Perhaps no nation’s expectations for gold are heavier than the weight of Fiji’s men’s rugby sevens at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
“It’s probably more appreciated than an Olympic gold medal at this point because it’s the only medal they haven’t won,” coach Ben Gollings said.
Rugby sevens is played fast and finished fast – all in 14 minutes.
It’s full of one-handed unloads. 35 km/h sprints are the norm. A dropped ball or a missed tackle can mean the whole match is lost.
And if you ask anyone who cares, they’ll tell you that Fiji is one of the best (if not the best) in this harrowing version of rugby.
The Hong Kong World Series is the Mecca of sevens competitions. The Fiji men’s team have won the last five consecutive titles and won the cup 19 times since the late 1970s.
They have won back-to-back gold at the last two Olympics (the only two Olympics to include sevens) and their women’s team won bronze in Tokyo.
In Fiji’s 64-year history of Olympic competition, these are the only medals the country has won. But the Commonwealth Games gold is the one that eluded them.
Could this be their time? We don’t have to wait long to find out. All men’s and women’s 7-a-side finals will be played by the end of day three in Birmingham (Monday morning for the southern hemisphere).
“There are a lot of expectations from the nation and the people of Fiji, we know the pressure is on,” Gollings said.
Why is Fiji so good?
Former coach Gareth Baber, who led Fiji to their second Olympic gold medal, describes Fiji’s connection to the team as “emotional and spiritual”.
This connection will be palpable on the island this weekend.
There will be village vigils, sermons in church, dancing, weeping and praying in the streets.
Sevens is everything for Fiji. It is rooted in national identity from the bottom up.
After the 2016 Olympic gold, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama announced a holiday to celebrate. He also issued a special $7 note featuring the team. And another for women’s bronze and men’s gold in Tokyo last year.
It’s hard to determine why Fiji can surpass countries like Australia and New Zealand which have more funding, more people, more facilities, more everything.
And it’s hard to pinpoint why Fiji is better than Tonga and Samoa. It has a larger population but a comparable GDP per capita. But all three are fanatical rugby countries with faith and family cultures. They also produce the best rugby players in the world.
We just have to accept that there is a mythical quality to Fiji and the game of sevens. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere at the bottom of a bowl of kava.
Battle of Birmingham
The Fijian team has six Olympic gold medalists, including Waisea Nacuqu, who was selected as captain in Birmingham.
Known as the “game breaker”, Nacuqu was the savior on numerous occasions by scoring the winning try.
Josua Vakurunabili and Semi Kunatani will lead the tough attacking field, while Jerry Tuwai and Nacuqu will add experience in the baseline.
Aminiasi Tuimaba and Sireli Maqala, based in Europe, will inject power and speed on the wings.
And despite being the favourites, Fiji will be watching New Zealand closely at this time.
The All Blacks Sevens won every men’s Commonwealth Games tournament until losing to South Africa in Glasgow in 2014, then regained gold in 2018 on the Gold Coast, where Fiji won the ‘silver.
Could 2022 be another Fiji vs New Zealand final? The gold medal game will take place at 6:25 a.m. on Monday AEST.