Fiji erupted into scenes of celebration when their heroes won the 2016 Rio Olympic Games sevens gold medals. To locals, it was a dream come true–every family and village with a television viewed the Olympic Rugby Sevens final. To the world, that inspirational feat of achievement virtually ‘broke the internet’. The tiny nations first ever medal was pure Gold; first of any kind for that matter. The whole rugby world was in awe of the achievement as Fiji unites in Sevens Gold Medal celebration.
The 12th of August, 2016, will be etched forever in the hearts of Fijians who witnessed their Rugby Sevens team create history on that day.
We all sat in front of our television sets in groups. Many took time from work, eager to watch history unfold. Some watched with family, friends and fellow villagers. For others, they gathered in front of the large ANZ Stadium screens in Suva. For people like myself, every follower of the Flying Fijians cheered their hearts out as ‘our boys’ won Gold at the Deodoro Stadium.
Fiji Unites in Gold Medal Celebration
If ever the relationship between fan and team needed an example, it has been since the Fijian team claimed their gold medal. While the side had terrific support from the beginning of the HSBC Sevens Series, after the national side represented Fiji so well, fans have become ‘twice as proud’. People that I know have shown their true colours. During the Olympcs, the nation rejoiced and once the team had claimed Gold, the celebrations were running night and day.
Fiji became a sea of noble banner blue when their heroes arrived in town. Ironically, the boys landed on an Air New Zealand flight from Auckland. Nobody held that against them when they touched down on the Sunday. Their return from Rio was greeted by fans at the airport on mass–most of them who had just returned from Sunday church services. They were draped in, or carrying proudly the national flag of Fiji. The blue was everywhere, most wearing clothes with the Fiji flag designs on them. It was fantastic.
Villagers lined the road from the airport to Prince Charles Park where a full, traditional ceremony of welcome was to be performed. It had rained all week in Fiji but by Sunday morning, the sky was a perfect blue. Blue, as the noble banner blue of our national flag. It was if the heavens had given their blessing for their heroes to be welcomed home in extravagant style.
A Sea Of Noble Banner Blue
Prince Charles Park was a ‘sea of blue’ when the team arrived, the screams were deafening. As usual, the ginger-haired ‘wonder coach’ from Wimbledon, England stole the show. Ben Ryan was at his selfless best when he introduced himself as “Peni Raiyani from Serua” in Fijian. That is actually Ben Ryan translated into Fijian, from Serua–the province where his residence Pacific Harbor is situated. After announcing that, the screams were so deafening that it could literally awaken the Sleeping Giants in the hills of Nadi.
Such was the reception given to Ben Ryan, the players and the supporting staff. Their drive from Nausori Airport to Suva City later that night took over three hours, due to the crowds. A distance which usually takes only 20-30 minutes to travel, people lined the roads. In some areas, literally moving into the middle of the road to slow down the team bus, just so they could get a glimpse of their heroes.
Cars, vans and people followed the procession with their flags in proclamation of their feelings. “Go Fiji Go”. For the teams management, it was the first time for Ryan to witness such a occasion. Realizing this, he summed it up well in his address at the ANZ Stadium. ‘Only in Fiji’.
Rewards For Players and Coaching Staff
As a reward for the sides achievement, the 13 players and the coaching staff all received $30,ooo.oo as their cash reward. To top it off they received The Order Of Fiji Medal from the President. Coach Ryan was given the highest accolade given to a foreigner the Companion Of The Order Of Fiji.
I was lost for words yesterday when I was awarded The companion of the order of Fiji. Vinaka Fiji ?? pic.twitter.com/AGWZoQB3eW
Where Ryan has been recognized formerly for his contribution, there have been earlier coaches and support staffs who have all made their imprint on the final outcome.
British Influence with Fiji Sevens
The British not only introduced the game to the Fijians but it was one of their own sons who took us to what is known as the ‘Mecca of Sevens’. Brian Wightman, a former England and British and Irish Lions player was a school teacher at the Suva Grammar School. It was Wightman that took Fiji to the ‘Hong Kong Sevens’ original tournament in 1976.
That trip to Hong Kong opened the doors for Fijians to showcase their natural talent worldwide. That first victory in 1977 was the beginning of a monumental era in rugby sevens that culminated in Rio de Janiero. It was in fact the basis of the later success–and it came in the same year when the Fiji XV’s team defeated the Lions at home.
Hong Kong ignited an interest in the game like never seen before. Boys of all shapes and sizes started taking up the sport. That victory gave a goal to men like the ‘little master’ Waisale Serevi. He has publicly acknowledged over the years that it was the development of his skill at Buckhurst Park that started it all for him. A natural sportsman, how many more Serevi’s can Fiji unearth from this victory in Rio?
