Fiji Rugby Sevens Head Coach Ben Ryan On His Epic Win vs. New Zealand & Tough Schedule In Vegas

by Pre-Game Interview With Ben Ryan, Head Coach of Fiji Rugby Sevens Pro Team

Location: IRB 7s Las Vegas International Rugby Tournament

Special thank you to: IRB and USA Rugby for providing us with the opportunity to conduct these interviews.

By: Michael Alvarez

Top takeaways from the interview:

–       “In Fiji, I’m not lying or over exaggerating, you can literally go to a field in the middle of nowhere and you can pick up the next world beater.”

–       On Fiji’s win against NZ: “I hope it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime thing and that we can reproduce that again.”

–       On his move from England to coaching Fiji: “I also found the Fijian’s incredibly humble and hard working. And, just felt like it was the right time to do something.”


@RugbyNation: Thank you Ben for this interview. I represent I’ve been following what you’ve done in England and now as a Head Coach for Fiji Sevens Rugby. I think the game Fiji played against New Zealand in Dubai was one of the most incredible games I’ve ever seen.


Ben Ryan: I hope it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime thing and that we can reproduce that again.


@RugbyNation: You know, almost every single one of those tries was a highlight reel. And, it was as if NZ was standing still, and Fiji was all over the place. One thing I noticed is that you capitalized on was the height of the Fijians  so they could volley the ball to each other on the kickoffs. Would you mind expanding on your strategy there?


Ben Ryan: To be honest, previous Fijian teams practiced kicks, scrums, and lineouts the day before a tournament, that’s all, for ten minutes. So, you can see why their strength in those areas wasn’t where it should be.


In England I’d always been teaching the guys to catch with two hands or tap backs. With the Fijians it’s a lot of volleyball type stuff. In fact, the volleyball they don’t seem to play internationally is in all of their villages. There is always a picture of rugby and a volleyball net. So, they are really good at spiking and ducking the ball back, so I thought there was no point in taking that out of the game. Let’s just concentrate on trying to get a kick game a bit more accurate and practice it a little bit more. Let’s give them some simple practices to improve that. They were really on the money on that.


Their pro perception, so their balance, is so good. As a hunch I think there is more than that really. When they are growing up they are playing rugby on the field barefoot and it is very uneven. So, the small muscles around their ankles and pro perception are incredibly good starting from a young age. I just think they are very balanced. When I see them running in training they just glide along the field. This comes from what they do as kids, and the type of rugby they play.


@RugbyNation: What was it that made you decide to move and become the Head Coach for the Fiji Rugby Sevens Pro Team?


Ben Ryan: A number of reasons really. I think it was a two parter. I felt in Moscow at the World Cup it was time to move on. I was getting a little frustrated with some of the stuff that was happening. Publicly I’ve said this. I sort of feel I felt a little out of love with rugby. Not the boys coaching on the field, which was one of my highlights in coaching. I honestly felt I needed a break and didn’t think I would jump back into rugby again. I was going to do something else having to do with sports in the UK. But, Fiji and I had a conversations. I chucked the question across to my wife and she said “OK let’s have a crack.”


It’s the one team I would have gone to. I couldn’t see myself coaching another team, except a team I really respect the way they attack. It is sort of my philosophy with one or two changes. And, I felt I could add some value. I also found the Fijian’s incredibly humble and hard working. And, just felt like it was the right time to do something. So, that’s what happened. A few months later I’m on the sidelines with a palm on my chest coaching these guys.


@RugbyNation: I think that’s fantastic. Switching gears a little bit. In South Africa. How was it being there as South Africa won the tournament, battling as hard as they did to win in such an epic way? Especially right after Mandela’s passing and knowing the history of South Africa and how Mandala used the sport of Rugby to unify the nation. What was it like to be there?


Ben Ryan: The tournament is getting better and better in South Africa. Obviously we thought we thought we were in good shot of winning the tournament and were outplayed in the quarter final, and deservedly exited. And, we just got a feeling around the whole area that there was going to be an impact here, and that South Africa was going to win the tournament. And, the final, where you sit in the stand, normally you are reasonably neutral about things, and this is no disrespect to the New Zealanders, but there was sort of this lovely feeling in the stadium that this was going to be South Africa’s moment. I thought it was very mind over things of what had gone on the previous days.


