Rugby is making its return to the Olympic fold after a 92-year absence at Rio 2016, where 12 teams will line up in the men’s sevens tournament. Among them are hot favourites Fiji, who are aiming to win their country’s first ever Olympic medal.
Made up of 332 islands, Fiji lies in the South Pacific Ocean, east of Vanuatu, west of Tonga and far to the north of New Zealand. Most of the country’s population of around 900,000 live on its two largest islands, Vanua Levu and Viti Levu, which is home to the capital, Suva. The number one sport in this particular part of the world is rugby, with the national federation, the Fiji Rugby Union (FRU), boasting more than 80,000 registered members.
The country’s 15-a-side team have been ever-presents at the Rugby World Cup since its inception, reaching the quarter-finals in 1987 and 2007. Their achievements pale in comparison, however, to Fiji’s sevens team, who have dominated the global scene for several years now.
This is the best side in the world in the last two years: a Fijian side that plays a very high-tempo, high-risk game that requires enormous amounts of skill and enormous amounts of fitness. Ben Ryan Great Britain - Ben Ryan Great Britain
The favourites to win gold on rugby’s return to the Olympic stage, the Fijians are intent on creating history by winning the country’s first ever medal, an achievement the Pacific nation has been waiting for since its Games debut at Melbourne 1956.
Whereas the Fiji XV leaves something to be desired in terms of the organisation and discipline of the forwards, their half-backs and three-quarters are known for their sublime and hugely entertaining running rugby and play for some of the leading clubs in both the northern and southern hemispheres.
Such invention and flair are part and parcel of rugby sevens, which has become the country’s national sport, with the Fiji sevens becoming the most feared side in the world, on account of their searing pace, magical handling skills and precise team play.
A national obsession
Describing the passion generated by the national team, Joseph Rodan, the president of the Fiji Association of Sports and National Olympic Committee (FASANOC), said: “If we won something at the Olympics, you can just imagine what would happen: the island would not stop celebrating. Everyone in Fiji is backing the Olympics and whenever the Sevens side are on, everyone organises their household chores around the team.
“If we won the Olympics, Nadi airport would be far too small for the crowds. That’s how we look at sports in Fiji. It is a sports-mad country with Sevens at the top. We are confident and have faith in both the men and the women. We hope both will win medals.”
Fiji are the reigning World Rugby Sevens Series champions, having won the competition twice in a row, achieving virtual rock star status back home and the adulation of their fans in the process. Across the Series’ ten events around the world, from London to Hong Kong – a tournament they won for the 16th time – the rampant Fijians scored the most points (1,704), the most tries (265) and the most conversions (188).
Discussing the secret to their recent success, their British coach Ben Ryan commented: “This isn’t just a random side. This is the best side in the world in the last two years: a Fijian side that plays a very high-tempo, high-risk game that requires enormous amounts of skill and enormous amounts of fitness.”
Figuring large among the players who have lit up this last sevens campaign is Jasa Veremalua, who was named Impact Player of the Season. Known for his surging runs, devastating hand-offs and textbook offloads, Veremalua racked up some amazing stats during the course of 2015/16, making 115 tackles, 40 clean breaks, 63 offloads, 123 carries and scoring 29 tries for a points total of 145.
The team’s leading points scorer, however, was Vatemo Ravouvou with 287, who racked 97 conversions across the season. Skipper Osea Kolinisau also registered some impressive stats, putting in a season-high 128 tackles.
Fiji’s top try-scorer of the campaign was the rampaging Savena Rawaca, who crossed the paint 35 times in all, while Jerry Tuwai and Amenoni Nasilasila are two other key members of Ryan’s squad.
Fiji will undoubtedly be the team to beat at the first Olympic rugby competition since 1924, especially with some high-quality 15-a-side reinforcements poised to run out in Rio, among them Josua Tuisova. Also joining the cause is ex-NFL man Jarryd Hayne, with left the San Francisco 49ers in May to link up with the Olympic team.
“I’ve admired the Olympics since I was a little boy,” says Hayne. “I simply could not pass that chance up.” Yet with competition for the 12 squad places so intense, neither he nor his team-mates can take selection for granted.
According to New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams, Fiji “play different to any other team in the circuit.”
Blessed with spectacular skills and formidably effective to boot, the Fijians could be about to register the greatest sporting triumph in the Pacific nation’s history.