Dunes, lagoons as Fiji's village boys eye gold
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Fiji has never won Olympic gold but that could change in Rio with a rugby team drawn from the Pacific nation's humble villages which takes the simple approach of training in sand dunes and coral lagoons.
A back-to-basics programme with few resources or staff has taken Fiji to the pinnacle of world Sevens, and could now put them on top of the Olympic podium as rugby ends its 92-year absence from the Games.
Fiji's approach also includes breathalysers and bans on mobile phones at tournaments, while their players will spend as little time as possible at the distraction-laden Rio athletes village.
The ragtag squad includes prison wardens, policemen, navy and army officers and the unemployed who live, usually with their wider families, in Fiji's traditional villages.
Despite this, Fiji have won the last two Sevens World Series and are favourites for gold in Rio - a result which would put the remote Pacific resort nation firmly on the sporting map.
"We've got a team at the moment which is one of the best teams Fiji have ever had. They're current world champions... so this is Fiji's time really," coach Ben Ryan told AFP.
Apart from a few key exceptions, Ryan has largely eschewed Fiji's army of overseas-based players, even ignoring a late bid by Rugby League star-cum-American football hopeful Jarryd Hayne.
It contrasts with rival teams who have tried - and often failed - to integrate XV-a-side stars this year, a transition that requires a huge amount of fitness conditioning to keep up with fast-running Sevens.
"I've always had the idea that going to the Olympics with all these local-based boys that are from the villages might just give us an advantage over all these other teams that are bringing in guys from all over the place," Ryan said, at this year's Hong Kong Sevens.
"Perhaps our culture will be a little bit tighter and hungrier than everyone else."
Fiji's distinctive, free-flowing style has long been admired in Sevens rugby, but they have taken a decisive step forward under Ryan, England's former Sevens coach.
Training sessions are built on Fiji's natural advantages: running up 100-metre (yard) sand dunes, and swimming in natural lagoons formed by coral reefs, all in the Pacific's stamina-building humidity.
"Everything's there - it's simple, but it's all there for us and the natural environment really helps us," Ryan said.
It's an approach that was partly born from necessity, as when Ryan arrived in 2013 Fiji had no sponsors, no facilities, their funding had been stopped by World Rugby and many of their best players had been lured abroad by big contracts.
Three years later, the results are plain to see: increased fitness and a more professional outlook, turning local players who are paid about US$7 000 a year into potential Olympic champions.
Fiji's community has responded by swinging behind the team, whom many will have known since birth and who are still visible presences in their traditional villages.
"We were coming through for this tournament [Hong Kong] and Masivesi Dakuwaqa is airport security, and all the airport staff were so proud that one of their own was getting on a plane," Ryan said.
"It's crazy really that this is happening at the very highest level of world sport, these are potential gold-medallists in the Olympics, yet they're still going back and doing these jobs."
Ryan contrasts Fiji's simple approach with his seven-year stint with England, which he said was so well resourced and staffed that "blind spots" can easily appear.
"Whilst we have disadvantages in not having money... [and] not having resources or large numbers of staff, we can turn that all into an advantage," he said.
"Because we have good players, we have resources that are simple but effective, and the whole programme is based around being a very simple, hard-working programme."
Ryan keeps a tight rein on his players, collecting their phones at tournaments and giving them breathalyser tests to make sure nobody breaks the strict no-alcohol rule.
"We're a bit old-school," he admitted, adding: "But they want all this because they know it's going to help them to get better."
The approach will extend to the Olympic village, where Ryan fears the charms of wifi and fast food, and the presence of some of the biggest names in sport, could take his players' eyes off the ball.
As a consequence, the squad will fly in late and spend just three days in the village before the competition - where they hope to etch their names in Olympic history.
"For a tiny little island in the middle of the Pacific we have some amazingly genetically gifted male and female athletes, and this might be the thing that starts to propel Fijian sport to the next level," said Ryan.