Fijians breathe rugby, it's in our DNA, it's in the air....it's everywhere. Fiji is rugby country, THE END!
So you can imagine every man, woman, child, animals and probably spiritual beings coming to a standstill in Fiji on the day of the Olympic Gold medal finals against Great Britain. To say that the country collectively lost their shit when our boys won that final is an epic understatement. We lost our shit and then some. Fiji is a country deeply rooted in culture, we are descendants of some of the fiercest warriors in the Pacific so it's safe to say our gold medalists are our Fijian warriors doing battle on the rugby field. In Fiji it transcends race, sex, color and to be quite honest its the glue Fiji needs to keep us together to push through the hard times.
And in my opinion, that glue came down to having the right man who is Ben Ryan mix the right ingredients such as understanding our culture, understanding the psyche of what makes our boys tick and tapping into resources such as Osea Kolinisau, Rob Kauvesi, Naca Cawanibuka and Chris Cracknell to name a few cause I'm sure there are entities in the community who helped pave the way to gold. 'It takes a village' and no words are truer in this instance. (We may or may not have stalked Chris on Twitter and tried to sell our friend Angie Lal as good wife material because of her roti making sills)
Fast forward to 2017 after the boys have settled back into their lives post gold medal glory and Ben Ryan has officially been made a 'Ratu' or chief by the people of Serua and gifted 1.2 acres of land in Vunibau. (See what I mean, we go cray-cray when we win)
I managed to score tickets to 'Osea's Testimonial' dinner thanks to Bruce and Bianca Southwick of ZoomFiji and my girl Angie Lal from Fiji Airways. I was Shane Hussein for the night, (KAILA). Bruce was the man who had unprecedented access to the team throughout the gold medal journey which led to the 17 minute documentary 'Sevens from Heaven' that brought me to tears because it literally captured Fiji's soul at the point in time.
I heard Ben Ryan was going to be there, along with key players from the team, so I was ready to go with my camera in tow. When we finally made it to the table and took our seats, I was sipping on my glass of champagne and enjoying Talei and Nem's performing 'Slow Hand' when Ben Ryan took the seat next to me (and cue Neisau choking on her champagne discreetly as Angie naturally turns to him and says 'Ben, Bula' like they're long lost buddies, showoff) At this point in time I'm chanting to myself 'Be cool Neis, be cool' don't ask for a selfie straight away, give it an hour')
Me trying to act cool with Ben Ryan, big shout out to Masada Vuikadavu for all the fantastic shots
Also seated at the table was Apakuki Saisai who was the star Fijian fan in the documentary. The elderly gentleman is beaming with pride as he takes his seat beside Ben and starts up a conversation. It's an intimate affair and I couldn't wait to hear Osea and Ben share their stories.
Bruce Southwick is the man steering the conversation that night with his hand scribbled notes, he gets Osea, Ben and Rob Kauvesi to open up with little stories about the boys during the lead up to Rio. It's evident that there is a mutual respect, affection and bond that runs deep between Ben and Osea and it shines through when Ben shares with us that he was told to stay away from Osea during selection because he was a 'troublemaker'. Obviously Ben's answer was a 'stuff that'.
I've never seen Osea talk in public, he has a stereotypical Fijian male manner about him that listens and silently gauges the surrounding and conversation. But when he speaks, it's a man who has seen many seasons of rugby, the politics of it, hardship and endured to tell the tale. Osea speaks to us about his crossroads while studying at university in his first year, he skipped classes and exams to train and try out for the Suva team, the consequence was his parents getting notification of his absence and his Dad having a frank talk with him about what he wanted to do? Osea told him it was rugby so his Dad let him drop school and pursue rugby but he pushed Osea with early morning trainings and grueling workouts. Osea tells the room that it was the push he needed to give it his all.
Me and the man of the hour, Osea! (Picture by Masada Vuikadavu)
When Ben takes the stage, it's the most endearing thing to hear him tell his story with Fijian words he's picked up. For instance during camp they gradually took away sugar from the team's diet and it was not pretty. From the boy's knocking on Ben's door at night to ask for a small bar of chocolate to speaking to the staff at Uprising Resort where they camped to hide sugar, to speaking to the gas attendants next the resort to keep a lookout for the boys should they come looking for a sugar fix.
"I had to have a talanoa with the guys at the gas station so if the boys took a little taubale to the shop and tried to buy a little jokalati, we'd know" said Ryan.
We are also treated to unseen footage from the 'Sevens from Heaven' documentary, emotional to watch was the naming of the Rio squad. Ben tells the team 'When each of you is ready to find out your fate, come and see me in my room' those that didn't make it, I could feel my heart breaking as we saw players being told their dreams to Rio were at the end. But the brotherhood between players is evident as they console and congratulate.
Intriguingly Bruce asks Ben and Rob to share the story of how they both ended up in a hotel room in nothing but their underwear, Ben a small English man and Rob a great big hulking Fijian, naturally the whole room perks up to hear the story but Ben coyly answers with 'You'll have to wait for my book to come out'. Disappointment all around the room. Gotta give Ben kudo's for diplomatically averting some hot topic questions during the Q&A session with the audience. Most of which were about FRU and the poaching of Pacific Island players to name a few. (It was late and the alcohol was flowing)
I had heard that this was a fundraiser for Oscar to set him up as he starts his married life. At first I was taken aback and thought 'Huh really' but then gave myself a mental slap up the backside of my head. These boys have an expiry date on their 'gold medal' fame, and if I were in their shoes I'd be taking every opportunity to make lucrative deals. Look at gold medalists around the world they are sitting pretty because they have good agents and managers working out those deals for them, the same can't be said for our boys, unless I'm missing something. I see Jerry Tuwai is now Vodafone's face, I hope he's got a good deal there. Anywhooo good luck to him and Tavu they're getting married next week!
It was a fantastic night, wonderful company, amazing food and bloody awesome rugby stories! One year on and we're still celebrating.