Perhaps no nation’s expectation for gold is heavier than the weight on Fiji’s men’s rugby sevens at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
“It’s probably held in higher regard than an Olympic gold at this stage, because it’s the one medal they haven’t won,” coach Ben Gollings said.
Rugby sevens is played fast and ends fast — all over in 14 minutes.
It is full of one-handed downloads. Sprints clocking 35kph are the norm. A dropped ball or missed tackle can mean the whole game is lost.
And if you ask anyone who cares, they will tell you Fiji is one of the best (if not the best) at this rip-roaring version of rugby.
The Hong Kong World Series is the Mecca of sevens competitions. The Fiji men’s team has won the past five titles consecutively and taken home the cup 19 times going back to the late 1970s.
They won back-to-back gold at the past 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 competing in the Olympics, these are the only medals the country has won. But Commonwealth Games gold is the one that has eluded them.
Could this be their moment? We don’t have to wait long to find out. All the men’s and women’s sevens finals will be done by the end of day three in Birmingham (Monday morning for the southern hemisphere).
“There’s a lot of expectation from the nation and people of Fiji, we know the pressure is on,” Gollings said.
Why is Fiji so good?
Former coach Gareth Baber, who led Fiji to its second Olympic gold, describes Fiji’s connection to the team as an “emotional and spiritual one”.
That connection will be palpable on the island this weekend.
There will be village watch parties, church sermons, dancing, crying and praying in the street.
Sevens is everything to Fiji. It is seared into the national identity from bottom to top.
After the 2016 Olympics gold, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama announced a public holiday to celebrate. He also issued a special $7 banknote depicting the team. And another for the women’s bronze and men’s gold at Tokyo last year.
It is hard to pinpoint why Fiji can outdo countries like Australia and New Zealand that 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-based cultures. They equally produce the best rugby players in the world.
We just have to accept there is a mythical quality to Fiji and the game of sevens. Maybe the answer lies somewhere at the bottom of a kava bowl.
The Fijian squad has six Olympic gold medalists in it, including Waisea Nacuqu, who was selected to captain in Birmingham.
Known as the “game breaker”, Nacuqu has been the savior on many occasions by scoring the winning try.
Josua Vakurunabili and Semi Kunatani will lead the tough forward pack, while Jerry Tuwai and Nacuqu will add experience in the backline.
European-based Aminiasi Tuimaba and Sireli Maqala will inject power and speed on the wings.
And while they are the favourites, Fiji will be keeping a close eye on New Zealand right now.
The All Blacks Sevens won every Commonwealth Games men’s tournament until losing to South Africa at Glasgow 2014, then regained gold in 2018 on the Gold Coast, where Fiji took home the silver.
Could 2022 be another Fiji vs New Zealand final? The gold medal match will be at 6.25am on Monday AEST.