It’s been a whirlwind year for Ben Ryan since guiding Fiji to an historic rugby sevens gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics last summer.
Three acres of land, a Companion of the Order of Fiji and his face printed on a limited edition currency were just three of the gifts presented to the Englishman following the islanders’ extraordinary Olympic success.
Regarded as one of the most in-demand coaches in sport after three golden years with Fiji, everyone wants to know one thing – how did he create a successful culture that led a small island to the top of sevens rugby?
But for now, life as a mega coach has been put on hold as he mentors CEOs in America, consults with NBA teams and rubs shoulders with some of the best paid sports stars in the world.
“If there are two things I’ve toned doing what I’ve really enjoyed, the first is Sevens Rugby. It’s that feeling of playing a tactical game of chess at tournaments, where the team weaves its way through to the final stages and you have injuries and suspensions. I love that,” Ryan told Sport360 exclusively.
“The second side is creating a positive cultural environment for athletes and players to perform to the best of their ability and to create a psychologically safe environment.
“I’ve been going in to do MOP with lots of organisations and teams to look at how they are running things and where I think they can improve and where I think they can look to get a better environment, and often these solutions don’t include spending money.”
He added: “It’s to do with how they are looking after their players and managing their coaches, having relationships and communicating with players. I really find that fascinating.”
Away from the red carpet events, the gala dinners, the pitch sessions and ambassador roles, the Wimbledon-born man has a book planned for May and is the star of a Hollywood movie on the sensational Fijian rags-to-riches story.
It may be a different route for the 46-year-old to pursue but sport continues to enthuse his mind and this can be reflected in the demand for his services worldwide.
It’s easy to see how his sparkling presence is well valued by some of the top business and sports people in the world, but after experiencing all these new pastures away from sevens, has it changed his perspective on the game?
“We look at some of the values we hold in rugby around team-ship and the behaviour to coaches and each other,” the 46-year-old said.
“Rugby is in a very good place compared to other sports on some of those standards, and then you see other things that are happening in other sports that you think ‘ok that system is much better than rugby’.”
“Every experience I go to I get more experiences all the time. You go into a football club, then a basketball club or a governing body, and you can use these experiences in other places and make them better, but I’m really fortunate that I’m allowed this access.”
Since stepping down as head coach of the islanders after the Olympics, Ryan has been carrying out various consultancy opportunities with World Rugby, HSBC, France 7s and the New York Knicks.
He has been inundated with offers from all over the globe – turning down the Edinburgh head coach job – and recently using his magical touch to steer France in a more positive direction ahead of the new HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series season.
It’s a significant boost to see Ryan still involved in sevens, and the sport is perhaps robbed without his influence on a full-time basis.
However, he does have prospects to return to coaching in the future, but is yet to confirm when that will be.
“I’ve yet to have the bug to go back into one job in a new team, but rugby is number one,” he said.
“I think somewhere down the line I’d love a season with an American professional franchise like the NBA or the NFL. I think that would be class.
“I think I see where my rugby knowledge and running a programme would be of value to them.
“I’m not teaching someone about how hit a three pointer or throw a 40 yard pass. I’m talking about the other things that go into training a team on and off the field.”
With the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series kicking off in Dubai in five weeks, South Africa look the team to beat after an impressive campaign that saw them crowned champions after five wins from ten tournaments.
“South Africa have lost a few of their key players but will get them back from Super Rugby at different points of the season,” said Ryan.
“I can them not having the same consistent success last year but I also think they will be able to win a second successive series.”
“The biggest mover I think will be New Zealand. They’ve got a new coach and they’ve changed their training base. They have also brought in some new returning players and exciting young players. They NZRU have put various measures in place to achieve success.
“I think both those teams will be fighting it out at the end of the season.”
Former Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan returned to the UAE in his role as an HSBC ambassador where he coached youngsters from Hamdan Bin Rashed School Dubai.
If you were going to pick one word to encapsulate the All Blacks, what would it be? Incredible, unstoppable, tradition, sacred. No-one would pick fear.
But fear is exactly what Jonathan Davies believes New Zealand’s rugby press were gripped by when they took it upon themselves to personally attack British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland – one of their own – during the Lions’ drawn tour in the land of the long white cloud this summer.
