Redemption for Baber as fantastic Fiji blitz Springboks in Hong Kong Sevens Cup final
Hallowed turf of Hong Kong Stadium is the site of redemption for Fiji as coach Baber wins on his return to city
The hallowed turf of Hong Kong Stadium on Sunday was the site of some redemption for Fiji and of the resurrection of their coach as the islanders claimed their 17th Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens crown – and their third in a row – with a 22-0 victory over South Africa.
Arriving in town without a tournament victory in this Sevens World Series – almost unthinkable for the faithful who follow the Rio gold medallists with seven legs already played – had seen rumours spread that their magical skills might be on the wane.
There were shadows of doubt also creeping around one-time Hong Kong coach Gareth Baber who had taken over Fiji back in January, after the three-year reign of Ben Ryan which has already become the stuff of legend.
Across the course of a final day of high drama the air was cleared in both cases as Fiji grew in stature and skill the longer the tournament progressed.
“There’s been a lot of pressure,” revealed skipper Osea Kolinisau, draped in a winner’s medal and soaked in champagne.
“We told ourselves we’re going to gun for it like it was our first Hong Kong title.
“I’m stoked for Gareth,” he said. “I know that he’s been under the pump with a lot of pressure with people questioning his credentials. I’m happy that he’s got his first win, and it was here in Hong Kong.”
Fiji’s four tries in the final were spread between Kalione Nasoko (two), Sevuloni Mocenacagi and Mesulame Kunavula and came – as they always seem to do in Hong Kong – at the end of dazzling displays of ball control and speed.
Kolinisau said Hong Kong was a place every young Fijian lad grows up dreaming of playing – and Baber, too, quickly acknowledged how much his three years spent here had meant to him as a coach and as a man.
“I loved it here and was looked after well,” said the Welshman. “I developed my coaching here and to come back to put it for all to see is special.”
At the last edition here there was heartbreak for Baber as there was for Hong Kong when they led early in the qualifying tournament final against Japan, only to be overhauled and denied. He could take some degree of solace in finally tasting victory at the Stadium.
“When you look back at your career as a coach or as a player, you look back on moments that perhaps didn’t go so right,” said Baber. “Coming back to the scene of the crime if you like and doing it well that makes it more special.
“I’m just proud of the way we behaved over the weekend. We were under a bit of pressure but we progressively matured at the tournament went on and I think you saw our true class in that last game.”
The victory moved Fiji ahead of England in the world series standings, with three events left, and with South Africa if not directly in their sites at least looming on the horizon. Pressure? Comes with the territory, said Baber.
“It continues,” he said. “They’re the world champions, the Olympic champions for a reason. Ben did a fantastic job and now I got to pick up on that and move it forward. I understand that.”
For Neil Powell and the South Africans the long, long wait for victory in Hong Kong goes on for another year. They still head the world series – and it’s going to take a seriously significant loss of form for them to be reeled in considering they have won or made the final of every tournament this season.
“When you playing against Fiji in the final in Hong Kong they’re always going to up their performance by 10, 15 per cent and, no excuses, we needed to absorb that pressure and not make mistakes under pressure,” said Powell. “They definitely raised their game and fair and square beat us. Credit to Fiji. I think they played really well and kept pressure on us when we had ball in hand. There were just too many basic errors. Catching the ball, passing errors, you can never give Fiji so much ball possession as they will always punish you and they did just that.”