Ben Gollings had some big shoes to fill when he followed in the footsteps of Ben Ryan and Gareth Baber as coach of the Fiji men’s sevens team in December 2021.
Both had become heroes in their adopted nation for leading the team to Olympic glory in 2016 and 2021, respectively.
England legend Gollings came into the job with a virtually untouchable playing CV but in international coaching terms, he was still largely untested having had spells with two non-core HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series teams, China and Singapore.
Winning his first tournament in charge, in Singapore in April, was one way of winning over any doubters but privately Gollings would have known that anything less than a gold medal at either the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham or at Rugby World Cup Sevens or both, would be deemed a big disappointment by the rugby-mad island population.
Fiji fell just short in the former, losing 31-7 to a rampant Blitzboks team, but came good in Cape Town to beat New Zealand 29-12 and deliver their first Rugby World Cup Sevens gold medal since 2005, and their first ever outside of Hong Kong.
A BIG YEAR
“Obviously, I knew it was a big year coming in. We had two main objectives – Commonwealth Games and World Cup – and we fell just short with the Commonwealth Games. But we knew what we had left in the tank and the ability to win this tournament and for the team, it’s been brilliant because it is 17 years since Fiji last won it. It is huge for Fiji,” he said.
“These boys have been fantastic this whole week. They set themselves a goal and they came and finished the job this evening, and it was just incredible.
“For us, it was about managing these very long days and the players did that brilliantly,” he added. It is not easy spending the whole day getting ready for 14 minutes of rugby, so that was a huge positive for us.
“And the balance within the team was positive. We had the ability to put any seven out on the field and we knew they would do what they needed to do.
“They’ve worked hard, and they deserve everything they have done today.”
Gollings, the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series’ all-time top points-scorer (2,652), was visibly emotional after the final whistle in Cape Town.
“It was a tear of joy, a tear of being proud, I know how much this means to the players, the nation, Fiji, rugby, and to be standing on the side-line and witnessing it and being a part of it was very emotional but a big joy as well.
“It’s a blessing to get to work with the people I work with,” he continued. “They are a great group and incredibly talented and it is all about managing them and bringing them together and letting them enjoy themselves and play the game they love. It has been a whirlwind and it will take a little while for it to sink in.”
With 19 tries, Fiji finished Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 as top try-scorers as they stayed true to their traditions of running rugby and keeping the ball alive at every opportunity.
But Gollings says it was their defence more than anything that enabled them to deliver the medal that had been missing from their honours’ roster for too long.
Fiji stormed into a 24-5 half-time lead in the final but second-half yellow cards to Joseva Talacolo and Sevuloni Mocenacagi made the result anything but a formality until Pilipo Bukayaro added a fifth try at the death.
“The attack looks after itself but defensively, that’s what took it away against Samoa, against Australia earlier, and against New Zealand in the final.
“It is one thing we have been working on – it is part technical and part tactical, but it is also down to hard work and guts, and the players showed that.
“Everyone knows us for our attacking game – we can score tries but you’ve also got to stop them and there were huge defensive performances. It was our defence that really came to the fore for us.
“To keep it try-less during that period was fantastic. We knew we had to keep them to nil in that second half to keep our lead where we needed it to be, and they ran themselves into the ground. They were awesome.”
Following Fiji’s Olympic successes, the players and coaches were feted for their achievements and honoured with currency and land named after them.
NO TIME TO REST
No doubt the class of 2022 will also get the same star treatment, but Gollings knows that this is only the beginning, and there is no time to stand still.
“It is an opportunity now for us to build with a new group of players. As a team they have been known as the Olympic champions, and now we can add this World Cup.
“For us, it’s three weeks, three deserved weeks, off after a pretty intense period of tournament and travel but it is really not that long because in October we start again.
“We go to Japan and play a game there for the Olympic legacy and about 10 days after that we are in Hong Kong for the Hong Sevens and the start of the new season so there is not much rest for us.”