Ben’s Excellent Pacific Adventure
FORMER ENGLAND SEVENS COACH BEN RYAN KNEW HE HAD TO DO SOMETHING RADICAL TO REKINDLE HIS LOVE OF THE GAME AND COACHING. A RANDOM SERIES OF EVENTS TOOK HIM TO FIJI WHERE HIS JOURNEY ENDED WITH AN OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL. HE HAS RELEASED A BOOK THAT DETAILS THE EVENTS OF HIS MOST EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY.
New Zealanders won’t necessarily agree, but there was a romance and feel-good factor so intense and instinctively right about Fiji being crowned the first male Olympic sevens champions in 2016.
New Zealand have dominated the World Series since its inception, picked up gold in all but one Commonwealth Games and unquestionably been the most consistent team on the circuit.
But yet sevens and Fiji are inextricably linked. The Fijians are the spiritual owners of the shortened game; the country that has done more than any other to establish sevens as a global phenomenon.
They have played with such freedom and expression over the years; with such a wonderful innate talent and with such incredible natural athletes that they have stolen hearts and captured imaginations in every part of the world.
So when they crushed Great Britain in the final at Rio three years ago to win Fiji’s first Olympic medal of any colour, it was a spectacularly emotional occasion and not just for the tiny island nation.
It was a victory celebrated around the world because it was a triumph for the little guy: it was a classic tale of a country with so little managing to use what it had to be crowned champions on the biggest stage of all.
But just how extraordinary that triumph was is only now becoming clear. Ben Ryan, the Englishman who coached Fiji to gold, has written about his three years at the helm and lifted the lid on the extent of the difficulties the team faced.
Ryan’s book, Sevens Heaven, the Beautiful Chaos of Fiji’s Olympic Dream, takes the reader on the most compelling
THAT SUDDENLY MEANT THAT I COULD START FROM SCRATCH AND WE HAD PLAYERS WHO WERE JUST SO THANKFUL THAT THEY WERE ON THE FIELD AND ENJOYING THEMSELVES. IT RE-SET ME, BECAUSE THAT HIGH PERFORMANCE ENVIRONMENT CAN SUCK THE LIFE OUT OF YOU...’ BEN RYAN
and insightful journey that has rugby as the thread running through the narrative, but is really a story about human connections.
It’s a story about one man’s desire to embrace the essence and spirit of what he found in Fiji and yet somehow, with the lightest touch, infuse a little structure and discipline to try to ensure that the team became more consistent in their performance.
And as much as the story is about Ryan trying to change something in Fiji, it is also about Fiji changing something in Ryan.
After seven years coaching England’s sevens team, Ryan freely admits that he was jaded and bored by the monotony of the high performance world of the top tier nations. He encountered a system that prevented him from being himself and maybe he was a little bitter too at the way he was fired and cynical about the politics and self-interest he encountered.
“That would be 100 per cent fair,” he says. “I got brought into coaching England because I was thinking a bit differently and being creative and then England chipped away at me and I think to say it was soul-destroying and soulless is a good way of putting it. That’s how I felt and so going to Fiji when it was nothing, and a blank canvas…
“It was a negative as far as there was no money, no resources but it was a massive positive that it was a blank page to start with and that was brilliant.
“That suddenly meant that I could start from scratch and we had players who were just so thankful that they were on the field and enjoying themselves. It re-set me, because that high performance environment can suck the life out of you if it is just meetings after meetings and endless analysis.
“Too many voices and you forget about why you play rugby in the first place and Fiji brought me back to that.”
Fiji rekindled Ryan’s love affair with sevens, but perhaps more tellingly, it allowed him a fresh perspective on what really matters in life.
He learned to be happy in a less material life. He learned to ditch the devices, to not stress about who was posting what or saying whatever.
He also learned to question everything he and the team did to ensure they weren’t doing things just because everyone else did and to be brave enough to operate in a way that suited his players even if some of his fellow coaches may have thought he was mad.
Ryan got his squad fit, but he got them fit Fiji style, spending hours on beautiful, towering sand dunes. He instilled a review and analysis culture that wasn’t about lap top presentations, statistics and technical overloads, but was instead built around prayer and mindfulness.
But above all else, what he really learned, or had reinforced, was the value of relationships and trust. Fiji’s gold medal wasn’t won on the back of a brilliant tactical plan or technical supremacy.
It was down to the trust Ryan built between him and his players and the way he got to know them, came to understand their backgrounds and home lives and the way he trusted and used a close-knit management and leadership team to keep everyone connected.
Some of what he encountered he predicted he probably would. As a former coach of England he’d spent plenty of time on the world sevens circuit and heard a bit about the selection politics that afflicted Fiji.
