The tragic story of one of rugby's most gifted talents missing out on Olympic glory 2 years ago

The tragic story of one of rugby's most gifted talents missing out on Olympic glory

"When the Australian army came to help, afterwards, they said the place was like a war zone."


Ben Ryan's story about guiding Fiji to gold medal glory at the Rio Olympics, in 2016, is simply incredible and, after his well-received debut, we simply had to invite him back on House of Rugby - JOE's weekly rugby show - to hear more.

Ryan joined James Haskell and host Alex Payne on the latest episode and shared more remarkable tales from his time as Fiji's Sevens coach.

Although he touched on it in his first appearance, Ryan was able to provide greater insight into the cyclone that devastated Fiji just four months before their players, many of whom were caught up in the tragedy, travelled to Rio and won gold.

Cyclone Winston 'was the most intense tropical cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere on record and the second biggest recorded on the planet in the history of mankind. It hit the Fijian islands severely hard, killing 44, injuring hundreds and destroying 40,000 houses.

Ryan recalls that there was six-hours' notice that the cyclone would be making landfall and, in that time, locals would be boarding up windows and chopping down trees near their homes. The army and police called, and oversee, a curfew and both the electricity grid and mobile network went down. Most houses have a 'safe room' with a mattress or two placed against walls and a decent supply of water.

The soccer stadium Govind Park, in Ba as seen on February 22, 2016 in Fiji. (Photo by Feroz Khalil via Getty Images)

A third of the population were rendered homeless by the cyclone and 'some are still living in tents' almost three years on.

The following weekend, Fiji were due to compete in the Las Vegas Sevens so, when the mobile network got back up and running, Ryan sought to reach out to his players and get them back in for training camp.

"All bar one of the boys gets into camp four days later," he remembers. "Some of them didn't know where all of their family where. [Rugby] is like national service [with the army] when you get picked for the team. You've just got to get to training."

The one player that did miss the camp was Pio Tuwai, brother of Toulon's Josua Tuisova and a player known as 'The Offload King'. The veteran Sevens star lost his home in the cyclone and his wife was bravely fighting a losing battle with cancer.

Ryan quickly realised it was futile trying to focus on training, especially as many players had picked up a virus that affected 90% of the population in the days and weeks after the cyclone ripped through the islands.


"I just told them to rest up and sent them to bed. The next day we went around and tried to help the villagers because there's no good in us training when the villagers need all sorts of help and re-building. We did that and then rolled into Vegas... with illness we just about got seven on the pitch for the first game.

"We lost the first game to Samoa and we had to round up the horses. We gathered the boys and had a little chat about home, and went on to win the final."

Months after their Las Vegas triumph, Ryan selected his squad to travel to Rio for the Olympics. Unfortunately, and Ryan calls this his toughest ever decision as a coach, Pio Tuwai was not included.

"To drop him from the Olympics and to be bed-side when his wife was dying from cancer," said Ryan. "For him... he just knocked it all away. He patted it [away], thinking it was alright.


"House destroyed, wife died, two young kids to bring up on his own, no income - he left school when he was 13 and Sevens was his only income ($3,000 a year). But he just wasn't making the grade as we got closer to the Olympics and, eventually, one of the boys came and said, 'You'd had better go see Pio'.

"I went to see him in the dormitory, after training, and he was fitting in the bed. His eyes were rolling back... he looked like he had been possessed. I don't think he had but I think it was his way of saying, 'I have to protect myself here. This is getting a bit too hard'. It all came on top of him.

"He was the most talented rugby player I came across. For his size - 6-foot-5 and 110, 115 kilograms - his ability and his hands were just ridiculous. You only have to go on YouTube and have a look at his offloads. It's just amazing how gifted he was."

Although Tuwai did not make that Fiji squad, which went on to beat England in the Olympic final to claim gold, Ryan does not look upon his career negatively. Instead, he fondly remembers what he did get to achieve for his country.

"We got 25 tournaments out of him during my three years [with Fiji]," he says. "Pio had been dropped before and had never really had a decent run of it. We got him fit, for a period, but all those demons came back, ultimately.


"I didn't have any compunction [in] not picking him as it was either him or someone else that came from [a similarly sparse background]... it is difficult, you care about players but, ultimately, you have to be black and white in how you come around to your decisions."

READ MORE: Military coups, AK47s and gold medals - the remarkable story of how Ben Ryan guided Fiji to Olympic Sevens glory

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Episode 13 sees Alex Payne joined by James Haskell and Ben Ryan to talk about the Premiership threat to break away from the RFU, players that never reached their true potential and more on the Fiji Sevens fairytale.