiji’s men’s and women for the Olympics did not directly relate to playing. It was at a team meeting chaired by the team’s conditioning coach.
“We were having a sermon, and he said to the boys: ‘What are the three most important things in life?’,” Cracknell says.
“I was sat there thinking, ‘Well, I want to play rugby again,’ and all sorts of self-pity things.
“All the boys turned round and said, without question: ‘Food, water, shelter.’ It made me realise, a) I’m a little bit superficial, and b) life in London isn’t all it is cracked up to be, and I’d done the right thing by moving to Fiji.”
Even before the heroism of the Olympics, Ryan was on a pedestal in his adopted isle. Several newborn babies were named after him. A Bob Marley song, remixed with lyrics about him – Iron, Lion, Ben Ryan – was a hit in the charts.
Then when gold was achieved, things amplified. He was afforded the country’s highest honour, renamed Ratu Peni Rayani Latianara, and given three acres of land.
None of which was the most surreal. “Chasing 14 village women to get a whale’s tooth to start the chiefly celebrations was a bit weird,” he says.
Even while at the Athletes’ Village in Rio, strangeness was a daily occurrence.
“Rafa Nadal sat down next to us at nearly every meal, because none of our boys knew who he was,” Ryan says.
“He loved it. He was getting swamped for photos in the village. Our boys just asked him if they could swap their pins. They wanted a Spanish pin for a Fiji pin badge.”
Ryan will not be with Fiji when the champions defend their Emirates International Trophy title at The Sevens this weekend, having stepped down after the Games.
He is awaiting his next full-time coaching position, and it may not be in the abbreviated format again. Given his memories of sevens’ first Olympic outing, though, it would be a surprise not to see him back involved in the series by the time the next Games in Tokyo in 2020.
“Everything was perfect,” Ryan says. “When we were in the tunnel before the final, our lads looked like the lunch bell was about to go and they were going out to play.
“They didn’t look like they were going to the biggest match of their lives, the biggest match rugby has ever had globally, in terms of television. They looked like they were going out to have fun.”
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