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Fiji, the ‘Harlem Globetrotters of rugby,’ aims to win country’s first Olympic medal

New Zealand's Sam Dickson (L) tackles Fiji's Vatemo Ravouvou in the men’s rugby sevens quarterfinal. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

Three years ago, Ben Ryan — a self-described "ginger bloke with glasses" — took his red hair and black frames to Fiji. The British rugby coach was fighting burnout. So he took a new coaching job more than 10,000 miles away, on a South Pacific Ocean island decorated with beaches and palm trees.

“It wasn’t a hard sell,” Ryan said, grinning.

It was harder when he didn’t get paid the first five months, when he realized the Fiji men’s rugby sevens team couldn’t afford gas for the team bus or even water to serve during practice. It was hardest in February, when Category 5 Cyclone Winston unleashed its 185-mph winds on the country, killing 44 people, causing nearly $500 million in damage and leaving some of the players homeless.

Still, Ryan is at the Olympics coaching the best team in the sport, a back-to-back World Sevens Series winner, a championship squad of athletes who learned to play the game substituting plastic bottles and flip-flops for the ball and turning to roundabouts for patches of grass.

The coach calls them the “Harlem Globetrotters of rugby,” and when they’re at their best, you really can imagine “Sweet Georgia Brown” playing as the Fijians perform their own wondrous tricks.

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“No one is better than Fiji,” Brazil Coach Lucas Duque said. “They are magical at sevens.”

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For Fiji, a nation of only about 900,000 people, here’s what truly would be magical: an Olympic medal. The country has never won one, not in 14 Summer Games and not in three winter competitions. On Wednesday, the sevens team advanced to the medal round after knocking the United States out of contention with a 24-19 victory early in the day and then beating rival New Zealand, 12-7, in a quarterfinal.

If the Fijians win one of their two games Thursday, they are assured a history-making medal. If they win both games, they will bring home gold to a nation that the team says loves rugby more than Brazilians love soccer.

“We are so close,” captain Osea Kolinisau said. “All this work, all this pressure, and our dream is now in front of us. To be in the Olympics for the first time and to have this opportunity, it is amazing.”

Rugby is so popular in Fiji that Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama announced who made the 12-player Olympic team to the nation. It is considered as important as national service; a few players were called from the army to participate. Ryan is treated as a hero, getting mobbed for pictures, being immortalized in song and hearing stories of Fijian children named after him.

The national devotion has restored Ryan’s love for the game. He led the England men’s sevens team for six years, but the politics of that job frustrated him. In Fiji, he has rediscovered the purity of coaching, adding discipline and structure to his new team while reveling in the athletes’ willingness to learn and improve.

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The prime minister increased the budget to about $590,000 this year. Still, that’s less than a quarter of what other national teams spend. The players are earning $6,000 to play for Fiji. Some have bypassed lucrative overseas contracts to make this run. Most have normal jobs. They are prison wardens, army officers, police officers, bellhops and sugarcane farmers. A few are unemployed.

“But if we give Fiji a gold medal, we will have jobs for life,” Kolinisau said.

Said Ryan: “We do this all for very little money, but we do have the government behind us. We do have the nation behind us.”

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When Ryan took this job, he thought he could make Fiji an international power if he could make the team organized enough to improve by 10 percent. He allows the players great freedom on the field — “Thicker playbooks, for me, equals thicker players,” he likes to say — but he is strict about how the game is approached.

He monitors food portions. During tournaments, he takes away phones and gives Breathalyzer tests. Not even casual drinking is allowed on off days during competition. In the past, he has kicked star players off the team for unacceptable behavior. The discipline is evident in the way the players handle momentum shifts during games, how hard they compete and how consistent they are in a sport with little margin for error.

Fiji is so respected that Argentina Coach Juan Imhoff screamed for his players to disengage when a scuffle between the two teams broke out late in a 21-14 Fiji victory during group play.

“Don’t make the beast angry,” Imhoff said. “I was saying, ‘Peace, boys, peace.’ ”

Fiji seems to have it all: size, athleticism, physicality, speed, deft passing. Rugby sevens is a faster, more free-flowing version game than traditional, 15-a-side rugby. It’s a blur, with the teams playing seven-minute halves and just a two-minute intermission. Just three players on each team are involved in scrums. All conversion attempts must be drop-kicked.

For the first time since 1924, rugby is an Olympic sport. It’s perfect timing for Fiji to show off its first sporting love with a team hardened by its tribulations.

Kolinisau shows marks on his feet that still exist from playing rugby on asphalt as a child. Masivesi Dakuwaqa, who is the team’s traveling reserve, is blind in one eye. Ryan tells poignant stories about visiting the players’ homes and being exposed to poverty and humble beginnings. That was before the cyclone destroyed what little they had.

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If you show too much compassion, Ryan tries to lighten the mood by laughing and saying his team has “third-world problems.” But even if these players return to Fiji with medals, much of their struggle will continue. For now, though, they can use all their pain on the field.

The Harlem Globetrotters of rugby aren’t all show. They’re tough, too. And they’re resourceful.

“Half our players left school at 15, but as you can see, they are geniuses on the field,” Ryan said. “Their IQ is very high on that patch of grass over there.”

That patch of grass over there is where Fijian villages come together, where a dozen extraordinary athletes connect with their countrymen and countrywomen who often play using coconuts or bunched-up shirts as the ball.

In victory late Wednesday afternoon, they huddled under a streetlight, these common men on an uncommon mission, to pray. They thanked God for their health and for their performance. They asked for one more day, one more good day, a day ripe for historic possibility.

When they finished, they raised their hands and shouted together.

“Fiji!” they exclaimed.

And again, louder: “Fiji!”

From 10 yards away, the ginger bloke with glasses beamed. Burnout cured.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit