Hong Kong Sevens

New Hong Kong coach Gareth Baber determined to take team to the next level

Former Wales player and coach aims to pass on values of his father as Hong Kong players go pro

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 10:25pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 1:59am

It's towards the end of a long conversation that Hong Kong's new head coach, Gareth Baber, reveals the fundamental philosophy he will be trying to instil in his newly full-time professional players.

It's a cliched question - your biggest coaching role models - but Baber, who has been in the job here since the turn of the year, chokes a little with emotion.

First he mentions his under-11 school teacher - "he was all about discipline ... and covering as many sports as possible". Then Alan Solomons at Oxford University, and Alex Evans at Cardiff RFC - "all about the detail ... individual skills ... creating an environment about behaviours, attitude, the way you were as a group ... I still use a lot of things that I saw him do then".

My father had multiple sclerosis and he was in a wheelchair and he just taught me - whatever it is, you're going to get through it, and I still use those lessons today
Gareth Baber

But after a pause, he adds "ultimately my mum and dad" and has to take a deep breath or two.

"Work ethic," he says they taught him. "Getting a bit emotional ... My father had multiple sclerosis and he was in a wheelchair and he just taught me - whatever it is, you're going to get through it, and I still use those lessons today.

"He contracted it when I was about three or four and he went into a wheelchair when I was about 12 ... my brother and sister were five and seven years older and going off and doing their own thing. I became very close to my dad and he supported me through everything.

"He taught me a lot about values, working hard - whatever you've got in your life there's people worse off than yourself and you've got to remember that what you're doing can be taken away from you tomorrow, so make the most of what you're doing.

"He died about 12 years ago but I use a lot of the lessons he taught me, hopefully in the way I treat others now and hopefully instil them in others."

Those lessons from his father - "a fanatical Llanelli supporter" - will now be passed on in Hong Kong.

Baber, 41, knows what his players will be going through as they adjust to full-time demands. He was set for a career in a transport related field when the opportunity to get paid to play sport in rugby's newly professional world came about.

The former scrum-half admits he wasn't the most talented, but determination to improve every single day took him on a more than respectable 15-year pro career.

"I always wanted to be as good as my brother - that's probably where the competitive element comes from," he remembers. "I was never as good as him, wanted to be as good as him and I strived to be that - and I'm still doing that today.

"He never played professionally. He was super talented, but as I try to instil in players, it's not just about having the talent, it's having the competitive element and the drive to succeed.

"It's a tough environment to be in. It's not nice sometimes, but the highs are probably better than anything else."

Baber studied economic history as an undergraduate and his father was an economics lecturer at Cardiff University, a background that comes to the fore when he talks about the "opportunity cost" of giving up a secure job as attack/backs coach at Cardiff Blues and uprooting his young family to Hong Kong on a two-year contract. But the tremendous support and facilities at the Sports Institute and the chance to reach the Olympics in Rio in 2016 made the offer impossible to reject.

Baber's wife is from Hong Kong - her father was a civil servant here for more than 30 years - but with three children aged seven to 13, it was still not an easy decision to return to the city she considers home. Baber has been on his own since starting the job, the family not wanting to take the kids out here midway through a school year.

"You start thinking about what you want to pass on to your kids. You think, 'They've got good roots in Cardiff, do we want to take them somewhere else?', ... [but] we both thought 'You know what, going to Hong Kong opens up so many opportunities'."

There's been plenty of work for Baber to distract from the loneliness of being away from his family. As overall head coach - Kane Jury is in charge of the men's team and Anna Richards the women - he has been putting the structures and plans in place to ensure the 40 athletes at the Sports Institute (21 men, 19 women; 14/7, 13/6 full-time/part-time respectively) have everything they need to succeed and ensure they retain their elite team status at the institute at the end of this two-year cycle.

First up is the Hong Kong Sevens, with the men aiming to win the qualifying tournament and become one of the core teams on the IRB World Series. But Baber is anxious to stress that Asian Games success in September, and the Olympic dream are even more important goals.

