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How Fiji won rugby hearts at Olympics: One-eyed star, some mystic power

Fiji Sevens have ruled the Olympic code of rugby, a fast-paced compact format that allows for a lot of speed and creativity

Written by Shivani Naik |
August 13, 2016 4:57:39 am
fiji, fiji rugby, fiji rugby gold, rugby sevens, rugby sevens olympics, rio olympics, rio olympics results, olympics, olympics results, sports Britain’s Princess Anne awards a gold medal to a Fiji rugby squad member, who is on his knees during the victory ceremony. (Source: Reuters)

OVER the first week of the Rio 2016 Rugby Sevens, the flying Fijians were faster than Argentines, Americans, New Zealanders, Japanese and finally the Brits.

A speck of a nation in the Pacific ocean — a colossally small mass of land that produces big and big-hearted ruggers — blew away all competition, ending with a massive victory margin over a former colonial overpower. But there was no ugly chest thumping in celebration.

Perhaps, the most poignant moment came when the team knelt down while receiving first ever Olympic medal — a blazing gold — from Princess Anne, the only daughter of Queen Elizabeth 2, but also an equestrian Olympian.

Fiji Sevens have ruled the Olympic code of rugby, a fast-paced compact format that allows for a lot of speed and creativity. And free-flowing running, that endeared them to Brazilians no end.

Unstoppable they have been winning the last two World titles, but still as a dot nation with no prior experience of getting onto Olympic medals tables it needed a whole lot of belief in their own abilities to turn the promise into podium. Charmingly, the bunch is coached by Londoner Ben Ryan, a bespectacled red-headed man, who’s seen the best and worst of rugby in the island nation.

Ryan realised pretty early on at the start of his three-year-old stint that Fiji wasn’t all honeymoon resorts and sipping on cocktails at sunny beaches.

Players came from impoverished backgrounds, starting with sand-filled-bottles for their first back-pass in the sport. Some islands went without water and electricity for days — Ryan himself struggled for petrol money for the team bus.

The other side of the postcard-brochure beauty was the tropical storm Winston that wrecked havoc and destroyed homes and took lives earlier this year.

Players were amateurs, too — prison wardens, bellhops and children who shared bus fare with siblings and hence went to school on alternate days. Masivesi Dakuwaqa, blind in one eye but taking off on blindside runs as if there was no tomorrow, served as airport security guard.

Tight budget

Their central contracts were 4.33 lakh Fijian dollars a year — roughly Rs 37,000 a month — and the whole game is run on 3.9 crore in local currency annually.

Yet, Fiji’s Olympic triumph is not just for its non-commercial worth — the Brits went to Fiji in 1874, though rugby’s lineage is far from the uptight English school culture. It was brought to the island by a Kiwi plumber. Today, the nation of 9,00,000 population (roughly Andheri West) is an Olympic world champion. Still, not all was rosy and idyllic. The physically gifted men with natural flair, lacked discipline.

Speaking to The Telegraph in UK before they set off to Rio, coach Ryan had explained how a lot of brilliant players prone to indiscipline, had been left out of the squad. “They know if they cross the line and have a drink after a tournament or miss a training session then they are out,” he said.

But Fiji, the game’s spiritual home, is like no other rugby power.

There’s a fair bit of Mana, a supernatural mystical power Fijians believe in, that was spoken of when the squad set out. The Prime Minister is in attendance when the Olympic squad gets announced and the top papers run 12 pages worth of stories solely devoted to the flying sevens.

On their return, the party will hit a crescendo, a national holiday will be declared, school children have been let off to play outdoors, and players will be gifted lambs. Statues will be carved out and players will serve as ministers. “The party will last until 2017,” Ryan said.

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