Fiji sevens coach alarmed at exodus to Sri Lanka

Suva (Fiji) (AFP) - Fiji's rugby sevens coach Ben Ryan is concerned at the loss of talented players overseas, particularly to Sri Lanka, saying it threatens to derail the Pacific islanders' preparations for the Rio Olympics.

Ryan said a huge number of players had been lured offshore, estimating 30 Fijian wingers were plying their trade in France alone, including 2014 world sevens player of the year Samisoni Viriviri, who recently signed for Montpellier.

The Englishman, who took over in Fiji just over a year ago, said the talent drain was affecting his plans to hone a winning team for Rio 2016, where sevens rugby will make its Olympic debut.

"Yes we have a lot of good players in Fiji, but you don't become the best team in the world on ability alone," Ryan, who coached England's sevens team for six years from 2007, told AFP.

"Teams need to gel, players need time to be conditioned and coached."

Fiji have never won an Olympic medal of any description but the country's sevens team, who have twice been crowned world champions, are considered strong contenders to break the drought.

Ryan said success would involve player development early in their careers but it was difficult for the cash-strapped Fiji Rugby Union to retain rising stars because it does not run a professional league.

Instead, he said, players were going offshore too early and failing to fulfil their potential, singling out youngsters moving to Sri Lanka, where rugby administrators are aggressively promoting the game after years of being overshadowed by cricket.

"It's serious as Sri Lankan clubs are obviously targeting Fijian players," Ryan said.

"That's because we have some great players but also because nearly all the other nations have a professional league, so their players are contracted and unable to go to Sri Lanka.

"What I see happening next is the Sri Lankans keeping Fijians there for the three-year residency period and then playing international rugby for them as well."

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The loss of promising players is nothing new to Fiji, where both the 15-a-side and sevens games are followed with religious fervour by the 900,000-strong population.

Australia and New Zealand have been the traditional destinations, with legends such as Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu donning the All Blacks jersey and the likes of Lote Tuqiri and Radike Samo turning out for the Wallabies.

Other nations have also woken up to the talent on offer in Fiji, with England recently capping Semesa Rokoduguni and French club side Brive planning to set up an academy in Nadi to help it snare emerging youngsters.

Ryan said he could live with losing his players to established, well-resourced outfits because the chances were their game would ultimately improve and they could still represent Fiji at some stage.

His frustration was an exodus of players to Sri Lanka and semi-professional rugby league teams in Australia, options he said offered no scope for development, effectively ending the international careers of those involved.

"Sri Lanka is a good example," he said. "Going over there to play will not improve their rugby and the contracts are normally only a few months long, so there's no financial security beyond that."

Ryan said he had lost eight international sevens players to Sri Lanka, as well as numerous others who were on the cusp of representing Fiji before they departed.

Towering forward Pio Tuwai said his decision to leave Ryan's team came down to simple economics -- he was being paid about US$10,000 a year to play for Fiji but could earn more than US$8,000 a month in Sri Lanka.

"I love to play for my country and played for it for many years, but I also need money to feed my family," he told AFP.

"In Fiji, when I play I don't get a lot of money, so I have to look for somewhere where I can earn good money and support my family."