The highlight, or low, depending on which team you were backing, was when the New Zealand Herald mocked up the Kiwi coach as a clown on their June 27 sports section front page after he accused the All Blacks of targeting Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray in the first Test.
Gatland had the last laugh when he donned a red nose and a wry smile at the post-match press conference after his side drew the third and final Test 15-15, thereby securing a series draw.
And Davies, a darting schemer of a player who earned caps for Wales in both codes, feels the dirty tactics of the New Zealand sporting media should actually be taken as a compliment by Wales coach Gatland.
“When I was playing I was booed and abused on certain stages. But you take that on board as a mark of respect because they fear you,” said Davies, 55, now a respected and valued rugby commentator who analyses the game in both the English and Welsh languages.
“They saw him as a threat. That is the problem. When you see someone as a threat, sometimes it’s not very sportsmanlike in how you approach things.
“I think they tried to do everything to unsettle him and maybe some of it wasn’t justified and went overboard and was too personal.
“Him being the proud New Zealander he is and going back to New Zealand, he would have been relishing the challenge but unfortunately it went sour and a bit personal.
“But he stuck by his guns. He does what he wants to do, he sticks to his convictions and you suffer the consequences if it doesn’t come off. But on the Lions tours he’s done exceptionally well.”
Exceptionally well is exactly correct. Gatland led the Lions to success in Australia in 2013 – the first victory in 16 years. His side’s draw with the All Blacks, meanwhile, is only bettered by the 2-1-1 win (two wins, a loss and a draw) earned in New Zealand in 1971.
Yet, despite his brilliance and track record of success, there is a gnawing feeling that, although respected, Gatland is not particularly loved. Not like, say, Joe Schmidt at Ireland or even compatriots Steve Hansen and Graham Henry within the All Blacks camp.
Davies is unable to put his finger on why that may be the case, with Gatland having been in the Welsh job a decade – longer than any other before him.
But for the man who was an elusive box of tricks during his playing days, Davies would like to see Wales introduce more layers to their style of play when Gatland calls it a day after the 2019 Rugby World Cup – which already looks like it might be the case following the announcement yesterday of the squad for the autumn internationals starting next month.
Gatland seemed to signal a change of tactical course from the famed ‘Warrenball’ approach with the selection of four outside-halves in his squad and omitting stalwart and one of the chief protagonists of Wales’ physical approach that delivered two Six Nations titles this decade – Jamie Roberts.
A more expansive, attacking style is something Davies is keen to see. “For me, when you look at the best sides in the world they play different styles and I think we’re a bit one-dimensional,” said Davies.
“They have tried to change it in the last year but it all depends on the personnel you have. It’ll be interesting with the selection this year and how they decide on how to play.”
Another New Zealander has previously been linked with the Wales job. Wayne Smith severed a 20-year association with New Zealand rugby four days ago when he bowed out as Hansen’s assistant following their final Rugby Championship game, a 23-18 defeat to Australia.
Smith has been praised in rugby circles for his approach to the game and relationships forged with players. And after Gatland revealed this week that his own assistant Rob Howley, long expected to be in the running to take over, is likely to pursue other options, Davies feels Smith would be a great choice.
“I think a lot of Welsh fans would like to get him in,” said Davies. “He’s been brilliant for the All Blacks. He’s very innovative and we’ve played maybe a bit of a one-dimensional game over the last few years. So it will be interesting to see what pops up.
“Stephen Jones and the Scarlets are doing well, there’s a few names down there. You look at Dai Young who’s done well at Wasps. They might look at Dave Rennie or Wayne if he’s still interested.
“They’re trying to make a new call and announce it before the next World Cup so there’s not a bum fight then when the World Cup finishes and there’s a lot of people vying for different jobs.
“This week he’s (Gatland) said he’s (Howley) not going to go for the Welsh job, he’s going to try other things. He’s been there a long time and it would have been a little progression, moving someone up from within, but it doesn’t seem that will be the case.
“For me, they have to go a new direction now and look outside.”
Another issue that’s made major headlines in Welsh rugby recently has been Rhys Webb’s future, with a summer move from Ospreys to French giants Toulon becoming tangled in red tape.
Lions scrum-half Webb signed for Toulon earlier this month, days before the Welsh Rugby Union announced a change to its policy governing players outside the country.
