OPINION: Fijian coach Ben Ryan is using ex-NRL and NFL footballer Jarryd Hayne to motivate his players to Olympic victory in Rio.
Ryan is trying to mask this as a win-win situation.
Hayne is the kind of athlete who just might make a huge contribution with little/no preparation. It has happened before. In 1994 a young Tongan born Kiwi burst onto Hong Kong stadium and became a mega star.
It IS possible.
But what’s way, way more likely is that Hayne’s late introduction to the Fiji squad is about focusing the players who are way more likely to take the field in Rio than he is.
Do Fiji players need it?
Ryan clearly thinks they do.
Prior to his arrival (and even at times during his tenure) discipline has hampered Fiji’s performance at international sevens tournaments.
In the pre-Ryan days they only managed to win 1 World Series. With all their talent, speed, backing up, flair and totally focused 7s culture – that’s all they could manage. A solitary victory in 15 years.
Waisale Serevi was the best player for 10 of those 15 years and he had ample back-up during that time from other legends of the game.
But the best 7s players in the world couldn’t get it together to perform week in and week out on the World Series stage.
What was the problem?
It’s all guess work this far out but talking to Ryan, discipline was the biggest issue when he arrived and it remains a risk.
- Players going walk-about when they were supposed to be at training camps.
- Players turning up late to training.
- Players not arriving fit from their off-season conditioning programme
In the past it has taken Fiji 1-2 events to hit their straps in a World Series season.
Dubai has been the first tournament in the World Series for the bulk of the time it’s been running. Prior to 2013, Fiji’s only victory in Dubai was 1998.
13 years between drinks reflects a lack of preparation.
Another issue has been players not taking responsibility
Recently one player was unable to travel to a World Series event because of a legal issue that he knew about but failed to disclose to team management until the week of departure.
The collective emotion of the team can also be an issue
In the past, teams could upset Fiji. At Wellington in 2015 I watched England execute strategies designed to put Fiji off their stride. Niggly tactics at the breakdown, holding players down in the post-tackle, slightly late hits, a bit of facial here and there.
When you have opposition players upset remonstrating with hand gestures, angrily pointing fingers calling out opponents – you know you’ve got an advantage.
England knocked Fiji out of the Cup with a close fought at times ill-tempered 26-21 quarter final win.
It was not long after this that coach Ryan brought in retired England Forward Chris Cracknell to help his side understand some of the finer points of forward play. His concern was that his players weren’t hardened in the ways of international forward play – the ‘dark arts’ as they are sometimes referred to in 15-a-side rugby. Not that they were saints – far from it. Just that other teams played on the border of the laws in certain situations and Fiji could take advantage of this kind of play as well.
Events at home have also hampered Fiji’s performance in the past. This is a small country of less than 1m people. The rugby 7s fraternity is close-knit.
After an off performance in one event, coach Ryan revealed that one of the players had a death in the family while the team were away.
On the outside Fiji are a fantastic team capable of sublime play. They can make things look so easy as one player glides into a gap, take out 2 defenders and loops a pass to a team mate in full stride.
The full story is that these are at times naive, at times ill-disciplined athletes operating in a largely amateur set-up being asked to excel in a gruelling environment.
Jarryd Hayne is a seasoned professional and a household name in his father’s native land. Ryan will be hoping that some of his discipline and focus will rub off onto his team.
The obvious and not-so-obvious risks
If Hayne is actually selected, then someone misses out – someone who is a great player and who has trained their ass off for the last 2-3 years. Someone who has lived and breathed Fiji Sevens. Someone who has bled for the cause.
“These boys are on $25,000 a year and along comes Jarryd Hayne on his half a million-a-year, or whatever he was on in the NFL, and takes their spot”
But the medium-term issue here is one of perceived loyalty.
Ben Ryan has been very vocal about what he sees as the poaching of Fijian 7s players by other codes and other countries.
What message is he sending by inviting the mere presence of Hayne?
He’s saying that despite how loyal you are to Fiji, there could be a player with no time or history in our country or code who could take your position.
That’s a very risky message to send to players who are barely getting enough money to live on.
And that could very well motivate even more 7s players to take up offers away from Fiji.
Consider Guinness Pro12 Player of the Season Bundee Aki.
He chose to leave New Zealand for Cannacht in the wake of Sonny Bill Williams heralded return from a year playing rugby league again. Williams had been in the All Blacks the previous season but chose to return to rugby league in Australia for 1 year.
He then chose to come back to New Zealand in World Cup year before joining the 7s squad preparing for the Olympics.
At the time All Black coach Steve Hansen moaned about players not valuing the All Black jersey, preferring to chase bigger money rather than represent their country.
Players here have a dream of playing for the All Blacks and then they suddenly give it up when an easier option comes along.
It’s not their dream but they decide to go for it and I think we need players with a bit more mental fortitude: a bit more of a constitution to dig in harder and fight for the dream they really want.
But it was Hansen who did that by offering Williams the All Black spot effectively shoving aside other players who did value the jersey – who had been loyal to New Zealand’s rugby causes their entire life.
Aki hadn’t represented New Zealand. But Canterbury and Crusader’s midfielder Ryan Crotty had.
Crotty player high school and rep rugby in Christchurch before joining the Crusaders. He made the New Zealand Secondary Schools and Under 20 teams.
He has captained Canterbury and the Crusaders and has been part of All Black squads in the last 3 years.
He would have considerable value on the international market. But he chose to stay and compete for a place in the All Blacks only to be overlooked for a guy who had pretty much already stated he was only going to be in town for one more year (before trying for Olympic success in 7s).
Aki heard the message loud and clear.
It remains to be seen whether Fijian 7s players hear the same message from coach Ryan.