INTERVIEW: Ben Ryan considering his next step

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Fijian chief: Ben Ryan celebrates winning the Dubai Rugby Sevens.

Ben Ryan likes to pack a lot into his days. The Englishman burns bright with progressive ideas and enthusiasm, eagerly searching fresh experiences wherever they might take him. This pursuit of a life less ordinary gained global prominence this summer when a three-year odyssey as Fiji coach ended with Olympic gold in the inaugural rugby sevens. Since tasting such glory, Ryan’s interests have become ever broader.

As a temporary citizen of New York, he became a mentor to high-ranking businessmen and inspiration to Knicks basketball superstars such as Carmelo Anthony. You can even add work with a footwear company to the growing list.

Narrowing the Cambridge Blue down to one topic is hard enough during an interview, let alone in his professional life. Ideas bounce off each other with the same frequency champion winger Josua Tuisova smashed through tackles in Rio. So can rugby contain such a fertile mind any longer?

“There is a danger of that, because of the stuff I’ve seen in America,” Ryan tells Sport360, when asked about potentially being lost to the game, during an HSBC special grassroots schools initiative session with eager Emirati schoolboys in Al Warqa.

“I also love my football and am a season-ticket holder at Brentford. All the stuff around football, I think there are huge improvements to be made in regards to culture. I think coaching is coaching. Keep it simple and make sure everybody is kind to each other but successful.

“I don’t want that to come across as ‘hippy’, but we have shown with Fiji you can do both and dominate the game you are playing. At the New York Knicks, the president is also doing their yoga classes.”

An indelible imprint has been left on both Ryan and Fiji since their adventure together received the deserved finale. A grateful nation bestowed upon their iconic coach the traditional chief’s name of Ratu Peni Raiyani Latianara, as well as three acres of paradise. This gesture means hotelier has been latched on to Ryan’s extensive list of possible occupations.

“Get yourself to Pacific Harbour, where I am a chief in Serua province,” says the voluble 45-year-old with typical enthusiasm when quizzed about the Pacific Island which he has become synonymous with. “There is a lovely spot called Uprising Beach Resort, on the Coral Coast. You can surf there, with a top-five break in the world at Cloudbreak. It is only an hour-and-a-half’s drive from the airport. Our place will be on Airbnb when we actually build the resort.”

In a sport populated by gruff men like Michael Cheika and Sir Gordon Tietjens, Ryan cannot help but stand out. As a stranger to stasis, time was called on a successful six-year spell with England in 2013 after a fear of becoming jaded. This gregarious nature and appreciation of innovation made him a perfect fit for the free-flowing Fijians.

It has further made the last few months appear as gloriously random as a Jackson Pollack painting. A definitive answer about his future plans in the sport is sought out in every interview. But the idea of jumping straight into a plum 15-a-side post does not satiate a man who admitted after the bruising 43-7 defeat of his native Great Britain in the Games decider that he had fielded more than 20 job offers.

He says: “There are things I was forced to re-learn, as I think I had got a bit disenfranchised by everything in England. Too many people, too many layers, not enough kindness. These are things I will never let go of now and will be fundamentally part of anything I do going forward. I have taken a breath in the short term.

“I knew I was going to be working in partnership with HSBC doing a few things, I’ve had some consultancy work in the United States with professional teams in different sports. I’ve done some mentoring of some CEOs in the corporate world and working in R&D in a footwear company. There are a whole heap of things. I said I wouldn’t go full time until next year, and that is the earliest.

“Whether that is sevens or 15s, it is really down to what excites you. For me, it is never about the money. It is about the challenge and Fiji is a tough one to topple. Maybe an under-performing Premiership team or a team in Super Rugby who aren’t hitting the highlights. It could even be back to the sevens because of the appeal of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”

Freedom has ensured the four-time Dubai Rugby Sevens winner will only be present at this weekend’s gala event as an ambassador for the HSBC World Series. Even though he will not be able to compete, it does not take away from Ryan’s excitement.

He says: “I have had a lot of success here, winning the title four times. When the dusk comes down on the Saturday nights, it is such a noisy cauldron in Dubai. It is a fast pitch. The crowd are very knowledgeable and receptive about rugby. Many memories here and a lot of friends here in the UAE.”