Structure with Fijian Flair
Where Wightman trained his players with Ilaitia Tuisese around the flooded grounds in Nausori, Ryan has similarly used the sand dunes at Sigatoka to bring out the best in the Fijian squad. Laid-back in their lifestyle, humility is part of their culture. Add to that coaching style a little bit of English charm, wit and technical know-how, this basic-style has provided our gifted warriors the perfect standard to deliver gold.
Ryan has grown to understand the Fijian psyche, he has found a way like his fellow Brits before him, to mold Fijian flair with ‘structured rugby’ to gain maximum results. For the second year in a row, the Fiji team secured the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and have prevailed over their closest rivals New Zealand on the biggest stage–until the 2016 Olympics that is.
Until this season, Kiwi coaches George Simpskins and Wayne Pivac had best understood the concept too when they held the helm. Pivac and Paul Feeney, together with Serevi were instrumental in Fiji’s victory at the 2005 Rugby Sevens World Cup, which at the time was Fiji’s second cup victory. That achievement was their peak up until now, and with gold in Rio, the goal will now be to continue to ascend the heights of World Rugby Sevens.
The team have achieved a wonderful amount of success to date. The employment of Ryan, and Chris Cracknell to coach Fijiana the women’s team, has driven a great increase in standards and inversely, results. This has been welcomed by locals too–an example being a local radio station. They produced a song for the winning heroes of Fiji. With the rewards and accolades, comes with the applause and blessings of a nation.
Heartaches Paidback In Full
Die-hard Fijian rugby have experienced many heartaches. Watching their heroes win like they did in Rio is momentous. The heartbreak of losing in the semis to England in the first ever Sevens World Cup in 1993. That too, in the hands of a English-player with Fijian heritage Andrew Harriman.
Pain of playing second to New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games has also been hard to swallow. The nation have endured watching other teams play while their team pays for the ‘sins of politicians’. These are some of the harsh memories that come rushing back when the Fijians won gold in Rio. Now Fiji Unites In Sevens Gold Medal Celebration. Not only have they delivered but they did so too at the pinnacle of all sports, even surpassing any New Zealand and South African Commonwealth Games gold heartache.
Gold medal 60 years in the making
It was a historic moment that took nearly 60-odd years in the making. After decades of effort, it was Fiji’s first ever medal of any kind. Ever since the nations debut at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, the small island chain in the pacific had tried and failed to claim any medal. Not two weeks ago, the sevens rugby team did it with style; claiming gold as the World Rugby Sevens Series champions.
A country that relies so much on tourism, sports are an escape for everyday fans–including this reporter. Fiji has been in political turmoil since 2006 and political upheaval since 1987. But through that turmoil, there was always one thing that has always brought Fijians together – sports. And there is only one sport that can stop the nation in Fiji, and that is rugby sevens!
For example, when the first military coup took place in 1987, so to help distract the people was our game. It was the ‘three-peat’ of success at the Hong Kong Sevens from 1990 to 1992 that held the public’s imagination. As political upheaval hit the populace hard, that winning streak under the leadership of the late Ratu Kitione Vesikula brought Fijians together.
Waisale Serevi was as part of that team. In later years, the world came to know him as an icon, a rugby sevens legend and the ‘maestro of the modern game’. An innovator, Serevi was one of the first to publicly congratulate the sides achievement in 2016. He knew how important this moment was–how much the nation needed this victory and recent events.
A country in need
Fijians are resilient, they have overcome many obstacles, a nation full of diversity in religion, culture and tradition. Politics may divide them [playing the race card all too often]. When their sevens team takes the field though, differences are set aside. Our country stood tall and rose after the devastation of Cyclone Winston. In their resilience they overcame the challenges–both natural and economic.
The sevens team unites the nation like no other, both young and old alike. Irrespective of their religion, color or breed. Everyone I ask says they will forget all their differences and come together as a nation following this event. The win at the Rio Olympics did just that and the masses that flocked to the two massive celebration venues this week spoke volumes. It just shows how much sevens means to the nation.
Where To From Here?
Ben Ryan has stated publicly that he is moving on. After providing such a phenomenal amount of success, will the Fijians hire another expatriate to succeed him? or will they go local.? That’s the million dollar question in the hearts of every Fijian right now.
Ryan gave credit to the Fijiana women for playing their hearts out in Rio and is positive, the ladies will be a force to be reckon with in Tokyo 2020. The girls have laid a platform in which all young Fijian women’s players can aspire too. The Fiji side don’t get the praise they deserve, but Ryan’s recognition paves a way for others to support our women’s side in the Sevens Series as much as the men.
The four-year journey as they say ‘begins now’ and while they might not have the financial support to match the Tier One nations [Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain] they make up for it with faith, flair, determination and sheer guts to succeed. The team play for their country, for their fellow citizens. They did that when they won Gold in Rio–even with a shoe-string budget.
Like Kenny Rogers sang. “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” What happens next (new coach, and the next Sevens Series) will determine the outcome in Tokyo in four years time. For now, the people will have wonderful memories of a party that brought the nation together like never before.
“Main photo credit”