DUBAI // Same coach, different team, new inscription on the Emirates International Trophy.
Ben Ryan ended 14 years of hurt in the UAE for Fiji, after guiding the Pacific Islanders to their first IRB world series trophy success in Dubai.
Victory in the Emirates may be unprecedented for his adopted nation, but for the former England coach, it was a third title in four attempts on these shores.
The tournament organisers might as well give him the trophy to keep. He is probably going to be granted the keys to Suva when they return home.
Having won in successive seasons with the country of his birth, Ryan says he fell out of love with the game last season, starting with England’s pitiful display here 12 months ago.
The best antidote? Coaching at Fiji, especially when they play the sort of joyous rugby which eventually culminated in a 29-17 win over South Africa in the finals Saturday night.
“My first win in Dubai was an incredibly memorable one which I’ll never forget, and it’s probably ranked right up there with the first win in Wellington,” he said.
“But in the new chapter with Fiji rugby, I hope this is the start point.
“It’s very important for me to keep everybody’s feet on the ground back in Fiji, because they’ll be going mental in Suva.”
The Cambridge University-educated Englishman is one of the most loquacious coaches in sport.
Yet he admitted he was lost for words to describe the brilliance of his side’s semi-final win over New Zealand earlier yesterday.
The world-champion All Blacks sevens side had an extraordinary tackle success rate of 98 per cent on day one, but the Flying Fijians made their defenders look like holograms.
They had eight separate try scorers in a 44-0 thrashing, which ranks as New Zealand’s heaviest ever defeat in world series rugby.
It was an annihilation of the best side in the world. Abu Dhabi Harlequins had fared better when they hosted the Fijians for a friendly match last Sunday night.
“I was speechless,” Ryan said. “The semi-final was flawless sevens against the best side in the world and we gave them their heaviest defeat ever. Lots of times my teams have played against New Zealand with a plan, but they don’t let you execute it, as they don’t let you play.
“It’s the old Fijian style, just with a little bit of pragmatism when we need it.
“I flogged them every training session we’ve had for the last month, worked them really hard, they haven’t moaned.”
That glorious “old Fijian style” is not sustained by much. In the past, Ryan has been arrived in Dubai with as many hi-tech gizmos as the English RFU could afford.
Yesterday, by contrast, he called in a few favours to borrow some global-positioning system trackers, just so he could find some basic data to show his players.
“Back home in their training base, there is one room with 30 beds, and the locals come in to cook,” he said.
“We’re a little bit low on cash at the moment and the boys just have been phenomenal. This is the start, we’re going to have some downs as well as ups, because our programme is just about starting.
“But you see what happens when you’ve a group of Fijian boys who are committed, unified and they play for each other and you get some fairly spectacular results.”
The world series caravan heads to Port Elizabeth for the South Africa Sevens next, and the host nation were buoyed by their runners-up finish here.
“It would have taken a special performance by any team in a final to beat Fiji when they play like that,” said Neil Powell, the South Africa coach.
“For us, I think it was a good tournament, one step better than in the opening leg in Gold Coast, and hopefully in our home tournament, we can go one better again.”
TIETJENS AND ALL BLACKS LEFT SHELL-SHOCKED
DUBAI // Having witnessed his all-conquering New Zealand side uncharacteristically blown apart in the trophy semi-final, Sir Gordon Tietjens had every right to tear strips off his players.
The All Blacks are the dominant team in rugby’s short format, and comfortably, too, having been crowned champions in 11 of the previous 14 IRB Sevens World Series.
So Saturday’s 44-0 semi-final defeat to a rampant Fiji, the biggest loss in New Zealand’s history, not only felt surreal, it left the vanquished dazed and confused.
“The boys are shell-shocked,” Tietjens said. “They were beaten in every facet of the game. They knew it was going to be tough – New Zealand v Fiji always is – but Fiji just played the perfect game.
“They had all the ball. We were totally outclassed.”
That last line would sound pretty alien to anyone with even a passing interest in sevens.
As four-time winners of the Dubai event, New Zealand usually enjoy their time in the desert.
Tietjens’s men arrived in the UAE in vintage form, fresh from adding to an already swollen trophy cabinet with tournament victories in London, at the World Cup, and in Australia with last week’s opener to the 2013/14 Series. For that, the venerable coach decided to go easy on his troops.
“We’ll probably leave these shores leading the series or pretty close to it,” he said.
“We’ve had a pretty great year, winning three tournaments in a row. As I told my players, what can I say? I wasn’t about to blow them up, or blast them for the performance.
“You’ve got to put that behind you. Got to move on. But all is not lost. We’re only into the second tournament of the World Series.”
Tietjens promised New Zealand would respond and they immediately made true on his prediction, defeating England 17-14 to clinch third place.
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