3 Aug 2021

Players keen to join Fijiana 7s following Olympic success

3:39 pm on 3 August 2021

The coach of the Fiji women's sevens team has been inundated with messages and phone calls from prospective players since their bronze medal win at the Tokyo Olympics.

The Fiji women's rugby sevens team won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

The Fiji women's rugby sevens team won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Fijiana defeated Great Britain on Saturday night to win the team's first ever Olympic medal.

Coach Saiasi Fuli said women's rugby is not played at primary or secondary school level in Fiji and some of his players have only took up the sport two years ago.

But their success in Tokyo is proving to be the perfect recruitment tool.

"Straight after that bronze medal win I had hundreds of calls from girls in Fiji and Fijians overseas wanting to come and join the Fijiana," he said from Tokyo.

"That is the positive impact of this Olympic tournament and it motivates and encourages young girls in Fiji to take up the sport of rugby sevens and increase the number of women's participation in Fiji."

Participation levels remained a problem in the women's game, with most choosing to play netball, athletics or basketball, Fuli said.

"60 to 70 percent of our efforts, our coaching staff, is just focusing on core skills," he said.

"These girls they don't play rugby from primary schools, secondary schools, until the organised sevens tournaments in Fiji, so that's not a very well organised competition. Last year Fiji Rugby Union introduced the first ever Skipper Cup (domestic) competition. It's a male-dominated sport in Fiji."

The inaugural Fiji Rugby Super 7s Series was held earlier this year to provide competitive matches for the Fijian players in the absence of international competition.

16 men's teams took part in three two-day tournaments, but Fuli said they struggled to find enough players to field just four teams in the women's competition.

"That four women's teams: two is from our sevens team and the other two is the squad of the (Fijiana) 15s," he said.

"Straight after the first tournament I said that we can't compete at the Olympics just playing with each other and those opposition are just the 15s squad, and to make it it worse is the other women's club pulled out of the sevens series and we had no competition again."

The Fijiana 7s will also don the new Nike kit.

The Fijiana 7s don't have a huge pool of players to pick from. Photo: Fiji Rugby

Fuli said he ended up having to invite four men's teams to play against the Fijiana squad in training every Wednesday and provide them with lunch and recovery, to ensure his players were being tested in their Olympic build-up.

The Fiji Rugby Union has been making inroads in developing the women's game, through initiative such as the Get Into Rugby programme, community outreach and the introduction of more club and provincial competitions.

Fuli said there was about one thousand women playing rugby in Fiji but many of them only take up the sport for the first time in their mid 20s. He said if the Fijiana are to compete with Australia and New Zealand on a consistent basis, young girls need to be exposed to the game at a younger age.

"Some of these players I ID them from our secondary school athletic championship. Reapi Ulunisau, the one who top-scored with eight tries (in Tokyo)...she was playing netball all her life," he said.

"That is another challenge, trying to look for the right profile, the right player, to come into our squad and develop them and train them and prepare them for high performance rugby and international competition."

The Fijiana revolution

A change in culture, fresh new talent and a determination to put a smile on the faces of people struggling back at home inspired the Fiji women to their Olympic success.

The Fijiana came of age in Tokyo, beating 2016 bronze medallists Canada in pool play, Rio gold medallists Australia in the quarter finals and taking eventual winners New Zealand to extra time in the semis.

The Fijiana 7s forced New Zealand into extra time in their Olympic semi final.

The Fijiana 7s forced New Zealand into extra time in their Olympic semi final. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

But little more than two years ago they narrowly avoided being relegated from the Women's World Sevens Series.

Saiasi Fuli was put in charge of the Fijiana 7s halfway through the 2018/19 season, following a stint as Gareth Baber's assistant coach with the men's team, and said it was immediately clear that a major overhaul was required on and off the field.

"I changed everything. I changed my trainer, I changed my coaching staff and also I changed the squad so I had to start new by going around the schools and going go to these social sevens competitions for womens to try to ID the potential players I need to have with me, because the next tournament after Biarritz was the Pacific Games, two months after Biarritz.

"And quick turnaround we beat Australia in the Pacific Games and we won the gold medal in 2019. That's in October and then in November I qualifed the team again for the Olympics during the Oceania Sevens in Suva."

Fijiana sevens coach Saiasi Fuli watches on during training.

Fijiana sevens coach Saiasi Fuli watches on during training. Photo: Fiji Rugby

Fuli said he changed the culture of the team, introducing the same strict training and diet regime that was in place in the men's squad.

"No carbs, no sugar, no milk - everything - then no phones," he said.

"We only give them their phones during the weekends and just one cheat meal a week, and then we continue the cycle, we set the program and then we set our goal which is the Olympics."

Saiasi Fuli said the team always believed they could medal in Tokyo and actually arrived in Japan aiming for gold.

He said the health crisis in Fiji gave the squad added motivation to perform for those doing it tough back at home, with many in the team directly affected.

"Even myself as a coach I lost three family members for the past two weeks and it's quite tough for me. We has six or seven of our girls that had close relatives who passed on the past two weeks," he said.

"We are a religious country. We always do our devotion in the morning and in the afternoon and continue to pray for each other, pray for our families, pray for our country and that daily programme is the key of motivating our girls that let's do this for Fiji, let's put a smile on every Fijian even though they are going through a tough situation."

Despite finishing their competition at the weekend, the Fijiana players aren't resting on their laurels and have been fitting in extra gym sessions in Tokyo without the coach's knowledge.

The team will fly home next Tuesday and spend 14 days in quarantine before being reunited with friends and family they haven't seen since April.

"Right now we are going into our 15th week together as a family, as a team. That means that we haven't seen our families for 15 weeks and to win the bronze and stand on the podium it's a big achievement and for them individually, for their families it's quite a massive achievement."