When sportspeople talk about tough journeys they are often waxing metaphorical, but Saiasi Fuli was speaking literally as he described Fiji’s arduous route to an Olympic bronze medal in women’s sevens.
“This is the 16th week we haven’t seen our families,” said the Fiji head coach said after their 21-12 win over Great Britain, three days after the Fiji men’s side had retained the Olympic title by defeating New Zealand. “It was a tough, tough journey.”
A four-month slog of training camps and quarantine bubbles in Fiji, Australia and Japan had a happy ending – not that the separation is quite over. With the country of about 900,000 persone reporting più di 1,000 Covid-19 cases per day, the squads will have to endure another fortnight of hotel quarantine before they can show their medals to friends and loved ones in person.
“It’s hard for us,” said Reapi Ulunisau, who scored one of three tries against a Britain side that fell 14-0 behind in the first half and never recovered. “This is for them.”
Fuli’s job has encompassed logistics as well as tactics. “Three or four of them, it’s their first time to fly out of Fiji. It’s a big challenge for us to manage that and come out here and play well in a very tough pool," Egli ha detto.
“Some of them, they tried to break camp and run home and we had to get them back and keep them at the camp and remind them that the journey will be quite a long one until we reach Tokyo.”
Fiji lost to France then beat Canada and Brazil in the group stage before stunning the 2016 Olympic champions, Australia, 14-12 in the quarter-finals. They gave New Zealand an almighty scare in the last four, going down 22-17 after extra time.
The Black Ferns claimed the gold medal with a 26-12 victory over France, who beat Britain in the semi-finals, 26-19.
“We identify them from athletics, some playing touch rugby in their village, and winning the bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics is massive,” Fuli said. “They just learned rugby a year ago. They had no idea about [what rugby is]. So we had to do a massive job and 60-70% of our effort is just concentrating on core skills, how to catch, how to pass, tackle technique. That’s before we implement tactical stuff.”
Scott Forrest, the GB head coach, could only admire his opponents. “They’ve got a good group of athletes, their offloading skills were unbelievable," Egli ha detto. “That’s probably the standout moment of the whole tournament, in terms of how impressive Fiji have been.
“How far they’ve come as a team is just so good to see when you think of how strong their men’s programme has been for years. To see their women’s programme at that level now, it’s brilliant.”
Britain’s men also narrowly missed out on a medal in Tokyo, losing 17-12 to Argentina. Forrest’s squad huddled after their loss here, reflecting on their disappointment but also their achievement. Money problems before the competition had cast doubt over whether Britain would field teams, but funds were secured last December through a partnership with the National Lottery.
“We as a programme have only been together for five months and six months ago we had absolutely nothing, so to come fourth, not a lot of people expected that,” said the Welsh winger Jasmine Joyce. She is convinced that if a deal had been struck sooner, allowing for more preparation time, the fast-improving side would have won a medal.
With the future beyond this year uncertain, Forrest hopes that this near-miss of a medal will persuade the Scottish, Welsh and English governing bodies to keep GB sevens alive.
“Three unions trying to come together, it’s never easy for legitimate reasons. There’s no grudge from us. In definitiva, these players just want to play sevens full time," Egli ha detto.