Las Vegas Sevens: Fiji's 'celebrity' coach Ben Ryan relishes pressure in paradise

Story highlights

  • Ben Ryan has star status in Fiji
  • Rugby coach is often mobbed in public
  • Island nation is devoted to sevens game
  • Aiming to win first Olympic medal

(CNN)Being the coach of Fiji's rugby sevens team can be both a blessing and a curse.

The Englishman at the helm, Ben Ryan, has already been told by the country's prime minister that only gold will suffice at this year's Olympics -- which would be Fiji's first medal in any sport.
    Such is the focus on his role, Ryan has given up going out for dinner with his wife Natalie because he gets mobbed wherever he goes.
    But at the same time, his role as coach of one of the world's sevens superpowers -- in Fiji the national sport verges on a religion -- has also helped him get let off by the police for speeding.
    "I know there are some former head coaches who have had their houses stoned," Ryan told CNN ahead of this weekend's USA Sevens in Las Vegas, where Fiji will defend its tournament title.
    "And I've had the prime minister tell me I have no choice but to win gold. I've got two options after the Games: Either we win and I come back to share in the celebrations, or else I'm going straight back to the UK," he laughs. Then, after a pause, he adds: "And I'm not joking!"
    With his bright-red hair and pale complexion, Ryan stands out in the Pacific Islands -- a night out will often be checkered by 50-plus people asking for a photo.
    But Ryan is far from ungrateful; he says the flamboyant Fijian approach to the game has revived his love for the oval ball since taking the job in 2013.
    Previously coach of rival England, he had grown increasingly disillusioned, though he still cannot talk about it due to the confidentiality agreement he signed.
    "I was put under pressure by people in the office, my bosses, in my last year," the 44-year-old explains. "It wasn't a nice environment.
    "There's far greater pressure in this job because of the expectation, but I don't mind that. I fell out of love with rugby before, and Fiji has given me the love back."
    Ryan paints a picture of an idyllic existence, with his home next to a lagoon, a golf course and a five-star resort.
    On the relatively short drive from his office in the capital Suva, he will pass at least 25 different sevens games going on -- contested by young and old -- and he will be cheered along the way.
    "It's funny, people shout out your name," he says, "and I even remember a time a policeman pulled me over for speeding and then actually apologized.
    "I don't really go out anymore as you get mobbed, and you can't hide with my ginger hair. Friends who've come over to visit genuinely think I've staged it -- it's that unbelievable.
    "I understand a little bit what it's like for a celebrity, and I'd prefer to keep out of the limelight, but I love the job."
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    The Fijian public's mutual affection partly stems from Ryan's early days in the job, when he went unpaid for four months. It's money he has still not received, and he knows he never will.
    "I would never have come out with that story but it got leaked and I think it actually helped in two ways," he says. "I think people realized this wasn't some foreigner just coming over for the cash, and the second part was that I was then paid by the government -- the first sevens coach in Fiji to have that."
    As a de facto government official now, Ryan is fully aware of Fijians' expectations as sevens makes its Olympic debut in Rio in August.
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    Growing up in southwest London, his first Olympic memories were of the 1980 Moscow Games, and his sporting idols are track and field athletes rather than rugby players.
    "I loved people like Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Daley Thompson, those were my heroes," he says.
    Ryan is not the first member of his family to go to the Olympics -- his father Dennis, who competed in javelin throwing, was a traveling reserve for the 1948 and 1952 Games.
    Sadly, his father is no longer alive to see his son's potential crowning glory, but an 85-year-old friend of his recently rang from Ireland to say how proud his dad would have been.
    Fiji has won the Rugby World Cup Sevens title twice, and is the defending Sevens World Series champion after winning it for the second time in 2014-15.
    The team is tied on points at the top of this season's standings after four rounds, but Ryan says he would happily finish 15th if his players can claim that coveted Olympic crown.
    "It is all about the gold," he says.
    The pressure is on, with rival nations such as New Zealand and Australia adding star men from the 15-a-side game in Sonny Bill Williams and Quade Cooper respectively.
    "I love that aspect," Ryan says. "I remember playing the sevens event in London with only 9,000 watching -- now the sport's getting on the front pages of the papers, it's increasingly across the sports pages and it's a superb advert for all rugby, not just sevens."
    To win gold would be the ultimate end to his contract in Fiji, where he has relished the simple life.
    Returning to London becomes increasingly difficult, he says, "when just 300 yards from where we live in Fiji there are people living with very little. It's very humbling."
    And Ryan knows he has the chance to give them a golden ending to the sevens season.
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