For someone who plainly does not dwell on the past, Ryan’s spell with Fiji still resonates. A special bond was forged, which began with going voluntarily unpaid for the first four months of his contract after financial problems within the Union. Alongside the likes of captain Osea Kolinisau and the rampaging Jasa Veremalua, successive Sevens Series were then lifted prior to the iconic triumph in Brazil.

“The obvious one was after the gold medal game, just embracing each of the players and telling them they are Olympic champions,” says Ryan, when asked to pin down his favourite memory of this enlivening period. “That was just brilliant.

“I had my best memories on the training field with Fiji, laughing and joking. So much so that you are in stitches. That’s camaraderie. I wake up in the morning and have half a dozen messages on Facebook Messenger from the boys. They are like little brothers to me.”

The world is waiting to see what comes next for Fiji, post-Ryan. An answer won’t come in Dubai, with permanent replacement Gareth Baber set to assume control prior to January’s third round in Wellington, New Zealand. Whatever follows, the Welshman has the unequivocal backing of his celebrated predecessor.

“Gareth is a good guy,” Ryan says. “He has my absolute support. It is a tough gig, but as he has said himself, he wants this challenge. We all want to see Fiji continue at the top table. I wish him all the very best and I will always be a phone call away.”

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WATCH: 'Sevens from Heaven' - Fiji rugby trailer

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Fiji won their country’s first medal of any colour with victory in Rio and are currently ranked the best in the world – despite a population of only 800,000.

This humble nation overcame the rugby world to win the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series for the third time in May and then Olympic gold. They triumphed in what has arguably been the most heart-warming sports story of the year. This film from Zoomfiji tells their tale.









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Rugby’s reluctant star a class apart

James Piercy 17/11/2016
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Rugby union is often the most unfussy of sports. Its players revel in unstarry nature, to the extent it becomes their calling card and helps separate them from the rest of the world.

Simple, honest, humble athletes getting on with the game, leaving the histrionics and the drama to everyone else.

If you consider the established legends of game this century – Jonny Wilkinson, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Brian O’Driscoll – with the exception of the latter, their ability lay in doing the basics at stratospheric levels of perfection and consistency.

Highlights packages involving Wilkinson, McCaw and Carter don’t exactly stir the blood or wow the mind, unless perhaps you are a genuine purist. As unbelievable as they were on the field, off it, in terms of their public persona, they were remarkable in being unremarkable; just down to earth, good blokes.

Wilkinson had his OCD and meticulous eye for detail, Carter blessed with Hollywood levels of handsomeness while McCaw was a farmer but they weren’t exactly displaying Usain Bolt or Cristiano Ronaldo levels of showmanship.

Beauden Barrett fits very much into this model and, in terms of individuals at the very top of their game, is perhaps the world’s least assuming star right now. The freshly-crowned World Player of the Year is reluctant to talk about himself, always referring to his form within the context of the team.

As he said about his award: “It’s a by-product of a couple of great teams I have been a part of”.

While in the wake of one of his best performance of the year in August, as the All Blacks hammered Australia 40-8 in Sydney, he remarked: “I’d prefer to slip under the radar personally.”

And yet what sets him apart from Wilkinson, McCaw and Carter – the man who’s shirt he has inherited so impressively as an All Black – is how he plays the game. The best No10s – Carter, Wilkinson, Michael Lynagh – were dependable, playing to the percentages and managing the game with efficiency and professionalism.

The unorthodox and unpredictable Quade Cooper, Carlos Spencer or Thomas Castaignede may be great to watch but you can’t trust them with the keys to the kingdom.

Barrett has always had the maverick and generational talent inside him, which had previous led him to being pigeon-holed as an impact substitution at international level.

Yet, somehow this year he’s managed to blend the best attributes from both spectrums and find the consistency many though wasn’t previously possible, and when he’s been good for the Hurricanes and All Blacks – which is more often that not – he’s been unplayable.

His step, turn of pace and ability to break the line puts him alongside the most electric of backs; while his tactical kicking, organisation and composure in high-pressure situations in the biggest games, has enabled the All Blacks to make the seamless transition from the Carter and McCaw era.

There are still doubts over his goal-kicking and defence but these can be developed, and, indeed, Barrett’s performances in both these departments have been a marked improvement from last year. If he continues on this trajectory, it’s fascinating to see what sort of player he will become.

One thing’s for sure, he won’t make a song and dance about it.

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