I was so pleased, as the people in the stadium and on the field, the guys watching, and it all summed up that Rugby helped unite the country back in 1995 when they lifted the World Cup and Mandela was there. It was a lovely way to round things off, I thought. And, it’s one of those times where you wish you were the team there, but you put your hand on the go, well that was a pretty special moment and I was glad on the side of the field watching.


@RugbyNation: I wish I was on the bleachers watching. I was watching my TV and couldn’t get enough. I’d never seen South Africa hit so hard, play with so much heart, and passion. Now, in your coaching style, planning for the Olympics, how does your strategy change? Do you work on bringing up younger players and giving them more playing time?


Ben Ryan: There is and there isn’t, as far as young players, because actually you bring some of the young seventeen or eighteen year olds now, they are still going to be young in the Olympics. And, you do need the experience. We have a young side where I think one of the players is over thirty and the rest is in their mid or early twenties. They are going to be hitting their peak in three years time. We have got an incredibly talented under eighteen team that beat New Zealand for the first time ever, in the history of Fijian rugby ever. Three or four of those guys are potentially world class. So, I’ve now got to fight hard to make sure they remain Fijian and don’t get poached overseas, or get contracts, residency, passports, or the ability to play for All Blacks, Australia, or France. This has happened. The rugby scouts in the islands are increasing. NRL scouts and Rugby League. French scouts are there keenly. New Zealand have got a lot of provinces and clubs that will come over and will get a hold of the boys. Already half of the team that beat New Zealand have already been given scholarships in New Zealand schools. And, if they stay there then we lose them.


You sometimes you send guys on their way with a pat on their back if they pick up a really lucrative contract abroad, but you still want them to dawn the national jumper in international games. That’s what you want ideally, not to lose them. So, this is what we are working hard on. We have the Youth Olympics coming up this summer. I am coaching that team. We have some great players.


In Fiji, I’m not lying or over exaggerating, you can literally go to a field in the middle of nowhere and you can pick up the next world beater. They exist because it is the only sport they are inspired to play. And, it’s their country’s, their nation’s team, because all the Sevens players come from domestic clubs. They feel it is their team. This is the reason why the country goes to a standstill when the team is playing. Holidays are made when we win tournaments. Hundreds were there to see us off at the airport, and thousands were there to greet us when we returned. I doubt there is another country in the world that has a sport that is so fervently supported by the entire 800,000 population. I guess they see that as the one thing Fiji can be the best in the world at.


@RugbyNation: Finally, our thoughts on this weekend and the Las Vegas Sevens Tournament, and doing what you need to do to win Vegas.


Ben Ryan: The Gods of Rugby didn’t exactly give us an easy draw. Nez Zealand, Australia, and Scotland is terrifically hard. They are ranked one, three and five in the world. They are all in the same group, so one is going to miss out. And, two games a night on a narrow pitch, makes it harder even harder. I’ve seen upsets here before. I have to say the pitch is too narrow for us. They lay the turn of top of the astro, which means it’s not as fast as Wellington and Dubai. Saying that, these guys can create space in ten meters. As I’ve told the boys, if we don’t have the width and space out wide, then we are going to have to create that width by playing with more depth, allowing our feet to get going by standing a little deeper, and that means we have to hit the ball very hard all the time. Potentially it can be very exciting if we get our A Game playing, if you go back to the New Zealand game, it could have been on a fifty meter pitch because we didn’t require it. We weren’t stretching them. We were breaking them down in the middle through offloads. And, our offload skills are outstanding. And, we don’t want rucks. We got the least amount of rucks in World Sevens per game and tournament, and that is something we work hard to do.


@RugbyNation: Final question. What does “the hart of rugby” mean to you?


Ben Ryan: I owe Rugby a lot. Not only has it given me a career, but I look at it with fondness and am very grateful for the people I meet and places I go. Rugby seems to unite people with comradery, more than a few other sports still haven’t got. We are still a relatively new professional sport, compared to some of the others. It provides me with memories I’ll never forget and friends whom I will keep for life. Those things are probably a little more important than the day to day stuff.