Ben Ryan: Fiji rugby stars like Rupeni Caucaunibuca 'misunderstood'

Fiji's Olympic gold medal-winning rugby coach explains why Pacific islands rugby players struggle to cope with stardom and money, in light of new documentary.

By Andrew Binner ·

In many ways Rupeni Caucaunibuca embodies Fijian rugby.

His is a story of spellbinding speed and power that once saw him described by many as the world's best rugby player.

'Caucau' played rugby sevens for Fiji, but it was his mesmeric fifteen-a-side tries at the 2003 Rugby World Cup which captured the world's attention.

A big-money move to French club Agen soon followed, and it was here that he became a victim of mismanagement.

After being punished for various disciplinary breaches he was fired, and eventually his story evolved to one of unfulfilled promise.

He returned to Fiji penniless, and his plight was recently documented in the Oceans Apart Series.

Rupeni Caucaunibuca starred at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, and became a highly sought-after player in Europe.

Unfortunately Caucaunibuca's story is not an isolated one.

Rugby is the national sport on the Pacific islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga and many of their players are lured overseas by large contracts.

However the language and cultural differences, often coupled with an inadequate support structure, leaves many of the Pacific players struggling to adapt.

No one knows this better than Ben Ryan, the Englishman who coached to Fiji's rugby sevens team to victory at Rio 2016 - the nation's first ever Olympic medal.

"Rupeni CauCau’s story is an incredible one," the Londoner said of ex-Samoa rugby international Dan Leo's documentary on the Fijian.

"One of the most gifted players ever to play the game, but the way he was looked after and misunderstood didn’t allow him to be at his best for long enough, and he wasn’t looked after post career.

"Fijians have slightly different cultural ways of learning, understanding, communication, and I think a lot of clubs have failed to get the best out of those players individually.

"I’ve been to Rupeni’s village in Vanua Levu and there’s a real rugby talent pipeline there.

"But I’ve seen these players go on to France and elsewhere, get treated the same as the local guys and as a result you aren’t getting a player that’s understood properly.

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Ryan experienced this cultural difference and the stress it can cause first hand, when he moved to Fiji in 2013 to coach their team.

He wasn't paid for several months, had very few training facilities to work with and had to completely overhaul the players' poor dietary habits.

But through patience and understanding, he was able to work through the issues and eventually get the best out of himself and his players at Rio 2016.

He also believes that improvement is being shown in this area around the world, and that some clubs in Europe are now starting to reap the rewards of adopting a more human-focused approach towards their imported talent.

"I see improvement in some clubs today. I see a club like Edinburgh understanding Viliame Mata, the nuances with culture, treating him as an individual and they are getting the best out of him.

"He’s pretty much the best number 8 in the world now, and he joined them having maybe played two or three games of 15-a-side rugby.

"So you can see what you can do if you wrap the right network around those players. For Rupeni, I totally get where he’s coming from, I understand it, I’ve seen it, and I hope those cases decrease in the future."