"I'm not managing expectations, but [the Sevens] is only 12, 14 weeks into what we're doing," he says. "I'd like to say, 'Yes, you're going to see a huge difference [now the team is full-time],' and you will probably see some slight differences, but some good work was done before I was here as well. They were very competitive as a squad.

"I would say it's too early to see what we've got at the moment - it'll probably be too early in a year's time.

"I'm looking at 17-year-olds now that I want to be the next generation of 21-, 22-year-olds playing for Hong Kong, but that's not going to happen in two years, that's going to take four or five years. As all coaches say, be patient.

"Following this we've got the Asian Games, that's a massive goal for where we sit in terms of Asian rugby and Asian sport. We want to be medalling in that and we want to hit the heights of where we've been previously.

"It is hugely important for retaining status in the HKSI ... there's probably more of a plan to get us there, than a plan to get us the Hong Kong Sevens."

Baber saw both the good and bad of rugby's first brush with professionalism, but insists with the facilities and expertise at the Sports Institute, his players have no excuse not to perform to their maximum potential.

"There were a lot of unknowns, a lot of bad information to players and athletes and the good conditioning coaches were very recognisable because they were getting results very quickly," he recalls.

"It's not just about going in the weights room and lifting as many weights as you can. It's about getting the right nutrition in place, the right lifestyle, it's about recovery protocols, it's about things that prevent you from having injury in the first place and that sort of thing has only really kicked in over the past five or six years.

"I've seen a number of sports institutes around the world and this stacks up remarkably well. It's a phenomenal facility in terms of rugby.

"Having a been a coach and seeing something like this, the opportunity that was here, the investment being made here to get this sport - and all these sports that are housed here - to the Olympics ... I was excited by it and I'm still excited by it now."

Baber has been learning himself, from fellow coaches in the institute and guest speakers, such as renowned swimming coach Bill Sweetenham, a recent visitor.

"He said that when people go to the Olympics you don't suddenly turn up on the Saturday of the competition and then decide that you're going to go and win a gold medal - that actually is done probably two or three years in advance, everything leading up to that is all the behaviours, the day-to-day that you do, the eating right, thinking right, looking after yourself.

"Probably coming from an academic background, what I've known about grabbing hold of all different disciplines is that there's such expertise in these buildings, from athletics coaches to snooker coaches to rowing coaches - they've got years and years of developing their own programmes and knowing how it's done. We regularly meet here as coaches to discuss informally."

Baber admits he never thought of becoming a coach until Leigh Jones - now national coach development manager at the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union - spotted something towards the end of his playing days at Newport-Gwent Dragons.

"I was thinking business, teaching [after playing] because I've come from a teaching and academic [family] background and I enjoy sharing information with people and developing people - I suppose that I probably didn't even recognise it at the time that there was a strength, something in me that made that relevant to delivering to others."

Spells with the junior teams at the Dragons, and Wales under-20s and the Wales Sevens team, first as assistant to Dai Rees (now head of technical development and performance at the HKRFU) then on his own, were followed by a number of roles with Cardiff Blues, from the academy up to interim head coach.

"It taught me a lot, taught me a lot about people and about myself. It was a tough time as well, money had been taken out of the organisation, things were being rationalised and cut back. You were thinking hard about how you develop the group on a backdrop of budget cuts rather than what we had been used to which was more money and more investment."

He refers repeatedly to the "group", and "the right behaviours", "discipline" and improving "day to day", but perhaps the simplest expression of his coaching philosophy is when he talks about the "edge".

"The edge is being in front of everything," he says, "if you think you're the finished article you're going to be behind it.

"It's always been a bit of a fear of mine not being in front of the curve - you've got to do everything you can to be there and the Sports Institute is providing the opportunity of staying there.

"It's very important for the players and staff that they see us there as well. They want to be led in that direction, they want to know they're on the edge of it all - and that's exactly the opportunity I'm getting here."