Gareth Baber knows all about the weight of national expectation as he attempts to mastermind Fiji’s defence of their HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series title and a repeat of the historic gold medal winning Olympic triumph at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
Fiji’s 2016 Olympic Games gold was turned into a book by former head coach Ben Ryan and became an acclaimed film, Sevens from Heaven charting the amazing achievement by some of the World’s most talented, yet underfunded rugby union players, who seamlessly moved from village matches to an Olympic Games final in Brazil.
Now, Baber, who took over from Ryan as head coach after the Games, knows the entire Fiji nation is looking to him to match that momentous achievement in the New Year which earned the rugby mad country their first ever Olympic medal.
Baber is under no illusions about the task he faces and a ninth finish in Dubai was followed by fourth place in Cape Town leaving the squad with plenty of work to undertake leading into the next Sevens Series leg in Hamilton on January 25 when a change of format means the four pool winners go straight into the semi-finals.
Baber told RugbyPass: “Here in Fiji, sevens rugby is the lifeblood of the community, you then times that by a thousand when it comes to the potential of going to an Olympic Games and defending a gold medal. I know what John McKee ( who coached Fiji at the 2019 Rugby World Cup) went through and it is an expectation that lives with every national coach here in Fiji because of the talent.
“Has winning the gold medal been mentioned? Only every day! I have always tried to stay away from outcomes other people set for you, but my job is to keep the players’ feet on the ground and focused on what we have to do in the Series and we won’t get to the Olympics in the right place unless we do that. It’s one battle at a time.”
With less than a year until the Olympic defence, Baber has been mapping out the route he believes can take them to another gold medal, although rivals such as South Africa, USA and New Zealand are putting together their own formidable squads for the Series. Toulouse-based Cheslin Kolbe, the live-wire wing who helped South Africa win the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, has made it clear he wants a crack at Olympic gold while the USA boasts the world class speed of Perry Baker and Carlin Isles to try and counter the natural flair of the Fijian players.
With Kolbe wanting to add his skills to the Blitzboks, there is considerable interest in which European based players will be released to help Fiji defend the title in Japan with the French based pair of gold medal winner Josua Tuisova (Lyon) and Semi Radradra (Bordeaux), two of the world class talents being mentioned. However, Baber believes it is vital for those players to appear at some stage in the Sevens series this season.
“Anybody who is building a team to compete in the World Series and the Olympics needs mechanisms and weapons in your armoury beyond just having talent on the pitch,” explained Baber. “What we have in our favour in Fiji is that all of the boys have grown up playing sevens and coming back into the squad from the 15s game is not as difficult. However, there are elements that are needed for them to be able to compete at that level having moved into the 15s.
“That is something we would want to see during the Series and I have spoken to clubs in Europe about a few players being available and it is my job to create and keep that team ethos while integrating a couple of those European based players who have a particular skills set through the season. Boys who have played for me in the last couple of years like Josua Tuisova and Semi Radradra are keen but they are all playing for top clubs in Europe and primacy of contract is with those clubs. You would want to see those players in tournaments before the Olympics because you need to create that team ethos so that when they are under pressure they can work together.”
Baber’s planning for the Olympic Games has already involved identifying the squad’s training camp in Japan and he added: “Instead of ten tournaments we are talking 11 and you don’t really take into account the gravity of that last one! There is also a six week block of recovery and work that can be undertaken before the Olympics and it all enters into the planning.
“The planning is all aimed at getting the players to a position where they are able to be competitive throughout the whole year because momentum is so important and team development is a key factor along with getting things right in one-off tournaments. You need to have real squad depth to allow you to rotate players throughout the year and all of this is working towards getting the timing right for that 11th tournament in Tokyo.”
A major concern coming into the current Sevens Series was discipline on the pitch and the problem remains with captain, Paula Dranisinukula, Sevuloni Moceinacagi, Vilimoni Botitu, Meli Derenalagi, Waisea Nacuqu, Isoa Tabu, Kavekini Tabu, and Josua Vakurunabili all receiving yellow cards in the two tournaments to date and Baber may have to consider dropping those who continue to hurt the team’s chances. Baber said:” Discipline has really let us down. It is not the end of the World now, but it will be if we don’t do something about it.”