He knew there would be a bit of pressure applied to pick this player or that based on the village they came from rather than their ability.
What he didn’t know was that some players would come to training starving having barely eaten for days. He had no idea the typical Fijian diet would be riddled with sugar and carbohydrates and entirely at odds with what their bodies actually needed to perform in such a demanding sport.
It was a diet so poor that half of his squad were afflicted with rotten teeth – unable to give of their best due to extreme pain related to shocking oral hygiene.
He didn’t know the extent of the poverty from which some players came or the tragedies and difficulties they would be dealing with in their villages.
And he didn’t know how unscrupulous and incessant predatory player agents would be, promising the world and so often failing to deliver.
Ryan was up against far more than he ever possibly imagined. It could have broken him, seen him give up after a year when he realised the magnitude of what he was facing.
But far from break him, it made him. It brought him back to being himself – the innovative, out of the box thinker that had catapulted him to the England post many years previously.
In Fiji he came back to being his true self and rather than come in with fixed ideas about what constitutes a high performance culture, he stood back, observing, listening and learning before gently adapting how the team trained, what they ate and the routines they went through before they played.
He played the long game, prepared to be patient and resilient to change things day by day, piece by piece and to accept there would be multiple setbacks along the way.
“In the first few months, I didn’t want to be this English guy coming in telling them how to do things,” says Ryan.
“That is not my style anyway and I listened and spoke to the people around me and I quickly realised how important family is and how important their back story is and how they were brought up was effecting hugely how they felt about things and what was driving them.
“You could be the be best technical coach in the world but if you don’t manage players you don’t get them to trust you and to understand you and buy into what you are trying to do and you are dead in the water.
“It sounds a bit funny, but if there was a problem I would speak to their mums. That usually solved all matter of problems. My physio, manager and trainer were Fijian and that really helped because I could plug into the community that much quicker and they could see that I was not driving a culture that was alien to Fiji.
IT SOUNDS A BIT FUNNY, BUT IF THERE WAS A PROBLEM I WOULD SPEAK TO THEIR MUMS. THAT USUALLY SOLVED ALL MATTER OF PROBLEMS.’ BEN RYAN
“I was trying to create a culture that would let them be the best versions of themselves.”
The results were the ultimate proof of the success of Ryan’s fusion policy. Fiji were twice World Series winners on his watch and then of course they achieved their goal of winning gold at Rio.
Success in Rio gave him the perfect ending. By the time Fiji had won gold Ryan had rediscovered his passion for coaching, for life and for rugby but it had also cost him his marriage.
He had learned the hard way with England that a coaching job is always tenuous and that it is rare indeed when someone can walk away on their terms, just the way they want.
As Fiji celebrated the events at Rio, Ryan knew it was time for him to head back to the UK. He’d taken the job on a whim. A genuine random moment where he was all set to start work with UK Sport in 2013 only for a friend to mention that Fiji were looking for a sevens coach.
He had a Skype interview that consisted of being asked whether he knew the Queen and had he met Jonny Wilkinson and when the following day the CEO of Fiji Rugby was fired, he assumed that he would never hear anything back.
When his phone rang two weeks later, telling him he had 20 minutes to make up his mind whether he wanted the job or not, he said yes. In hindsight he maybe should have asked what he would be paid and what length of contract was being offered, but all he knew for sure was that he needed to take a risk, to get out of England and try something radically different.
He took the ultimate career punt and perhaps because of that, he knew instinctively that as much as he had fallen in love with Fiji and made so many progressive changes, it was time for someone else to come in.
“There were three things that made my mind up,” he says. “One was that as a coach you don’t always get to leave on your terms. And I had that opportunity.
“Secondly, my time with England I know that most coaches have a sell-by date where after a certain number of years, you add less value than you did at the start and you have less enjoyment. I think I am a three-to-four year man for a project. And unfortunately my marriage was going to end and I wanted to sort all that out in London.”
There was one final point of intrigue – Ryan had to operate under the watchful eye of Fiji’s prime minister-cum-military dictator Frank Bainimarama.
It was an uneasy place for Ryan to be but he found a way to negotiate a workable path and seemingly leave Fiji with the respect and eternal gratitude of the country’s notorious leader.
And for that reason, Ryan says: “I do want Frank to be able to read it and to be able to enjoy it and stick it on his book shelf and not to hunt me down.”
CAPTURED HEART Ben Ryan loved the connection he made with the people and the team. ▼
FIJI STYLE Ryan go the team fit by running up sand dunes and it paid dividends in Rio.
GOLD STANDARD Everything went to plan in Rio for Fiji and they were able to win their first Olympic medal in history.