‘Magnetism of Fiji’ keeps Ben Ryan on big project for a small island

Paul Radley profiles the Fiji sevens coach who, despite the occasional wages issue and carrying the expectations of shepherding the national sport, loves what he does.
Fiji coach Ben Ryan led his squad to the title at the first tournament of the Seven World Series season in Australia. Tyrone Siu / Reuters
Fiji coach Ben Ryan led his squad to the title at the first tournament of the Seven World Series season in Australia. Tyrone Siu / Reuters

DUBAI // Everyone on the world sevens series leads the good life, skipping from one exotic destination to the next while being paid to play or coach sport.

But more than most others, Ben Ryan, the English coach in charge of Fiji, must wonder where it all went so wrong.

“It has been life-changing for me,” Ryan said of his switch, just over a year ago, from his native London to an island in the middle of the Pacific.

“It is hard to go anywhere. Life revolves around coaching the team, doing official functions for Fiji, then going home, shutting the door, having a meal with my wife, watching box sets and relaxing, surrounded by coconut trees on the lagoon by the beach.”

Tough gig. Except there are everyday realities, too. For example, Ryan went unpaid for the first four months of his tenure in Fiji.

He and his wife had to live off their savings until the Fijian government stepped in to start to foot the bill for his services.

The prime minister is here for the Dubai Sevens this weekend. Ryan is probably hopeful he has this month’s wages with him.

Ryan would not have complained about going unpaid. The news only leaked out via a board member of the rugby union.

Which is another pointer to the role rugby sevens has in Fijian life. You know a sport is a central pillar of society when those in suits use it as leverage to get ahead.

Everyone in Fiji wants a piece. It is the national sport, the national obsession.

All of which means the pasty Englishman who oversees the fortunes of the team has few places to hide when things do not go to plan.

“I’m about the most recognisable person in Fiji, I guess,” said the 43-year-old coach, who uses his intermediate-level Fijian language skills when he is on the field coaching.

“It is impossible for me to go to the supermarket, or go out for dinner with my wife in Suva. It is just a no-no.

“Driving two hours back from the airport, everyone will stop and shout my Fijian name, Benny Ryani. I think 200-300 photos per day wouldn’t be excessive if I am out and about.

“The country is sevens mad. Rasta [Rasivenghe, the South Africa-born sevens referee] came to one of the tournaments and was an absolute rock star for a week. I’m not sure how many countries a referee could come in and everyone knows who he is.”

It is a long way, metaphorically and geographically, from his former posting with England.

He has won the Dubai title three times now – twice with England, once with Fiji.

If he is to do it for a fourth time this weekend, it will be with just two survivors from the side who were here 12 months ago.

Such is the way in Fiji, where players who make their names on the world sevens series are often immediately whisked away to make their fortunes overseas.

That, allied to his own wages issue, must have tested Ryan’s patience at times? If it did, then only briefly, he says.

“It goes back to the magnetism of Fiji,” he said.

“I know where the players come from, I have been to their villages and seen the level of sacrifice they have made to come from nothing. It is unique in that rugby makes a massive change to each of these boys’ lives.”

Picking a name out of the air, the coach uses Jerry Tuwai as an example.

Ryan suggests Tuwai’s talent resembles that of greats such as Waisale Serevi and William Ryder.

He was one of the stars of the win in the opening leg of the 2014/15 series on Australia’s Gold Coast. But his beginnings were humble.

“A month ago, he was unemployed,” Ryan said of Tuwai.

“He comes from a settlement in Suva, has no electricity in the house and a long-drop toilet. His dad, when he is employed, is a fisherman, so fish is all he would eat.

“Now Jerry is earning hundreds – not thousands [of pounds] – and that has changed his whole life.

His dad slept on the airport floor having hitched a lift so he could say goodbye to his son before the Gold Coast.

“If I had any worries over not being paid for a few months, it quickly disappeared.”

pradley@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE

Published: December 4, 2014 04:00 AM

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