"We decided not to run them as hard and fatten them up a bit. When they took their tops off around the swimming pool in Dubai they weren't going to win any body contests, but we did win that tournament.”
Taken in isolation, Ben Ryan's opening words might have been misleading, but what came next gave a fascinating insight into the level of detail the Fiji sevens head coach and his staff had gone to in preparing his side for their now famous assault on the men's rugby sevens at Rio 2016.
"We beefed them up a bit, knowing that post-London they'd have a bit of a break when they'd put on a bit more weight, and then we'd trim them for seven weeks."
FIT FOR PURPOSE
While other teams suffered cruel injury blows and rested key players during the course of the season, Fiji's seemed to plough through, largely unscathed. Were these men simply tougher than the rest? Maybe, but in 'fattening them up' Ryan had also chosen to literally give his players a protective layer of padding to help stave off the season’s bumps and bruises.
To outsiders, the difference - on the pitch and around the waist line - was barely noticeable: Fiji won in Dubai, Las Vegas and Hong Kong and defended their overall series title. But the long-term gains were significant because of what followed after the series.
"We changed their diet, we took sugar and carbohydrate out, we picked up the intensity of training, set higher standards and then in Rio, where we were the last team to fly in, nothing went wrong."
In other words, when the world series finished Fiji's toughest training regime started and the rest, as they say, is history. Trimmed down, lighter and faster, Fiji's men stormed to gold in Rio, finding an edge when they needed one and blowing Team GB away in the final.
Three days before, however, it had been Australia's women who were equally impressive, rounding off their own tour de force performance that also capped an entire season of achievement.
The honour of being the first rugby sevens Olympians to compete fell to the women of France and Spain on 6 August, the first of three consecutive women's match days.
Fijiana upset the USA, who in turn scored a 12-12 draw with Australia but otherwise pool results went largely to form. The big four then won through to the semi-finals, where Australia were first to guarantee a medal with a 17-5 win against Canada, and New Zealand saw off GB, 25-7.
The first Olympic sevens medal match was contested between Canada and Team GB for bronze and after a tight start the Canadians ran away with it, Ghislaine Landry scoring two of their five tries in a 33-10 win.
The gold medal match was a classic affair. The brilliant Kayla McAlister crossed first for New Zealand but after a reply from Australia, Portia Woodman's cruel yellow card allowed the favourites to grow into the match and go into the break 10-5 up. From then on Australia were simply inspired by the athletic performance of Charlotte Caslick and hers was the fourth try that put daylight between the sides. New Zealand finished strongly with tries from Woodman and McAlister but the gold, and the smiles, were Australia's.
Sharni Williams and her teammates became instant heroes to millions of new female fans at home and around the world. "Rugby sevens is the fastest-growing team sport in the world at the moment and for it to be in the Olympics, and for us to now be the Olympic champions, it's amazing. We're making history here. I can't wait to see where it goes from here,” said the Australia captain afterwards.
A day later France and Australia kicked off the men’s competition and Terry Bouhraoua laid on a virtuoso first half hat-trick performance that inspired France to a shock win but it was match four that provided the biggest upset, Japan edging New Zealand 14-12 to repeat their heroics of Rugby World Cup 2015 and light the flame for three days of unforgettable sevens.
Where series stalwarts USA and Kenya misfired and New Zealand faltered, others found form. Alongside Japan, France, Argentina and the scratch Team GB side all performed well and in the quarter finals South Africa overwhelmed Australia, GB beat Argentina 5-0, Japan beat France 12-7 and Fiji edged past New Zealand by the same score line.
Fiji then went one better with victory over Japan and Team GB nudged past South Africa by a conversion kick to reach the final. Japan had performed heroics in reaching the bronze medal match but Commonwealth champions South Africa proved a step too far, winning 54-14 with Rosco Specman (3) and Cecil Afrika (2) contributing handsomely to their eight try haul.
So South Africa would take bronze and Team GB lined up against Fiji for gold and silver, the Fijians setting out to win their country’s first medal of any colour.
It took only five of the 20 minutes for Fiji to put the result beyond doubt. Jasa Veremelua’s try made the score 17-0 and when captain Osea Kolinisau converted their fifth on the stroke of half time they led 29-0. GB rallied after the break but still Fiji outscored them two tries to one to make the final score 43-7.
History had been made and Ben Ryan’s coaching ingenuity and long term thinking had paid rich dividends.
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