3 Sep 2016

Ryan departs Fiji after a whale of a time

6:16 am on 3 September 2016

Chasing a woman across a field to secure a sacred whale's tooth was probably not in Ben Ryan's plans in his last days in Fiji but it was another unforgettable moment for the Englishman who coached the Pacific nation's rugby sevens team to Olympic gold in Rio.

Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan.

Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Ryan enjoyed a hero's welcome across the length and breadth of the country, feted at a number of official and unofficial events since his team won Fiji its first ever Olympic medal with a 43-7 thrashing of Britain in the final.

It reached a high point on Monday when Ryan was given a three-acre parcel of land and was named a chief in Serua province where he has lived for the past three years.

"They had a meeting of the chiefs and they decided to add me to their family, so now my official name is Peni Raiyani Laitinara which is a chiefly name in Serua," the 44-year-old Londoner told Reuters in a phone interview from Sydney.

"They put on the full ceremony for me and presented me with a whale's tooth and went through the official handover with giving me the land, I felt very honoured.

"When you get to where the ceremony is, the women of the village are there and one of them has the whale's tooth. She runs away from you and you have to chase her and grab her.

"Once you've grabbed her the whale's tooth is passed over to you. That was quite funny and surreal as I jumped out of the car and chased all these women down a field."

Having finished his contract with Fiji, the former England sevens coach is returning to Europe for a holiday and will explore a number of avenues to get back into 15-man rugby.

A number of his gold medal-winning players have already signed deals with top European clubs and Ryan has also had interest from Super Rugby franchises in the southern hemisphere.

With red hair and a fair complexion, Ryan was easily recognisable in the Pacific nation but he was surprised to be greeted by several hundred Fijians at the arrivals hall of Sydney airport on Friday.

Australia, like New Zealand and Europe's rugby powers, has benefited enormously from Fijian talent at the expense of the country's domestic game.

Fiji's national team, meanwhile, rarely gets to play the world's top nations outside of the quadrennial World Cups.

The sevens' triumph in Rio will be a boost for Fiji's aspirations in the 15-man game but the country still faces an impossible task to stop the talent drain to the world's richest competitions.

Small steps are afoot, however, to bring the talent closer to home.

The Australian Rugby Union is in advanced negotiations with its Fijian counterparts to enter a team in Australia's second-string National Rugby Championship by next season.

The all-Fijian team would be based in the island nation but fly to Australia for games where it would likely be well-supported by the sizeable Fijian communities in Sydney and other cities.

"Clearly they've got the sevens space well and truly tied up and they want to see their 15's performance also enhanced," Ben Whitaker, the ARU's general manager of High Performance, told Reuters.

"They're looking at ways they can improve that."

In the sevens space, Fiji will now look to find another coach with the golden touch.

Ryan said talent abounds but expertise remains thin on the ground in Fiji, where coaches have traditionally adopted roles as mentors or spiritual guides but have yet to truly embrace science, metrics and technology in their work.

"Whoever takes on the role also needs to be patient," added Ryan. "These boys are awesome but you don't get much time with them."