Sevens

Fijiana seek their own slice of sevens glory

Emerging from the shadow of the all-conquering men’s team is a daunting prospect for Fijiana, but they are starting to turn heads in their right under the watchful eye of Chris Cracknell. Playing ‘heads-up’ rugby is in the DNA of Fiji’s players regardless of gender, that much was evident from the opening round of the […]

World Rugby

February 16, 2016 1:42 pm

Emerging from the shadow of the all-conquering men’s team is a daunting prospect for Fijiana, but they are starting to turn heads in their right under the watchful eye of Chris Cracknell.

Litia Naiwato scores a sensational try for Fijiana against USA. Photo. World Rugby.
Litia Naiwato scores a sensational try for Fijiana against the USA side. Photo: World Rugby.

Playing ‘heads-up’ rugby is in the DNA of Fiji’s players regardless of gender, that much was evident from the opening round of the 2015-16 HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series in Dubai last December when Litia Naiwato scored a sensational try for Fijiana against the USA.

Turning that natural ability into tangible reward is the goal of Fiji women’s coaching director Chris Cracknell, who, in less than six months in the job, is starting to make a big impact.

Unbeaten in pool play in Dubai, Fijiana eventually lost in the Plate semi-finals after defeats to France and New Zealand ended their interest in the Cup competition.

Getting the team to compete at the same level for two consecutive days has been one of the big areas of focus for Cracknell and his backroom staff in the intervening two months.

“No disrespect to the teams we played in the Oceania Olympic qualifiers but we weren’t really tested there, so I think Dubai gave us a bit of a wake-up call in the sense of where we are really at,” he said.

“The positive we got out of it was it showed the girls just how far they had come in their development and that they could compete with these teams. They have learnt that their ability is far greater than they first envisaged and that no games are foregone conclusions.

“Unfortunately, after beating Canada and USA, the day two mentality crept in. Because of the need to qualify for the Olympics the girls hadn’t had much time to recover and the bodies were sore.

“We’re hoping to put right those wrongs in Sao Paulo.”

Lasting the distance

With an emphasis on fitness post-Dubai, Cracknell hopes Fijiana will be able to last the distance in Brazil next weekend.

“After the Coral Coast Sevens at the beginning of January, the girls went into a fitness block,” he explained.

“My assistant Iliesa Tanivula did some one-on-one skill development with the girls while I was away helping Ben (Ryan) with the men, and Matt Dooley has been working on their strength and conditioning.

“The big thing for the girls is their fitness levels and getting them to a standard where we can repeat our efforts back-to-back in a tournament. That’s where there is quite a big difference between us and the likes of New Zealand and Australia.

“There is so much potential with the women. They are supremely talented as individuals in terms of their natural rugby playing ability, they are the same as the men in that respect, but in the past they’ve been okay for three to four minutes and do brilliant things but wouldn’t last the distance.

“They still have that Fijian flair, it is just making sure they have the belief and the fitness base to do it for 14 minutes.”

Fanfare

Cracknell returned from the Sydney Sevens, where he found time to compete as ‘an honorary Queenslander’ in an all-star veterans’ exhibition game, to find the usual fanfare awaiting the Flying Fijians on their arrival in Suva.

To receive similar levels of adulation, Fijiana would probably have to bring a medal home from the Olympic Games in Rio this August.

“The men are definitely kings of sevens. The whole island pretty much comes to a standstill when the boys come home from a tournament. It’s front and back page news here every day, and the boys are put on a pedestal.

“The girls are definitely developing and are now looked at in a different light. Going to the Olympics has helped in terms of the way women’s sport is looked at here. Before, it was just about netball.

“We’re now being taken seriously on the island as well as on the circuit.”

“Going to the Olympics has helped in terms of the way women’s sport is looked at here. Before, it was just about netball.”
Fijiana head coach Chris Cracknell
Cracknell has a foot in both camps as he also acts as Ryan’s assistant with the men’s team.

The two go back a long way, to the days when Cracknell played under Ryan at Newbury RFC and then England Sevens.

That 10-year relationship has helped bring synergy between both the men’s and women’ set-ups in Fiji.

“My skills as a coach are mainly on the defensive side of things and the breakdown area so working with Ben is great because I get to learn more about the attack. Me and Ben have a similar ethos in terms of attack: you draw the defence into certain areas and then attack where the space is and run at branches not trees.

“He leaves me to get on with the women’s team and run that as my own ship so to speak. But he is a good sounding board for me and is another pair of eyes. Because I’m not long retired, I still see the game from the players’ perspective, as if I was still at the coalface, whereas he looks at it from a bird’s eye point of view.

“In terms of my development as a coach, it’s great that I benefit from both sides of the coin. I get that personal development because I am running a programme but, at the same time, I still get the chance to learn off Ben whilst also trying to out my own slant on things.”

Fijiana will need to hit the ground running at Sao Paulo on 20-21 February as they face Dubai winners Australia, Canada and Ireland in Pool A.

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