Fiji men’s sensational success at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, in last summer’s inaugural rugby sevens competition, was undoubtedly one of the most absorbing sporting narratives of 2016. And the jubilant supporters of the impoverished, tiny Pacific island nation have Hong Kong to thank for inspiring their country to become giants in the discipline and earning a maiden Games podium finish.
For exactly 40 years before the Rio 2016 triumph the first Hong Kong Sevens took place, and that 1976 edition, which Fiji participated in, triggered an unparalleled passion for the game which is evident on and off the pitch.
In Rio, Fiji’s golden journey climaxed in a 43-7 demolition of Team GB and the manner of their final victory at the Deodoro Stadium in mid-August – which the side’s London-born coach Ben Ryan posits was the most-watched game of rugby in history – underlined their superiority, and increased their universal appeal. In full-on attack mode, Fiji breathtakingly bamboozled the British defence with telepathic offloads and unpredictable, unstoppable running angles, scoring sevens tries – including five in the dizzying 10-minute first half – to one.
Tom Mitchell, the defeated Team GB captain, calls it “the best performance I’ve ever seen on a sevens field, from any team”, and adds: “Sometimes you have to accept the opposition has played better, and on that day Fiji were sublime. We were gutted, but to lose to them, on top form, somehow lessened the blow. When Fiji perform like that, as they have done so often in the past, it makes sevens so exciting.”
While their success generated thousands of new admirers – according to Ryan ‘Fiji’ was the most-searched term on Google for an hour after the final – few familiar with the country’s proud and glittering sevens heritage were surprised. After all, they were strong favourites going in to the tournament, having secured back-to-back HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series titles, and have hitherto amassed a record 16 Hong Kong Sevens titles. But how exactly did humble Fiji rise to become the dominant force in sevens?
Firstly, it is hard to overstate how popular, and important, rugby sevens is in Fiji. The sport dominates both front and back pages of the two main newspapers, Fiji Sun and The Fiji Times. “For the Olympics, they published a daily, 20-page pull out about the sevens,” says Chris Cracknell, Ryan’s deputy and coach of the women’s side for Rio. “And there was a 72-page collector’s edition produced after the final.”
Representing the country is not just a source of pride; it provides a gilt-edged opportunity to lift individual players, and their nearest and dearest, out of poverty. Young players dream of playing for Fiji, and the promise of relative wealth only serves to further motivate them. On the 40-minute drive from Suva to Pacific Harbour, where Cracknell and Ryan lived, the pair would count over 50 games of sevens being played by youths attempting to emulating their heroes.
Regardless of whether players make the top grade or not, sevens remains a vital part of Fijian life, particularly in village communities; the daily games extend for hours, after sunset. Ryan, who stepped down after the Olympics and is now helping HSBC spread rugby sevens around the globe, reveals that he would often catch his players flinging the ball about in such matches when they were supposed to be resting after a tournament. “You can only admire that pure love of the game,” he says. “They can’t stop playing, they love it and it is a central part of the culture in the villages. You’ll see sevens everywhere, most of the time being played on uneven surfaces, and very rarely with an actual rugby ball.”
Despite a perennial lack of investment and structured coaching – or perhaps because of it – Fijians are blessed with the key attributes for sevens: physique; speed; and jaw-dropping skill. Fiji’s love affair with rugby began in the early 1900s, though the sport was not introduced by the British – the Pacific nation’s colonial masters from 1874 until independence in 1970 – as one might assume, but a plumber from New Zealand named Paddy Sheehan.
While working at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, the former Otago player, who would go on to be voted Fiji Rugby Union’s first chairman, established the Escott Shield, which is still played today. Indeed, it is 15-a-side rugby which is played in Fijian schools rather than sevens, a simpler, more expressive game reserved for playtimes, after lessons, and back home with friends and relatives.
