To understand how Fiji became the first-ever Olympic rugby sevens champions you have to go back to when Ben Ryan was first appointed as head coach in 2013.
Ryan, the former England Sevens head coach, inherited a wonderfully talented bunch of players that had not delivered on their potential as a group.
In his best-selling book, Sevens Heaven, Ryan describes how he marvelled at the skills and physiques of players who had “a conjurer’s sleight of hand on a bulldozer’s chassis.”
But discipline, defence and fitness were identified by Ryan as key work-ons and he set about making them fitter and faster.
Ryan also ignored the opinion of others and selected Osea Kolinisau as his captain in what proved to be an inspired move.
@RugbyFJI_ We loved having Ben Ryan on the show this week to explain rugby to #Olympics fans -- looking forward to discussing his book and watching Fiji defend their 🥇 at #Tokyo2020! https://t.co/tas6yJeRt5— Keep the Flame Alive (@flamealivepod) June 18, 2021
“I realised it would be madness to try and change the way they played, but I realised too, that if I could add a framework, to make them consistently brilliant rather than intermittently outstanding, and they got fitter and faster, and I put in selection strategies that weren’t just based on who you knew and which province you came from, as rumours said they were, I could make a difference,” Ryan wrote.
And what a difference he made. With back-to-back World Rugby Sevens Series titles in the bag in 2015 and 2016, Ryan’s methods had paid off and Fiji entered the Olympic Games as top seeds.
Fiji and the two other favourites, South Africa and New Zealand, avoided each other in the draw for the Olympics in 2016, with the Pacific Islanders paired instead in Pool A with three teams from the Americas – USA, Argentina and hosts Brazil.
USA and Argentina, who achieved sixth and fifth place on the Series, were more than capable of making a big impression on the tournament but it was Brazil who provided Fiji with their first opposition.
Fiji 40-12 Brazil
Brazil delighted the home fans inside the Deodoro Stadium by scoring first and they were by no means out of it at half-time. However, Fiji turned on the style in the second half and Jasa Veremalua and Josua Tuisova helped themselves to a brace of tries apiece.
Fiji 21-14 Argentina
Tuisova doubled his tally from the first game and Kitione Taliga also scored twice in a game that was on a knife-edge throughout.
Argentina’s physicality caused Fiji problems and Los Pumas Sevens led 14-7 with less than four minutes remaining. But Taliga’s late double – the second after a brilliant offload from Tuisova – ensured Fiji came through the severest of tests.
Fiji 24-19 USA
Again, Fiji conceded first with Danny Barrett giving Mike Friday’s side a 7-0 lead, but tries from Kolinisau and Vatemo Ravouvou meant Fiji went into the half-time break holding a 12-7 advantage.
The Men’s Sevens Eagles cashed in when Kolinisau was sin-binned to take the lead for the second time but Viliame Mata and Semi Kunatani responded to put the Islanders ahead again.
NFL Super Bowl winner Nate Ebner charged down the wing to cut the deficit to five points, but Fiji held on to get the result they needed.
Fiji 12-7 New Zealand
The two heavyweights of rugby sevens came together for the first time on the Olympic stage and Fiji’s ability to come from behind served them well again.
Despite the wet conditions, Fiji stayed true to their attacking philosophy – they know no other way – and at times it was to their undoing.
Kolinisau gave the Series champions the lead, only for Gillies Kaka to regather his own chip to score a converted try that put New Zealand 7-5 up at the break.
Fiji dominated possession but the only score of the second half came as a result of some dazzling footwork from Jerry Tuwai.
Fiji 20-5 Japan
As conquerors of New Zealand in the pool stage, Japan had already taken one scalp but could they take another?
Ravouvou scored with the game only 69 seconds old to give Fiji the lead but he then blotted his copybook by being sent to the sin-bin. Japan made the most of their man advantage with Teruya Goto powering over to tie the scores at 5-5. Then an acrobatic dive from the sensational Tuisova ensured Fiji turned around 10-5 in front.
Some sublime offloading lit up the second half and tries from Kunatani and Tuwai, the latter coming while Lomano Lemeki was in the sin-bin for Japan, secured victory.
Gold medal match
Fiji 43-7 Great Britain
Despite the enormity of the occasion and the prize at stake, Fiji were able to play at their very best and brush Team GB aside.
Fiji produced a rugby sevens masterclass to run in seven tries and live up to their billing as pre-tournament favourites.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was among the capacity crowd of 10,000 to witness the onslaught of attacking rugby which began with captain Kolinisau crossing early on.
Tuwai, Veremalua, Leone Nakarawa, Ravouvou, Tuisova and Viliame Mata followed him onto the scoresheet with chants of ‘Fiji, Fiji, Fiji’ ringing out around the Deodoro Stadium.
Dan Norton ensured there would be no whitewash for Team GB, but Fiji were in complete control from the first whistle to the last.
Having brought Team GB to their knees, Fiji sank to theirs as they humbly received the gold medal – Fiji’s first-ever Olympic medal – from Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne.
What a journey!