Fiji rugby coach Ryan ponders walking away on Rio gold high
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — As coach Ben Ryan savored Fiji's wildly popular gold-medal rugby success at the Rio Olympics, a smidgen of doubt disrupted his celebration.
Could he just walk away from this? Really?
Three years after being hired by Fiji to get its sevens team in shipshape condition and coach it to Olympic gold, Ryan fulfilled his contract in spades after his team blew away Britain 43-7 in the final Thursday at Deodoro Stadium.
"It's been always our plan for three years; get them back to No. 1, win world titles, and then claim this first (Olympic) gold medal," he said. "The boys were on another scale of phenomenal."
So what's he doing for an encore? Seriously considering going back to coaching 15s.
"About a year ago, I knew I wanted to leave, and wanted to go back into 15s, but the more this sevens train has carried on and the more I've enjoyed it, it's almost jumping off at the wrong time now," Ryan said.
His contract ends Sept. 3, and he's told the Fiji Rugby Union he's taking a break for a few weeks to consider his options and make sure he picks the right decision. He added that he "may or may not return, but they should keep the door open." And because he didn't want to leave anyone in the lurch, he said he's "I've drawn up a calendar for the next two years for them."
In terms of 15s jobs, he said he didn't expect to be pigeon-holed like he used to be, when being a sevens coach was a black mark on a resume.
"A coach is a coach is a coach," he said. The way he wanted to play was more akin to Super Rugby than the Premiership in his native England.
The English Rugby Union fired Ryan after seven years in charge of its sevens side and straight after leading it to the 2013 Sevens World Cup final in Moscow. Ryan said he had already become disillusioned with his employer before that and was grateful to receive a quick offer from Fiji to take over its sevens team and program.
He was happy even though he wasn't paid for the first few months and resources were very limited. Fiji helped him "find my fire again."
Discovering an unfit team with a poor diet, he made the players buy into his rules by threatening not to select people who couldn't follow them. When they won their second tournament under Ryan in Dubai, crushing New Zealand 44-0 in the semifinals — an effort Ryan never saw again until the Rio final — the players were convinced Ryan knew what he was doing.
He's introduced his team to lean meats and salads, dropped carbohydrates, worked hard on their fitness, banned cellphones — including his own — before and during tournaments, and cut down on their drinking.
Along the way, he has faced surreal moments, like the time an 80-year-old man walked eight hours just to shake his hand at training.
"He was telling the truth," Ryan said. "I saw his shoes."
He was close to being the most popular man in Fiji even before the gold medal win. Now he's shattered that ceiling.
Easily recognized by his ginger hair, stubble and skin not made for the tropics, Ryan can't walk anywhere without being mobbed for photos. His car is so well known that villagers stop and wave. He's had babies named after him.
Yet, here he was, downplaying his role in Fiji's first Olympic medal, let alone the country's first gold medal.
"I feel very lucky that I'm in charge of such an unbelievable group of athletes with a country behind us that's so passionate about rugby sevens," he said. "I'm a small part of all of this. It's the team really. The coach just sort of points and blows his whistle."
The whistleblower had a feeling in the changing room that his team was up for the Olympic final, but even he was amazed at how well they executed the game plan: Contesting kickoffs, staying on their feet in tackles and offloading.
"We showcased Fijian rugby, and everybody who was watching, maybe even the British supporters, can have a smile," he said.
He expected Fiji to be going crazy in celebration, and contemplated what epic welcome is in store for the team when they return home.
When they won the sevens world series last year for the first time in nine years, their bus took nine hours on the normally three-hour drive from Nadi airport to the capital Suva, because kids and babies were thrust in front, forcing them to stop and get out for photos.
If his players got a vote, there's no way they would let their beloved chief leave.
"Our performances speak of how good coach is, and we've been blessed he chose to come and coach Fiji, and set things straight with the boys, and bring out the real Fiji," captain Osea Kolinisau said.
"For years, we've been trying to get back the Fijian flair, and what Ben did is bring that out, and a lot of consistency that was lacking in our game," he said. " I'm thankful, and hopefully after his break he decides to stay with Fiji rugby a bit longer."