f you think Gareth Southgate has had to work under intense pressure at the football World Cup, just imagine how Gareth Baber has been feeling of late as he counts down to the days to the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco later this month (20-22 July).
The Welshman took over from England’s Ben Ryan as coach to the rugby mad Fijians in October, 2016, and has had the San Francisco date firmly etched in his diary ever since. Fiji came to a complete stop when Ryan’s team carried off the inaugural Olympic Sevens title in Rio two years ago.
Then came an explosion of delirium as the celebrations went on for days. Ryan was gifted land and given a Chief’s name in the wake of the golden success in Rio. Now the nation expects Baber to deliver.
To be fair to the former Pontypridd and Oxford blue scrum half, Cardiff Blues and Hong Kong Sevens coach, his Fijian side won silver at the Commonwealth Games this year and won five – Hamilton, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore and London – of the 10 events on the HSBC World Series to finish second overall to South Africa.
But he knows second place won’t do in San Francisco as Fiji aim to win their third global crown to add to the two secured by the Waisale Serevi inspired teams of 1997 and 2005.
“The pressure to perform is there all the time for the Fiji sevens team. The press and the public demand wins and it’s tough sometimes,” said Baber, whose side kicks off with a game against the winners of the qualifying round game between Japan and Uruguay.
“Rugby is the lifeblood of every village in Fiji and Sevens is the lifeblood of the nation. You just have to tour around to see all the kids playing sevens before school, after school, in school.
“You can see how much it means to Fiji to be involved in sevens and at the top of the game. I wasn’t used to that and it took some getting used to.”
After winning only one tournament in his first year in charge, albeit a vitally important one in Hong Kong, Baber has begun to feel safer and more secure in his surroundings and role in the past 12 months. A two point defeat in the quarter-finals against England in Paris may have cost his side the World Series, but he will head to San Francisco with a squad brimful of talent and experience.
He wants to coach Fiji into the defence of their Olympic title in Tokyo in 2020, but he is realistic enough to know that he might not get that chance if he doesn’t deliver this month: “I’m here long term, but I’m a coach and you’re beholden to results.”
Last week he named a 16-man squad that will be whittled down to 12 after a training camp in Utah. He has been able to add power to his squad by adding European-based, 15-a side stars such as Josua Tuisova, Semi Radradra, Semi Kunitani and Leone Nakarawa to his core sevens unit.
Tuisova, Kunitani and Nakarawa were all in the Olympic Gold medal winning team, along with
Jasa Veremalua, Jerry Tuwai and Vatemo Ravouvou. Radradra, a former Australian rugby league international, recently stole the show with his try for the Barbarians in their big win over England at Twickenham.
“We know our squad can play with speed and intensity, and bringing in the European players allows us to add extra physical strength and power to the group,” said Baber.
“I’ve seen Semi (Radradra), Semi (Kunatani) and Josua handle the six- game, two- day tournaments quite well, and we will see where Leone is at after a huge 35 games of 15’s. Power can be difficult to handle and his Leone’s presence around the park will be something different we can add to our game for this tournament.
“We’ve shown this year we have the ability to win games one after the other, which is vital in the no-pool, knock-out tournament.”
Fiji Rugby World Cup Sevens Preparation Squad