However, it was not until the Hong Kong Sevens began, in 1976, that Fijians truly fell head over heels for rugby – and specifically the abridged version of the game. Suddenly, and for the first time, their sportsmen had a rare chance to travel overseas, and showcase their sporting talent on a global stage. Following that inaugural edition, which Fiji participated in, the team’s manager, George Reade, saw the sport’s potential and, once home, immediately organised the country’s first sevens tournament, the Marist Sevens.
“Before then, rugby sevens was not played in Fiji,” says local historian Culden Kamea. “What drove public interest was the Marist Sevens. Not only did it offer the biggest prize money domestically, it was also the tournament from which Fiji’s team to play in Hong Kong that particular year would be determined. And, truth be known, our local club sevens circuit was probably much tougher than Hong Kong.”
In the early editions of the Hong Kong Sevens, which remains the pinnacle of the Sevens Series circuit, Fiji’s romantic reputation for swashbuckling rugby was formed. Theirs was a style which broke the mould and replaced it with a thrilling alternative, fuelled by attacking ambition, verve, and smiling mischief. Such an expansive approach came with risks attached, though. No matter to the neutral: entertainment was guaranteed when Fiji took to the pitch.
After a modest showing in the first edition of the Hong Kong Sevens, a much-improved Fiji won three of the next four tournaments (1977, 1978 and 1980). They were champions again in 1984, though it wasn’t until 20-year-old Waisale Serevi was selected for the 1989 campaign that the Fijians entered their next golden period, which happily coincided with the birth of the country’s national television service.
The 5ft 7in playmaker, whose off-field humility belies the flamboyance he displayed on it, would become a giant of sevens. Moreover, he was Fiji’s first globally revered sports star; he is regarded as the game’s best-ever player and known universally as ‘The King’. “Without Hong Kong, there is no Serevi, no Fiji sevens,” he says. “Sevens suits Fijians so perfectly; we have the skills, the speed and the physique,” Serevi, whose country has now accrued five more titles than second-placed New Zealand, continues. “And rugby is the only way we can express ourselves. For the youth players, it is a great opportunity to make a name for yourself, and more importantly make a living, and help your family.”
In his first Hong Kong outing, the impish, jinking Serevi was awarded the Leslie Williams Trophy, handed to the competition’s best performer, even though Fiji didn’t make the final. With him pulling the strings, Fiji won five more crowns in the next 11 editions. And he was twice named the player of the tournament when Fiji won the World Cup, at the same venue in 1997 and also in 2005 – the latter achieved a couple of months before his 37th birthday.
For almost a decade, up until Ryan took a punt on Fiji four years ago – after his record-breaking tenure as England coach ended acrimoniously – the country had failed, for the most part, to perform to their usual high standards, though they still turned it on to win in Hong Kong in 2009, 2012 and 2013.
The 45-year-old, now working with HSBC to promote Rugby Sevens having stepped away from Fiji following the Olympics, has been rightly lauded for maximising the team’s potential, with Rio the zenith. By dramatically improving the team’s discipline, game knowledge, fitness and diet, the Cambridge University graduate contrived to stud a velvet glove with deadly spikes. And winning the last two Hong Kong Sevens competitions propelled Fiji to Olympic gold.
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With Welshman Gareth Baber taking charge in January as Ryan’s successor, the link and bond with Hong Kong remains strong; the 44-year-old former Bristol scrum-half has spent the last three seasons coaching the national team.
“The key thing now is to maintain what Ben has done,” adds Serevi. “It should be an exciting year because of Gareth taking over. But 90 per cent of the things that made Fiji win the back-to-back World Series and the Olympics are still there.”
On the eve of this year’s Hong Kong Sevens, the seventh round of the 10-stop season, the Fijians – yet to win a tournament this term, despite reaching three cup finals – sit third in the rankings. However, another victory at the sport’s mecca would be typical.
Whatever, it is vital to inform the legions of rugby sevens supporters who were converted thanks to the country’s heroics in Rio – according to World Rugby the Olympics generated almost 17 million new fans – that Fiji’s passion for the sport was sparked in Hong Kong over 40 years ago.
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By Oliver Pickup