That maiden medal was gold as Fiji beat Great Britain 43-7 in Rio three months ago. Ben Ryan, the Englishman who led them to glory, is gone, replaced by ex-Hong Kong sevens coach Gareth Baber, although the Welshman is missing the first two legs of the 2016/17 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
His team kick off the defence of their Dubai Rugby Sevens and World Rugby Sevens Series titles against Canada tomorrow in the cauldron-like atmosphere of The Sevens’ main stadium and its 40,000 fans, yet Cawanibuka is not fazed despite this year’s event being set to smash all sorts of records, with 324 teams and a staggering 4,866 players set to compete in 937 matches.
Cawanibuka cannot wait.
“The pressure is there but I don’t think it’s insurmountable. I’m not nervous about it, I’m excited,” he tells Sport360. “Ben’s left a huge mark and his are big shoes to fill. It’s a challenge but I’m confident with my skillset and the things I’ve learned from different coaches, especially Ben. Hopefully that will stand me and the boys in good stead.”
Ryan revolutionised sevens in Fiji during his three years at the helm. He led them to Dubai Sevens victory in November 2013 – the first time in the nation’s history they won the Emirates leg – in only his second tournament in charge.
They finished third overall that year but better was to come as they won it in 2014/15 – a first title in nine years and just a second in 16 editions of the Series. They retained their crown last season before confirming their status as kings of the shortened format of the game with gold in Rio.
Cawanibuka is deeply engrained in Fiji sevens, having worked as strength and conditioning coach for the last decade. And he feels his close bond with the squad can ensure the end of Ryan’s reign doesn’t have to mean the glory days are over too.
“It’s a transition phase but nothing much has changed, the only real difference is Ben is not here,” said the 38-year-old. “We’re here to perform and to repeat our success of last year.”
Being the reigning Dubai, Series and Olympic champions certainly ensures a target adorns the players’ backs this weekend, but Cawanibuka insists comforting words from his mentor have prepared him for the journey ahead.
“Ben is always there, lurking in the shadows,” he said. “He’s constantly in touch and taught us a lot in the last three years. I’ve had three years with him which prepared me for this role.”
Challengers are likely to come from all angles. New Zealand won three of the 10 legs last season – the same as Fiji – before coming unstuck in Rio, losing to the champions in the quarter-finals. Legendary coach Sir Gordon Tietjens resigned in the wake of their failure to land gold, Scott Waldrom and Tomasi Cama taking charge for 2016/17.
Australia, Rio Games bronze medalists South Africa and England will be vying for Fiji’s crown while the chasing pack close in.
Kenya, Samoa (now coached by Tietjens) and Scotland won a leg last year, while Argentina and the United States earned top-three finishes, and Japan reached the semifinals in Rio.
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