Ben’s Ex­cel­lent Pa­cific Ad­ven­ture

NZ Rugby World - - 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.

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