The time has arrived, Fiji ready to push for Olympic gold
Years of meticulous planning and traversing the globe winning back-to-back rugby sevens world series titles had coach Ben Ryan prepared for just about anything when he revealed his Fiji squad for the Olympics.
One thing he couldn't guarantee was the reaction of the players who missed out, a response he now regards as the measure of the team.
"One by one, they came in and one by one I told them their fate and to a man they were outstanding in the way they took their news," Ryan recalled. "If they weren't selected they thanked us, they shook our hands and they left with their heads held high."
It proved once and for all, in case there was even a tiny doubt in Ryan's mind, that the squad he's been honing for Rio de Janeiro is way, way bigger than any individual — this group of players is what Fijians everywhere refer to as the "people's team."
And the people have high expectations. Fijians have competed in the Olympics since 1956, but have never won a medal. They've never had a chance until now, though, to contest their national sport at the Summer Games.
"It is fair to say, Fiji is close to meltdown with Rio fever," Ryan told World Rugby this week. "It is always an obsession on the island to follow the team but has gone to a new level with the Olympics. Hundreds have lined the training pitch to watch us."
Since moving from England in 2013, Ryan has harnessed the passion Fijians have for their kind of football, reinforcing the bonds between the game and the people in a Pacific island nation which has become too familiar with seeing its best rugby talent move abroad seeking opportunities.
Despite never reaching the World Cup semifinals in the traditional 15-a-side game, Fijians have long been the masters of the abbreviated sevens version because of their size, speed and flair.
So when rugby sevens was added to the Olympic program for Rio, the goal posts shifted and gold became the goal.
Even former San Francisco 49ers player and Australian National Rugby League star Jarryd Hayne quit the NFL in a bid to make the Fijian team — but he didn't give himself enough time to break in.
The inspirational Osea Kolinisau will lead the men's team, after he has carried the Fiji flag at the opening ceremony for the Olympics.
With 243 matches in the world series, the 30-year-old is right for the job. He topped the tackle count in the 2015-16 season and, when Fiji was still recovering from the devastating Cyclone Winston, Kolinisau dedicated the Las Vegas stop on the world series circuit in March to the people, delivering the title with a player-of-the-match performance in the final. The following month in Hong Kong, the Fijians won again to all but secure the world championship.
"Winning the world series last season was a really massive one," Kolinisau said. "When we went back home, our normal three-hour trip from the airport took us about 10 hours. Villagers wanting to thank the team for what they've done."
In Savenaca Rawaca, Jasa Veremalua, Kitione Taliga and Jerry Tuwai, Fiji had four players in the top 14 on the world series try-scoring list last season — no other country had more than one. As well, there's France-based Josua "the Fijian Bus" Tuisova in a versatility role and forwards such as Leone Nakarawa to provide possession.
Waisale Serevi, one of the greatest sevens exponents of all time, is a proud Fijian who knows what the OIympic team is facing.
"There's nothing less than the gold medal that they're looking for," Serevi told The Associated Press. "They don't want the silver. They don't want the bronze. They want the gold medal back at home."
The Fijian men open their campaign against host Brazil next Tuesday, followed by group matches Argentina and the United States.
Ryan has an obligation to use a Fiji-style game plan, full of running from all parts of the field and risky passes, but is confident the extra fitness he has drilled into the squad and the extraordinary skills that can only be acquired by having a deep pool of players will ensure his team is consistently playing at a high level.
"We play the way that everybody wants the game to be played," he said. "We keep the ball alive, we do have audacious off-loads, they play with a smile on their face.
"We play with a high risk — but it's only a risk if you make a mistake."
It's a high-risk, high-reward mission for Ryan, who agrees the "gold medal is the No. 1 priority."
"There's not many sports around the globe that has such an impact to the whole nation," he said. "The country does grind to a standstill when the boys are playing. There is pressure on the boys to perform, because those (fans) will also be pointing fingers if things don't work out."