Ben Ryan: Can Fiji’s hero change France’s fortunes?

Published 6:10 AM EST, Wed January 31, 2018
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Story highlights

Ben Ryan hired as France's consultant coach

The Briton led Fiji to its first Olympic medal in 2016

Hailed as a "superstar" by French players

CNN —  

He’s the man hailed as a hero in Fiji – the man whose face appears on national currency; who possesses an honorary title and a three-acre plot of land. But today, Ben Ryan is trying to transform another nation’s rugby fortunes.

After guiding the Pacific island nation to its first ever Olympic medal – rugby sevens gold at Rio 2016 – Ryan has returned to the touchline as a consultant coach with France.

A long-established heavyweight of the fifteen-a-side game, when it comes to sevens the French have some catching up to do. Since 1999, Les Bleus haven’t finished above seventh in the World Series with just one tournament victory in that time.

“There’s no tradition of seven-a-side in France, they almost have a blank page where they’re trying to create a new culture of the game,” Ryan tells CNN World Rugby at a recent training camp in Marrakech.

“Right now, they’re knocking on the door of eighth, ninth in the world. They want to be a lot higher than that. They want to be consistent.”

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’He’s a superstar’

After the Rio Olympics, Ryan suddenly found himself propelled into the public eye and inundated with demands for his time.

He met with investors about the possibility of turning his journey with Fiji into a Hollywood film; he attracted the interest of NBA franchise New York Knicks, and discovered, to his surprise, that he had become the most followed sports coach in China.

But as far as rugby sevens goes, France has called upon the right man. Ryan boasts arguably the best CV in the game.

After coaching England for six years, he took Fiji to another level. On top of Olympic glory, the Pacific island nation won back-to-back World Series titles in 2015 and 2016. It’s this pedigree that is motivating France’s players.

“I suppose when the players see someone who has had success at world, Olympic and continental level telling them that they’re good players and that they’ve done something well … that’s going to help them feel good about themselves,” says Ryan.

“Perhaps I can give them a slightly different set of eyes on how the game could be played … I’ve given a few tips for them, some encouragement.”

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As far as the players are concerned, even as Ryan watches from the side of a training ground, his aura inspires.

“He knows everything about the game of sevens,” says Pierre-Gilles Lakafia, a relative veteran of the French side with 118 matches under his belt.

“Just the fact that he’s here is a big thing for us. He’s a superstar, everybody knows him, everybody recognizes what he does.”

Rediscovering France’s ’élan’

Over the past 50 years, France has for long periods been the dominant force in the European 15-a-side game.

But having recently fallen upon testing times, Ryan believes it is through the free-flowing, razzle-dazzle of sevens that France could rediscover its former glory.

“The French [fifteen-a-side] team of the 1980s played with this élan, this French spirit – that was really beautiful to watch,” he says

“It’s disappeared from French rugby in the last 20 years, probably with professionalism, and if it’s going to return it’s going to return through these guys.

“Every opportunity to play a game that’s based on flare, and skill, and individual decisions – that would be amazing if we can get them to play like that. That’s something perhaps the whole of French rugby has moved away from.”

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Playing with flare is one thing. But Ryan’s coaching philosophy goes beyond side-stepping and ball-handling. How you treat players off the field, he says, is instrumental in dictating how they perform on it.

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“If you get the best out the people you’re working with then you’re going to get good results,” he explains.

“To make sure that everyone feels they can say what they want and that they have a purpose … that I make them feel valued, that you treat people nicely.

“Certainly within Fiji – the three years I had in Fiji – showed you can be absolutely ruthless on the field and win world titles and Olympic gold medals but you can also be very nice to people.”

It’s a s