Fiji's sevens rugby stocks are in rude good health, judging by the extraordinary depth of talent showcased once again in the fifth annual Bayleys Fiji Coral Coast Sevens.
The tournament, the biggest in Fiji and with one of the highest standards below the IRB World Series, also highlighted how New Zealand needs to be more proactive in sending teams to non-IRB tournaments for valuable match practice, especially with the Rio Olympics less than two years away.
Fiji won the opening IRB World Series tournament on the Gold Coast last month and has its sights set on men's and women's rugby sevens medals - their first in the Olympics - in Rio.
While playing resources are rich, they are strapped for cash, losing three players to overseas contracts immediately after winning on the Gold Coast. But things are looking up for coach Ben Ryan, who was formerly at the helm of the England 7s side. Twelve players are now contracted, with help from IRB money.
"If we don't have the money, we don't keep the players for long. Even with the Gold Coast-winning team, there are three gone and six out of my top 24 who have gone abroad and [it's about] filling the gaps. We're trying to create a Rio gold medal-winning team. For that to happen, we need to keep everyone together. We're nowhere near what big nations like South Africa and New Zealand are giving out," said Ryan.
He has high ambition for the Fiji sevens game. With good reason, judging by the quality of talent at the Coral Coast Sevens.
"Our plan is to dominate the sevens game. I think we are capable of being the best team and at the moment on form we are."
Ryan was diplomatic when quizzed by the Herald on whether New Zealand had missed a trick by not sending a strong side to this tournament, which on the face of it would have been perfect preparation for Dubai in less than three weeks and the IRB circuit events ahead.
All Blacks Sevens coach Sir Gordon Tietjens has often spoken about the need for his players to get more game time actually playing sevens.
"It's hard to comment on other's people's programmes. Gordon's been here, so he knows the quality of the competition, and it's been publicly talked about how there is a lack of that competition for his team and envy of how much game time our boys have, and rightly so.
"We do have hardened players every time they step into international competition. He's got a small group of players and this close to a tournament he's probably going to err on the side of conservatism rather than go for it out here. It would be nice to have a New Zealand development team out here, though. The crowd would warmly appreciate that, I'm sure," said Ryan.
Sevens tournaments are a dime a dozen in Fiji. You only have to pick up the paper and read that on November 28-29 there are at least six events being held around the main island of Viti Levu.
"It's funny when you read the paper and the notice board. I have seen up to 17 tournaments in one weekend! Some are spread, but the majority are on Viti Levu. You can find gems now, though they are less likely to appear than 20 years ago.
"I have definitely seen and heard of players from the smaller islands who are good enough to play international rugby," Ryan said.
He had a smorgasbord of talent to sift through over the weekend, making his final selection for a training camp on Wednesday all the more difficult. But a player such as Serevi-Campese medal winner for the best player at the Coral Coast Sevens, Ilisoni Tavaiqia, would not be out of place.
"The difficulty in Fiji is that there is such a large proportion of very good rugby players ... underneath the stellar players, every game is a good quality match. Hopefully I've got a reasonable idea of what I'm after!
"The timing is good [for Dubai]. There is always the risk of injury, but the rewards are worth it. There will be one or two that will come into our 18-man training squad that might not have been there before. There's also another dozen or so who are new to me that could come into camp too," said Ryan.
In the 24-team men's competition, there were 21 from Fiji, plus the Samoan champions Lauli'i Lions - who performed a shirtless Le Manu for the crowd - the Papua New Guinea national side, and New Zealand club champions Rangataua from Bay of Plenty. They had New Zealand rep Matt Clutterbuck in their ranks, and were coached by former NZ Sevens rep Matua Parkinson, but were outgunned and bowed out at the Shield quarter-final stage.
Almost all the Fijian sides were rangy, fast and full of running, playing an irresistible brand of run and gun sevens rugby, packed with flair, offloading and yet having little in the way of discernible structure. Some of the teams are scratched together and still look the goods. The Outrigger side, for example, was drawn largely from staff members at the resort nearby in Korotogo.
The Police team, coached by former Highlanders wing Manasa Bari, won the Cup final (and the $30,000 winner's prize) for the first time after being bridesmaids twice, with a superb 38-10 display over Daveta, who included former North Harbour wing Jona Tuitoga.
Earlier they had lowered the defending champs Yamacia in the Cup semifinal.
"I salute my boys ... There's a lot of unknown names in this team. I want to thank the Almighty God for giving us strength in this game," said Bari.
"I told them if they wanted to win this tournament, they would have to win it on defence. I don't care about the attack. I dedicate this win to all the police families in Fiji and to our brothers and sisters who are working hard in every interior," he said.
The women's competition of 14 teams had more of an international flavour, and the shadow Australian national side, the Aussie Pearls, beat the US-based Serevi Selects 19-7, in the Cup final.
Defending champion Fijiana, the national team, and coached by former Auckland and Brumbies threequarter Iliesa 'Tiny' Tanivula, lost in the semis.
A feature of the women's section was some very physical play, with many heavy shots going in on defence. The star female player was leading tryscorer - with eight - Joanne Lagona of Papua New Guinea. The winner of the Jonah Lomu Medal is a rare and brilliant talent in the women's game.
It is true to say that sevens, more so than the 15s through the Flying Fijians, captures the Fiji spirit as its national game.
More than 5000 flocked to Sigatoka's Lawaqa Park for the final day of the tournament on Saturday, fuelled not be any alcohol - restricted at the ground - but by a love of the game.
They were vocal, colourful and natural in their passion. Nothing contrived here. It is a lesson for the Wellington Sevens.
Campbell Burnes is in Fiji courtesy of Tourism Fiji