The WRU’s new Senior Player Selection Policy has entrapped the 28-year-old Webb, with rules stating players moving to England or France from next season would only be considered for Wales if they have 60 caps.
A string of injuries throughout his career mean Webb has only 28, with his prospects of gaining many more appearing bleak once he heads to Stade Mayol – although he has been picked for the autumn squad. Davies says it’s a woeful situation for Webb and Wales.
“It is difficult because you want the best players to go abroad, get some experience and become better players so it’s a bit of a catch-22 situation,” he said.
“The WRU has to do something to try and keep them in Wales. I just feel with the money out there, perhaps they can’t compete. I do feel sorry for Rhys. He’s given everything for the region and he’s had a lot of injuries. And I’m sure it could have been dealt with a lot better.
“If you look at it he’s still very young. He’s the same age as Sam Warburton and Sam’s got 74 caps. So if you stay injury free you can really rattle through the caps quickly.
“They knew Rhys was in discussions with Toulon so they could have handled it better. When the announcement was made the argument shifted on to Rhys, not the ruling. I don’t understand what went wrong, he said he didn’t know about the ruling.
“It’s down to the agents and union, surely they must have known what was going on, because it will be a huge loss for him and a huge loss for Wales.”
Welsh stars have previously left for potentially greener pastures with mixed fortunes.
Fly-half Stephen Jones and Davies’ younger namesake enjoyed success with Clermont while others like Dan Lydiate and Leigh Halfpenny returned home after injury-interrupted spells at Racing 92 and Toulon respectively.
And Davies says success is down to the players themselves and how much they launch themselves into the opportunity.
He said: “It all depends on the individual. Stephen Jones made a good crack of it and Jonathan Davies was quite successful. Jamie Roberts and George North too. A lot of it depends on the individual and how you embrace it.
“If players go they might enjoy it more if they had the chance to come back and forth and play for Wales. It’s an interesting call and one we have to look at with the next few signings.”
Dragons fans will be licking their lips at the approaching autumn series, with Wales to play Southern Hemisphere heavyweights New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
And even though it’s become an important and popular part of the international calendar, Davies is concerned that an experimental and injury-hit squad may fail to build momentum ahead of next year’s Six Nations.
“It always excites me because you’re watching the best teams play first hand,” said Davies.
“But it’s a tough time for Wales right now. We haven’t got the strength in depth of other nations and it’s all about managing expectations and avoiding injuries. (Justin) Tipuric is not playing, Warburton’s not playing, George North’s not playing and if you have a few more injuries now it puts a real strain on the Welsh camp.
“And you’re playing in the best teams in the world in New Zealand and the resurgence of South Africa and Australia. It was going to be tough when they weren’t looking so strong but now they are finding their way back.
“Blooding new players against the best in the world is always very different. You try and blood them on the summer tour but there’s not the same intensity there. It’s a tough balance but it’s what Gatland and Howley are paid to do.”
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Champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins are the only team in UAE rugby fielding four teams this season, and it’s a good job they have plenty in reserve as the first-team squad are being stretched to the limit in the early weeks of the campaign.
Already shorn of star trio Patrick Jenkinson, Brian Geraghty and Willie Umu who all departed for pastures new in the summer, the club was dealt a crippling blow last week when talisman Ben Bolger announced his retirement, aged just 28, due to ongoing concussion issues.
Coach Mike McFarlane must feel like he’s putting fires out at every turn, with the news that another key trio will also be sidelined for the season by injury.
Phil Abraham, Garth van Niekirk and Muneeb Galaxy have all been ruled out for the remainder of the campaign, leaving Quins severely hampered.
But McFarlane is remaining stoic, revealing adversity is being met with determination by his squad.
“We are at an interesting and testing time where we have lost so many first-team players from last year and now with season-ending injuries to several players,” said McFarlane, whose injury-ravaged side chalked up a gritty 25-17 win over Dubai Hurricanes on Friday to remain unbeaten after three games.
“But that adversity is being knocked down by the boys through hard work and excellent club culture which has always been paramount. The boys are training hard and I couldn’t ask any more of them.
“The quality that our second XV provide in training and games has so far kept the first XV ticking and to stand unbeaten after a grueling Champions League and opening set of fixtures is testament to the players and coaching team.
“It was a good win on Friday and we were happy to battle through. One game in October when the season goes on until April is frustrating for continuity and we have another week off now also.”