“When I arrived, the Fiji Rugby Union had gone bankrupt, they had no sponsors, World Rugby were investigating them and there was the small fact that the country was being run by a dictator who happened to also be the head of the rugby union.”
That is how former Fiji sevens head coach Ben Ryan describes the situation he walked into in September 2013. “And then they told me in my first week that they couldn’t pay me for five or six months.”
Three years later Ryan, who had previously coached England’s sevens team for six years, left Fiji a national hero having led the Pacific island to their first ever Olympic medal – gold in the Games’ inaugural rugby sevens tournament.
In his new book, Sevens Heaven, Ryan recalls his journey from accepting the job at 20 minutes’ notice and swiftly panicking at his choice to – post-Olympics – being greeted by overflowing streets on a victory parade, having his image printed on a commemorative Fijian bank note and being bestowed with a traditional Fiji chief’s name and status.
It wasn’t a smooth ride. Ryan arrived as a young coach with plenty of pedigree. He’d taken England’s Sevens team to their first World Cup final in 20 years, had graduated from Cambridge and been dubbed “the new Clive Woodward” by the Guardian for his innovative work with Newbury RFC, where he won the club promotion into rugby’s second tier. Yet he shunned any colonial instinct in imposing his way of operating onto a new culture.
“When I went in the plan was to listen and to try and find out as much as I could before making any big decisions,” he says.
“I spoke to as many people as I could to get the culture right. It was directly proportionate, there was a very strong link. In Fiji it’s [rugby sevens] the national sport and the only one they’d ever had any success in the past in.
“The players are paid a pittance so they do come from the people. They are hotel porters, policemen, army officers, teachers, students, unemployed, farmers. So the people see them as on their level. They’re playing matches every weekend for their local clubs or villages and go from there to going overseas and representing Fiji. So getting the culture right was important.
“I didn’t want to go in as this English coach who knows it all. But there was definitely some serendipity around the fact that my style fitted what Fiji responded well to.
“My natural style is far more around getting the best out of people. It isn’t the alpha, shouting style. In Fijian culture it’s so rude to criticise people publicly or have an argument in public. Swearing is seen as a bad thing to do publicly with someone.”
Ryan’s compassionate coaching style can appear at odds with the Sandhurst-like strictness more commonly associated with fellow 2016 World Rugby coach of the year nominees Steve Hansen and Eddie Jones.
Yet it might be worth rugby’s powerbrokers to pay attention to his philosophy of inclusion — and not only when concerned with improving team performances. His golden Fiji side harnessed the pride and purpose that came from being truly representative of a nation and the 46-year-old is passionate when talking about England’s struggles to do similar with their national teams.
“Even if they [England’s union, the RFU] were looking at it purely selfishly from a performance angle, we’ve got 80 to 90 per cent of our kids in state schools. The amount of players coming through from state schools is far too low,” says Ryan.
“It’s where the talent is but we just pay lip service to state school rugby. There’s just not enough of a pathway, not enough resources, not enough of a focus from the RFU around state school sport. Rugby has got so much possibility there.
“There are certainly stereotypes and preconceptions about rugby and, whether they’re right or wrong, they’re hard to shift and require real focus. You’ve got to be even more targeted and positive in how you’re trying to change that. If you’re identifying talent at state schools, are kids always going to be up for games on a cold, dark pitch in the middle of winter?”
Since leaving Fiji Ryan has consulted with Premier League clubs, franchises in major American sports and UK Sport. He’s eager to return to rugby, ideally in a London-based role, and narrowly missed out to Paul Gustard for the Harlequins head of rugby role last month.
As well as a holistic attitude to team development, any club that does hire him can expect a less attritional and more adventurous playing style than commonly seen in the Premiership.
“There’s still scope within the laws of the game for teams to play a more attack-based game that has people on their feet a little bit more, that keeps the ball alive, in which you can score off one phase,” says Ryan.
“The mindset’s not there at the moment. It’s going to take a team to do something different and be successful with it.”
For those looking for a rugby coach with something different, few fit the bill better.