DUBAI // William Ryder's fans no longer have to rely on YouTube for their fix of rugby's free spirit after the flying Fijian made a thrilling comeback to the IRB Series at The Sevens this weekend. After rugby's autumn of discontent, when try-scoring was at a record low, and injuries and aimless kicking at a record high, the return of a player regarded by virtually anyone who has ever seen him in action as the most exciting in the sport, was a timely boost.
Even South Africa, the formidable world series champions and defending Dubai Sevens title holders, were no match for Ryder, 27, the walking highlights reel. The Springboks built their dominance on an impregnable defence last season, but Ryder cracked the code as he orchestrated Fiji's 17-5 quarter-final win over them. His first day back in the white shirt was later curtailed when the Fijians were swamped by a New Zealand tide 19-0 in the semi-final, but his renaissance is definitely back in full swing.
"I have been looking forward to participating in the sevens again because I missed playing it and I missed playing for my country," said the winger. "Last year we were not participating well and losing all the time, and I'm hoping now I'm back in the team that we will be back to the standard that we were." Ryder first introduced himself to the wider rugby public with a sparkling display at the 2005 Sevens World Cup in Hong Kong.
His star ascended rapidly, and he was offered a lucrative deal to play in Japan, which meant he has been rarely spotted in sevens in recent years. His career path has rarely run smooth. He has often shared a terse relationship with officialdom and teammates alike, but associations are currently cordial. The player himself credits his bosses for the transformation in his body shape which has seen him slim down from 110kgs when he arrived back from playing 15s in Japan.
He is now back at his ideal sevens fighting weight, 80kg, and he said: "When I came back from Japan the Fiji rugby union trained me up for three months and they put me on a diet where I ate a lot of salad and fresh fruit. Lots of green stuff. "Now I am back to normal again. I am looking forward to doing something good for my country and entertaining the crowds again. When people are cheering it really helps me to go forward."
Iliesa Tanivula, who took over the mantle of coach after his mentor, Waisale Serevi, left the role amid much acrimony earlier this year, praised Ryder's work ethic ahead of this weekend. Tanivula challenged him to "prove himself and carry on where he left off" before his extended break from the side. Ryder answered the call emphatically, and even the onlooking England great Lawrence Dallaglio was impressed.
"Ryder leads their team very well and is trying to take that mantle over from Serevi who led their side for many, many years," said Dallaglio, who is one of only two players to have World Cup winner's medals in both the 15s and sevens formats. "I was very impressed with South Africa on day one. Fiji were fairly relaxed, doing their usual laid-back warm-up, then came out the blocks and were outstanding in beating South Africa."
Like Fiji, Dallaglio's compatriots England also saw their hopes of claiming the Emirates International Trophy ended at the semi-final stage last night. They were beaten by the same opponents, Samoa, who ended their World Cup bid at the quarter-final stage at the same venue back in March, running out even- tual 28-19 winners in a thrilling match. Samoa's own version of Ryder, Mikaele Pesamino, a brilliant winger who had a lengthy absence from the sevens game due to injury, was their stand-out performer.
Ben Ryan, England's defeated coach, said he was disappointed to lose to the Samoans again. "They seem to be our nemesis. I hate to think of sides having bogey teams," he said. "We beat them well in London last time out, but I hope we don't play them in Dubai again for a while because they seem to have the evil eye on us. But a semi-final is not a bad achievement." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org