Sevens Heaven: No difference how fit you are on Fiji’s famous dunes

Former Fiji 7s coach Ben Ryan in deep thought during the Fiji 7s team training at the Kulukulu sand dunes in Sigatoka in 2016. Picture: FT FILE/JOVESA NAISUA

THE sand dunes were used by former national sevens coach Ben Ryan to gauge the fitness of his players and test their recovery times.
With the intensity of the HSBC World Sevens Series because of back to back tournaments, he usually selected players who needed lesser time to recover. Current national sevens captain, Jerry Tuwai always excelled at the dunes.
Before the team’s departure for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Ryan used the dunes to pick his final players.
On that early morning, he made the decision to drop forward Pio Tuwai who was struggling by the second dune. In fact, Tuwai as Ryan will tell in his book, Sevens Heaven was missing camp due to, as we were told then, injuries. At one point he was thought to be overcome by witchcraft after suffering seizures in camp. Ryan tells a bit of this in his book.
Due to be released this week, Sevens Heaven talks about the challenges faced by a national sevens coach in Fiji and how players were selected based on their performance on and off the field.
Ryan talks about why some players who were dropped because of their performance off field. Like how Jarryd Hayne played in the London 7s in 2016 because Ryan really didn’t have a choice as he had to suspend one player who had violated the alcohol ban after the Paris 7s and another who was supposedly injured.
But while Ryan is supposedly telling all in this book, there are some stories he can’t tell because of legal reasons. Seven Heaven will be available in Fiji in Prouds and MHs stores.
Here is an excerpt of the book.

SIGATOKA SAND DUNES

Sigatoka was perfect – 30 or 40 different dunes, hundreds of different angles and inclines for the players to run up, some of the slopes a gradual burn of 400-odd metres, others so sheer that the only way up them was to claw at them with hands as well as feet, slipping all the time you tried to move forward, sliding backwards inexorably if you ever thought about stopping for a breather.
The sand was harder where the onshore winds had battered it, a thin crust on top if a sea mist had settled overnight.
Shards of ancient pottery or stone tools were occasionally exposed by a big storm.
We would wake the boys hours before sunrise to get across from our usual training base in Pacific Harbour.
By 5.30 a.m. we would be climbing the dunes, the players still half-asleep, dragging all their kit behind them.
Silhouetted against the purple dawn clouds, smoke drifting up from little villages cut into the forest as fires were started for breakfast, the sound of kids squealing and crying carried with it if the wind was coming the right way.
Standing at the top, chests going in and out like bellows.
Looking one way to the South Pacific and its white breakers on the vast rolling blue, rip tides along the wide beach and sharks in the drop-off beyond.
Looking north across the rolling forests and up into the hills and the mountains.
The first time we walked up I thought Ropate was going to have a heart attack.
I wasn’t too confident about myself.
One ascent even at an easy pace, and you couldn’t imagine doing anything else all day.
It made no difference how fit you were.
That first dune would get you every time.
Then your body would get used to the sliding and the effort and the technique, and the sea breeze would dry off the sweat, and you could think about going again.
We would put plastic markers down to set a route.
It was almost like a golf course: here’s your first hole, 200 yards uphill; here’s a horrible second, straight up that; the third, you’ll have no recovery, and your hands will be shaking and your heart trying to escape your chest as you go again.
Some of the players would sprint with a rugby ball in their hands, some in pairs, competing against each other, sometimes linked arm in arm.
Percy Cerutty had spoken proudly of Herb Elliott’s 11-second ascent of an 80-foot sand dune in Portsea.
Sigatoka had monsters compared to those tame Victorian elevations.
Dark-brown trails would smear up the dunes as the players’ churning feet broke the sunbaked surface, weird shapes and symbols carved into the sand like the Nazca lines.
Their black shirts would turn white as sand grains stuck to sweating arms and backs, eyes popping with effort after effort, staggering from marker to marker, like sand-covered zombies somewhere between life and death.
It was wonderful training.
The only way to keep moving was to drive with your knees and arms, honing a sprinter’s technique that would make you fly across flat grass.
There was less impact through your feet and hips and back, so fewer injuries, building instinctive proprioception because of those bare feet and constant minute adjustments to the treacherous sand, developing balance and reaction even as your lungs were burning and the lactic acid was flooding your quads and calves.
Sometimes we were two and a half hours up there.
By the end the boys were strewn around like they’d been dropped from the skies, face down, limbs spread.
It was the most brutal training I had ever seen.