Osea’s back: Fiji expects as Olympic hero Kolinisau returns to sevens sidelines

The Cathay/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens is the former Fiji legend’s first sevens tournament as head coach. Tom Mitchell remembers the remarkable player and man who became the boss

It’s funny, the things you remember.

The first time I met Osea was in Las Vegas in 2012. Something had upset his stomach and I remember his hunched figure doing shuttles back and forth to the communal toilets in the shared changing rooms, his big hairstyle at the time bobbing along. The Las Vegas diet isn't for everyone.

I learned shortly after that first meeting that he was the linchpin of the Fiji side at the time. He would continue to play that central role for years to come. Already a decorated leader of his Fijian team, with back-to-back series titles, he went to the 2016 Rio Olympics bearing the weight of expectation of his country. 

Delivering the ultimate prize in the game has etched his name in Fiji’s history books. He will forever be remembered for his gold medal, and his image is on the seven-dollar note. But how will a new chapter as his country’s head coach shape his legacy? 

As a player, he was a mainstay of the team particularly under Ben Ryan who took over as coach in 2013. Osea had been dropped by the previous management, perhaps for rocking the boat and demanding fair pay for his fellow players. 

Ryan rekindled Osea’s career. Recognising his playing quality and leadership prowess he made him captain and one of the squad’s ‘cultural architects’. 

Ryan said: “He has mana, as they say on the islands, a respect and presence. He has a very high moral code.”

Rarely in sport does a coach garner immediate respect from their players. I suspect, however, that Fiji’s current players will have been hanging off Osea’s every word since the moment he walked in the door. 

He has been there and done it. Not too long ago, either. Most would have crowded around their televisions to watch him take a knee to receive his gold medal in Rio. It has become an iconic moment for the sport. 

That said, while gravitas and respect will be an essential foundation, he will need to dive into the detail of their game to secure a victory and keep the crowd onside. Ryan said that Osea, “knows fitness and discipline are keys to allow the Fijian team to do their thing”, so perhaps this will be his area of focus.

Recently departed coach Ben Gollings will testify that the role of Fiji men’s sevens coach is unforgiving in many ways. But the pay-off and potential is big – working with a conveyor belt of talented sevens players and the chance to be at the helm of a national sport, a sport that, at times, resembles a religion to many on the archipelago. 

Osea’s coaching CV is not extensive. The most notable stint was leading China's women to the Asia Sevens Series a couple of years ago. 

But professional coaching has not been his life. Since hanging up his boots Osea has moved to the USA and predominantly worked in security to provide for his family. 

But former coach Ben Ryan expects him to succeed. “There are some guys you see that will be amazing coaches, and Osea is a hundred per cent one of those, if not number one.”

How he played certainly lends itself to making a go of the top job. He was an assured presence on the pitch with impeccable basics. While he had crazy skills, he was the consistent master of his band of merry marauding men. With oodles of X-factor around him, he was the guy who drew it out and connected it all.

What better place to announce himself in the new role than the latest leg of the HSBC SVNS 2024 series, in Hong Kong? 

The Cathay/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens has hosted many memorable Fiji moments over the years: Waisale Serevi’s one-handed run in, William Ryder’s ridiculousness – and the first time a Fiji team lifted the Hong Kong trophy in 1977. 

Fiji have claimed 19 title victories on this stop of the sevens tour, the same number of tournaments they have gone without a win in recent times. It has been a historic drought – but Hong Kong has tended to bring the best out of the superstars in white. 

After lifting the trophy in Hong Kong as a player, Osea, more than anyone, will want to manifest some more magic moments. 

The memory of trying to stop Osea score the opening try in the Olympic final in Rio is etched into the cells of my body. I made a despairing tackle attempt during the demolition job Fiji did on my Great Britain team. But there are few players with the graciousness and character I would rather have lost to. 

What ensued was momentous for Fiji, not only putting them on the Olympic map for the first time as medal winners but also sending the country into raptures. Fiji is a country bursting with national pride at any time but it was overflowing and spilling into the Pacific the day Osea and Co won that game. 

As a result, coach Osea has set his own benchmark. It is incredibly high. However, while Fijian fans will be hoping for some silverware, I am looking forward to seeing his beaming smile at the side of a sevens pitch once more.