The Fiji men’s team was the favorite to win gold when rugby sevens made their Olympic debut in 2016.
TOKYO – Jerry Tuwai and his Fiji teammate prepare for a five-day training camp to defend their Olympic rugby sevens title on Monday in May. By Friday of that week, it was clear that they would not be able to see their families closely for several months.
No hugs, no big farewells. With coronavirus cases rising in the Pacific island nation, there was no way to risk Fiji’s most prized sporting asset.
They have been in touch with the bio-secure bubble in Fiji, then via calls and video conferencing in Australia and Japan, to regularly streaming religious services with extended families.
The song aims to reunite on Wednesday in Tokyo to celebrate another Olympic gold.
“The calculation is that by the time we get back from the Olympics, it will have been 18 weeks since they’ve seen their families,” Fiji coach Gareth Babar said. “I know other teams have done this. I know other people around the world have had similar experiences. We never wrapped it up as something that caused us any difficulty … (more) as an opportunity.”
Fiji opened its 12-team, three-day Olympic men’s tournament against semi-finalists Japan at the Rio de Janeiro Games on Monday. The group also includes Rio silver medalists Britain and Canada.
Tuwai, Player of the Decade of the Seventh World Series, holds a special place in Fiji’s life as captain of the Sevens team.
He was part of the team that won the country’s first Olympic medal with six consecutive victories in 2016, when rugby sevens made its debut.
A national holiday was declared and a country halted everything for celebrations in the wake of a devastating cyclone.
Englishman Ben Ryan, who coached that team, was rewarded with a land grant.
Five years later, with parts of Fiji locked down due to the pandemic that delayed the Olympics by 12 months, there is no question of what Tuwai and the team’s Welsh coach needed to deliver.
“I know there is hope in Fiji and I know where it comes from, the attachment to the ‘People’s Team’ as we know it,” Babar told the Associated Press in a telephone interview. “There is a strong emotional and spiritual connection with the team and the way the team plays.”
The fast-moving rugby sevens format is almost a part of Fiji’s DNA. Children grow up playing pick-up games barefoot on any part of the field that can serve as a field.
Renowned for their one-handed off-load and attacking nature, Fiji teams have been crowd favorites in sevens tournaments for decades.
“If we’re not your first team, often we’re the second team you choose to support,” Babar said. “I can understand why – how Fiji’s culture and people are, how the community is. How rugby is common in every village and … gives Fiji a sense of pride when they see, as they would say, their’ Warriors are fighting abroad. We are its ambassadors.”
England-based Semi Radra, who has played for Fiji in the 15K format and also in rugby league, has cemented the team in Tokyo.
He missed the Oceania tournament in Australia last month, where Tuwai scored a title win over New Zealand and Australia in their first international competition in more than a year.
“He is an exceptional sevens player. The skill level he has – he has been honed at Sevens Field in Fiji,” Babar said of Radra. “He is a huge asset with respect to the culture he brings to the group. His sense of professionalism, the way he behaves and the way he is dressed and wants to make himself a part of that group and the gold medal want to win.”
Babar’s job is to be in front of the coach, coordinator and media interviews. It is the job of Tuwai, Radradra and the players to maintain the long legacy.
“They realize they are on that mission,” Babar said, noting the people of Fiji need an emotional boost during the pandemic. “To let us go and do what we have traditionally done and elevate the country. it is very important.”
More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports