Had things gone according to plan, Ben Gollings would have been in Spain this month making his debut as Fiji men’s coach on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Instead, he was back with his family – and newborn son, Ethan – in Queensland, Australia last weekend as South Africa continued their dominant start to the 2022 Series in Malaga.
Gollings had travelled to Fiji earlier in January, 24 hours after his third child was born, but oversaw only one gym workout and a further training session in person before an outbreak of COVID-19 forced the squad into lockdown and ultimately led to their withdrawal from the tournaments in both Malaga and Seville.
Former England star Gollings, the Series’ all-time leading points scorer, was able to start building relationships remotely, however, and is keeping upbeat as he bids to maintain the double Olympic champions’ proud record with a new-look squad.
“We connected every day as a squad for online training and meetings, which was really good,” he told World Rugby.
“It would have been nice to have had face-to-face [meetings] early on, but we made the most of it.
“I got to know some of the players and just started to learn where their heads were at and some ambitions post-Olympics and where they want to go.
“So, that was a positive out of all of it.”
Putting the puzzle together
Only three members of the squad Gollings had picked for Malaga and Seville – Jerry Tuwai, Waisea Nacuqu and Josua Vakurinabili – remain from the team that won gold in Tokyo.
Of those, Tuwai, who missed the opening two rounds of the 2022 Series in Dubai to get married, is the sole two-time Olympic champion.
Gollings has no concerns about the ability of the young players coming into the squad, though, as he starts a three-year contract it is hoped will end with a third Olympic title.
“The beauty with Fiji is, it's been highlighted in the past, they've got an abundance of talent but it's also getting them used to the level of the game at the World Series level,” Gollings said.
“When you blood 11 new players, which I think the stat was 90 per cent of them had not even travelled out of the country [prior to Dubai], it's quite a daunting prospect for those players.
“So, on the one hand, I think there's some fantastic players to work with, but it is about giving them that experience and that feeling of what it's like to play at that level so that they can match and adapt their skill sets and the pace of the game to their understanding.
“From what I've seen of the squad, there's some great players coming through, a couple of young under-20s players have already shown themselves a little bit.
“And I think the nice thing is we've got a good mix then of some of the senior players… in terms of being able to provide their experience and knowledge to bring these players through.”
He added: “They know how to play rugby. It's really giving them the other pieces of the puzzle to create that consistency and really step it up to the next level.”
Creating a new path
Gollings has spoken to predecessor Gareth Baber since being appointed, while he has also read Ben Ryan’s book ‘Sevens Heaven’ and has a network of Fijian friends – including Waisale Serevi – to call on from his playing days.
If he is to maintain the country’s phenomenal success in sevens, he knows it will be crucial to create an environment in which the senior squad members are united with the new players and coaching staff in their goals and ambitions.
“A big part is really understanding the players and setting us on a new direction and understanding that, you know, dual Olympic medallists is huge, but what does it look like now for this next squad,” Gollings said.
“We want to match the same success, but we've got to map that out and that will be slightly different.
“But I think once we align ourselves there, and that's through new players coming in, to myself as a new coach coming in, to players that have got two gold medals, aligning that all up so that we're all motivated and energised towards that goal will be a real key part.
“So, that's going to be one of my big focuses outside of really harnessing the skill sets of the players and the culture of Fiji.”
Ultimately, Gollings is determined to lead Fiji to a third gold medal at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, but he is mindful he needs to create a pathway that helps maintain the team’s competitiveness while developing players and coaches both for the Series and, potentially, Super Rugby with the Fijian Drua.
Time is not something he has on his side though, as he takes on the job in a momentous year for sevens in which Fiji will compete at the Commonwealth Games and Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022, as well as on the Series.
“In one sense, it's great to come into a season where you're straight out the blocks and performance is key, specifically with those two big tournaments,” Gollings said.
“At the same time, it does add pressure. You know, certainly with Fiji, there's always an expectation to want to win and they've been proven to win the big tournaments.
“So, you know, our focus will be really on knuckling down and looking at our preparation with those two tournaments in mind as well as the Series.”