Ben Ryan: 'I felt no joy in my last final with England … I was completely flat' – The Guardian

“I much preferred Fiji – even with a dictator in charge, a boss who was convicted for manslaughter, my phone being bugged, the bankruptcy and black magic – than my last year at the RFU,” says Ben Ryan, as he sips on a double espresso and reminisces about an extraordinary journey that culminated in him guiding Fiji’s sevens side to Olympic gold in Rio.

We are in a cafe not far from Twickenham, where Ryan worked for six years as the England sevens coach before falling foul of what he calls the Rugby Football Union’s “machiavellian” struggles for power and influence, “with people above you who can only be trusted never to be trustworthy”.

Ryan applied to become Fiji coach after a friend texted him to say he had seen it advertised on Twitter. One 3am interview by Skype later he was offered the job – and on a whim he accepted. “It was scary and risky,” he admits. “But it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Initially he wondered whether he had made the biggest mistake of his life. It did not help that when he took his first training session there was no kit or water and only a couple of balls to practise with – or that he was not paid for six months.

There were other challenges, too. At his first tournament he passed a player who had built a tower of 10 pains au chocolat each with a fried egg on top for breakfast – a meal the player considered healthy because he was getting plenty of protein. And just before the 2016 Olympics one of his players, Pio Tuwai, was convulsing in his room saying he had been possessed by a witchdoctor. “His eyes were rolling – it was very bizarre,” Ryan says.

Many players were also very poor. Jerry Tuwai lived with his family in a one-room shack with corrugated-iron walls, no running water, gas or electricity, but was moulded by Ryan into one of the heartbeats of the team.

But whatever clouds he faced always evaporated on the pitch. “It was absolutely joyful,” he says, beaming at the memories. “We weren’t chucking GPS units on. I wasn’t getting my boss telling me they’re only allowed 10 minutes’ contact a week. It was the purest form of rugby and I loved it.”

Yet Ryan says the culture of the squad was just as important to Fiji’s success. Of all the stories he tells, one stands out: in 2015 the squad were on a plane when two passengers collapsed with suspected heart attacks. While the stewards revived them, his team got to their feet and took over the job of serving lunch and drinks to the rest of the plane. “They went down the aisles, handing out napkins and asking passengers whether they wanted chicken or fish,” Ryan says. “It wasn’t a stunt and they weren’t prompted. It was just a natural thing to do for them – to be nice. But that’s what we had as a group. Of course we worked hard. But none of the senior management team ever shouted at the players. And we had fun.”

Never was that more evident than in August 2016 when Fiji’s 43-7 destruction of Great Britain in the final earned the country the first Olympic medal in its history. After what he had seen from his players in the tunnel, Ryan knew his team were going to win.

“I can think of dozens of occasions where I’ve been more nervous than that Olympic final,” he says. “Honestly, hand on heart, there wasn’t any of that feeling – we were so relaxed beforehand I knew we were going to win.

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“My captain, Osea Kolinisau, once said to me: ‘If you’re ever in a tunnel and you’re opposite a Fijian that’s smiling, you’d really better watch out.’ It’s their perfect state, they’re relaxed but ruthless. They are the loveliest people off the field but they can switch to being ultimately very ruthless on the field.”

But life was not always perfect. Ryan moved to Fiji having not done due diligence and only later discovered the Fijileaks website, with its tales of corruption, bribery and prisons stacked with political opponents.

He is unusually guarded when it comes to talking about Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, who seized power in a military coup in 2006, had a keen interest in rugby – as well as his brother-in-law Francis Kean, the president of the Fiji Rugby Union who served time in jail for kicking a man to death. He soon understood not to make eye contact with Bainimarama in meetings and let him dominate the grip when the pair shook hands.

“But at least you knew where you stood with him,” Ryan says. That was not the case with the RFU which, he claims, failed to support fully his vision for the England sevens team. “My last tournament with England was the Sevens World Cup in Moscow in 2013,” he says. “We got to the final but I felt no joy. I was completely flat.”

Would he go ever back to Twickenham? “It’s something I’ve thought about a lot,” he says. “Not on the performance side but I would seriously consider a role that involved getting more state school kids to play rugby.”

Ryan is increasingly animated as he points out how the 80% of children who go to state schools should provide the talent pool for the national team. “But there is no one at the RFU in charge of state school rugby,” he says. “My old school down the road is the biggest boys’ comprehensive in the country but we haven’t produced any professional rugby players since me in 1997.”

Ben Ryan waves to the cheering crowd in Suva upon their arrival from Brazil. Tens of thousands of Fijians cheered and some openly wept as they braved heavy rain to attend the victory ceremony in the capital.

Ben Ryan (centre) waves to the cheering crowd in Suva upon their arrival from Brazil. Tens of thousands of Fijians cheered and some openly wept as they braved heavy rain to attend the victory ceremony in the capital. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

For now Ryan is happy doing consultancy work with French Rugby, World Rugby and UK Sport. And while he will not comment directly on speculation he is on a shortlist for the head coach role at Harlequins, he does admit part of him would love to apply his philosophy to the 15-man game.

“I would like to prove that with 15s you can succeed by playing a style of rugby that empowers the players, isn’t overly attritional and where everyone in the squad is treated with kindness and respect,” he says.

Meanwhile, despite Fiji’s gold medal, he wonders how much has really changed. “The Fijian boys are paid only about £4,000-£6,000 a year,” he says. “Sadly they don’t want to pay the boys the same money as a government minister, say, because they feel there’s so many people waiting to take a player’s place. They can be thrown away and discarded.

“It’s very sad,” he adds, the pain evident, “but there’s no legacy in Fiji. Only another day and another struggle.”

Sevens Heaven, The Beautiful Chaos of Fiji’s Olympic Dream by Ben Ryan, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 31 May, priced £20

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