AS Ben Ryan prepares his Fiji 7s team for the last two tournaments of the IRB Series, he writes for UR7s on his experiences this season and helps us understand a little more about the great rugby 7s playing nation of Fiji.
This week we flew to Scotland and the last two legs of the HSBC Sevens World Series via Seoul of all places. The differences I have experienced this year coaching another nation in the series have been far too numerous to write down here. It would be really easy for me to talk about what we don't have compared with the other sides in the top 4 at the moment.
Yet the bottom line is you can get a team fit and unified without resources, without money and without a large back room staff. We all cut our cloth accordingly and I don't think for one moment any head coach in the series is happy with the resources and time available at his disposal. I am sure everyone wants to keep striving to get better on and off the field. What we all want is competition for places, consistency of availability of players and as much time as we can get with your team on the field to give yourself the best chance to execute the style you want as coach.
With Fiji, change has come on and off the field this year in a fairly short space of time. From October on the Gold Coast to Twickenham on the no coast, only 5 players will have been in both those squads. I needed to make selection transparent, pick on form and watch as much club 7s as I could. So far, I have seen about 300 games and got a fair idea of the quality out there and also the level of coaching, officiating, management and technical expertise on the island. All invaluable information to help make informed choice going forward.
Twenty Six players have been capped this season and again this has given me a good base to start to form the right squad next year to make sure we are again in the top 4 in the series to gain automatic entry to the Rio Olympics in 2016. I always said if you can keep the squad caps to fewer than twenty in a season then that's a good indication that injuries have been low and selection has been right. I didn't pick the team for Gold Coast and six of those players haven't made the team since that tournament, so the bulk of the season has been 20 players and they have all come through the process very well with a further group of players that are knocking hard on the door by playing well in the domestic scene.
It is a big jump from domestic to international but much less so than probably any other nation and it's a big advantage for Fiji that we have a talented player pool playing regular 7s. That was a huge factor in some of Fiji's success over the past twenty years. While other countries picked players that had mainly been playing 15s to come into their 7s teams for the big tournaments, Fiji had talented players that had probably played a full season of domestic 7s before breaking into the national squad. That advantage has narrowed now as our rivals train in fulltime environments and have probably now more time together than we would as a national squad. Change will come next season as we contract fulltime players to the union to allow us to ensure the players can train, rest and eat to the level we need to be the best they can be. It's the next step needed for Fiji.
Who are in the Fiji 7s squad?
Looking down our list of players for the leg in Scotland and its an interesting read:
Seven of the side are unemployed. Two are prison wardens, a hotel porter, a policeman and a navy man. Their employers are great in allowing release to train generally and the unemployed lads get a huge lift when a win bonus kicks in and they can earn from doing something they feel incredibly proud to be doing but fulltime will make a huge difference.
I have also had one of two situations when players are played in tournaments either when they should be rested, are injured or too close to us leaving for a tournament and injury becomes a huge risk. Some players have also missed the chance to come into an extended squad recently for similar reason and its a real shame when those players that work hard to get identified are then not able to come to training or get injured in a small tournament. I have no doubt accumulated fatigue in one or two players have meant some drops in performance individually this season.
Full time should also help that, as everyone should be making player centered decisions. We will still allow them to play for their clubs while contracted but it means if they are injured or need resting then that can happen to give the players the best chance to be fit and 100 per cent.
Rugby changes lives the world over
As I have spent more time with the team, I have got to know more about their backgrounds and build better relationships with the team and feel more as one with everyone. I cant say its been straightforward but its certainly improved and they all feel a lot more relaxed around me while knowing that I am pretty inflexible on standards off the field around diet, drinking and timing. I haven't had a single issue with a single player on tour and I cant see that changing as we are all desperate to make the most of the opportunity to fight for a gold medal in Rio and every decision we make now as individuals counts towards that goal.
I knew the England boys pretty well and certainly count some of them, as very good friends of whom I am sure will remain so for our life times. I know what obstacles and barriers they have had along their way and how hard it has been at times to make it.
In Fiji, it's the same and rugby can change lives. One example is one of our rising stars that left school at 15 to work in the sugar cane fields, chopping the cane all day to bring in money for the family. He made his debut this year into the national team, along with nine other debutants in the world series and it is a pretty powerful story and it drives him hard to make sure he does all he can to be his best version. It's not an isolated tale, many similar stories attached to our players wearing the famous white shirt.
So to the final two legs and a return to me personally to Twickenham with another nation. As far as that is concerned, I am sure it will be slightly weird at first, but I have already been with the team all around the world and that novelty has worn off now. I am tempted to visit with the side some of my favourite spots in London, proud to be a Londoner and keen to show it off. But that would be a mistake. We are here to work, to win and to do as well as we can so that will all be kept to a minimum.
Look further than the table
The table also paints an interesting picture and perhaps a review of the series points is worth doing. We sit in third, having lost 7 games and winning two finals. England just below have lost 13 games and no tournament wins yet and South Africa have two titles and 8 losses. New Zealand are top of the pile and have lost just 6 games and won 3 titles.
This is a personal viewpoint but I think winning a leg of the series is a very tough thing to do and should merit more series points. The IRB have been incredibly responsive to the teams views over all the various issues on and off the field and we have already revamped the points and pools recently as a result of all of the team's input. You currently only get 3 points more winning a title than the runner-up, only a point more than other splits in positions. I would increase that significantly and look to double its reward compared with the other placing's. If that had been imposed this year then the positions wouldn't have been changed but the margins between would. I think it's worth looking at.
Our preparation has been pretty short. It took 3 days to get back after the HK tournament and we were pretty banged up so needed to get rest even if I wanted them on the field as soon as possible. It seems to have worked and players have now got back to training, had some tough sessions, arguably one of their hardest sessions to date under me last week and will have another few days this week.
We also had the Nawaka 7s last week, which is a killer of tournament in the heat this year. Five games on the second day of the tournament certainly gave those that played game time and match fitness and one or two players caught my eye along the course of the weekend. Not winning HK caused a lot of chat among the population.
We had lost less games than any other team over the Tokyo and HK legs and won the Japanese leg for the first time beating NZ for the third time this season en route, narrowed the gap above us and widened it below. Yet all everyone talked about was our loss against England in the sem-final in Hong Kong. We had won our last two games against them and I had a good idea about how they would defend and attack slightly differently against us and they did that very well. The team learnt a lot from those 14 minutes, were completely distraught after the match and it was as hard a place to be in the changing rooms after that game that I have witnessed. To win the third place game was great and really reconfirmed to me that we have a team that is learning fast, prepared to work hard and will get better and better.
It's no doubt going to be a tough two final tournaments. Many teams also have one eye on selection for the Commonwealth Games and I am sure all those players will be keen to impress. The European teams always do well in the final two legs and the series is still up for grabs as is the occupancy of the final relegation spot. Throw all that in plus what we all hope will be another world record crowd at Twickenham and you can be sure this is going to be a fantastic finale again to the season and you should also see a Fijian side flying again.