Gareth Baber is en-route to link up with his Fiji Sevens squad in London having overcome the latest set-back in a season that has tested the head coach and his players to the limit as they head into the penultimate leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens at Twickenham this weekend.
Baber was forced into hospital by a bacterial infection which meant the squad flew to London without him, but now the Welshman is recovered and able to mastermind Fiji’s attempt to overtake USA at the top of the table before the final leg in Paris. USA, who have Perry Baker back from a broken jaw, are three points ahead of Baber’s men who have dealt with a series of body blows this season, including a player charged with rape, their captain convicted of drink driving and serious injury to key play-makers.
This has all happened a year away from Fiji having to defend the Olympic Gold they won in Rio at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. That defence is complicated by 15-a-side contracts signed by key players with European teams which may make them unavailable next year.
Despite all of these distractions, Baber is confident the squad are ready to overhaul the USA with the kind of rugby that allowed them to make history with a fifth successive Hong Kong Sevens crown. Ben Ryan, who coached Fiji to Olympic gold, detailed in his book the myriad of problems Fiji can throw up which meant Baber came into the job in 2016 knowing it would be a challenging assignment.
Baber told RugyPass: “This has been one of the most difficult seasons as head coach. There is an accountability that comes with being able to play in the white jersey and there are still distractions (for the players) and I don’t think they are going to be solved in the space of a year or so. One week a lad can be farming in his village and the next he is playing in Hong Kong and that is a huge jump for an individual both culturally and also mentally.
“Society is very different for an international athlete in Fiji. We don’t have the kind of development processes other countries have, but we are working to achieve it. It will be a generation away and similar to what Ben had, it is about making that jump from a very basic village life, where it is about survival, onto a performance level.
“There is huge expectation surrounding sevens in Fiji to be top of the tree. There is an emphasis on national identity and the feel good factor in the country and it’s in the DNA of every Fijian. Sevens tournaments are like village fetes in Fiji and are linked with raising money for the local church and community. So, qualifying for the Olympic Games is huge to ensure you are battling for a gold medal.”
Baber can only wait to discover if players from his current squad have release clauses for the Olympic Games when they sign lucrative deals in Europe that financially change the life of so many family members back in Fiji. Former captain Kalione Nasoko, who was convicted of drink driving in February, has signed for Edinburgh, and Baber said: “Sevens has a different volume of running training and you are looking for release of a player to take part in the Sevens series next year to get them to that level.
“There is no obligation for a club to release players apart from the Olympic Games regulations and we would look to have a player for a longer period. Conversations are on-going and Kali has a great opportunity with Edinburgh but one thing that was flagged up was his possible involvement in next year’s Olympics. Discussions with Richard (Cockerill, Edinburgh head coach) will be around the potential for being released for tournaments.
“ In the villages where the players grow up, life can be tough and to have a contract worth around £100,000 is life changing no only for the immediate family but also the community. There is a responsibility to put back into the community from where you have come from. There is something incredibly humbling about that.”
Fiji were pipped to the Sevens Series title by South Africa in Paris a year ago and while finishing in the top four guarantees automatic Olympic qualification, Baber and his men want the No1 ranking. “We have talked about the aftermath of last year in Paris and we have had similar experiences this year coming very close to the performances we want. We have got it right several times and when we deliver as we did in Hong Kong and to a certain extent in Singapore, we win tournaments.”