• Thu
  • Oct 23, 2014
  • Updated: 6:25am
Column
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2014, 8:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2014, 9:39pm

Gareth Baber’s period of grace is over

Sevens failure highlights the importance of Sports Institute coach getting to grips with player resources - or the lack of them

BIO

Alvin Sallay, a Sunday columnist with the paper for more than 10 years, has been reporting on the Hong Kong sports scene for the last 25 years. Through his columns he has covered four Olympic Games and one soccer World Cup. A long-time Asian expert, he has also been to seven consecutive Asian Games.
 

The honeymoon is over for Gareth Baber. Now starts the daily grind of marriage - that of rugby sevens and the Hong Kong Sports Institute where the Welshman is the head coach of the only team-sport programme.

To be fair, no one really expected Baber to walk in and produce results within three months of the nuptials taking place.

That would have been as good as a miracle. Nature has its own gestation period and three months isn't it as far as rugby and Homo sapiens are concerned.

Until we have an army of players banging on the HKSI door, we must make the best of all available resources

Rugby sevens had been admitted into the elite training academy last April and was carrying on in an ad hoc fashion and it is only since Baber arrived in January that the programme gained some momentum.

There are 54 athletes, men and women, involved full-time and part-time. His brief is to win medals.

Qualifying for the HSBC Sevens World Series would have been a nice early bonus.

But as has happened twice before, our shortcomings were exposed at this level and we have to come to terms with the fact we lack the resources to be able to mount a successful campaign and join the big boys as a full-time core team on the circuit.

Hong Kong's loss to Italy in the semi-finals of the qualifying competition underlined the need for big fast men with sevens nous.

Our downfall was blamed on playing the wrong game and lacking enough depth in players.

The wrong game plan boils down to errors creeping in under pressure.

And we were under pressure because we just couldn't create enough chances, and the few we did were either botched, or we simply didn't have the wheels to speed clear.

Rugby is a simple game. In essence you have to create space - which in theory should be easier in sevens - and then be bold enough to take your chances.

But it seemed we lacked a playmaker in the mould of a Keith Robertson who last weekend was on water-boy duty.

A pilot, Robertson has been unable to commit himself fully to training. This apparently ruled him out of contention.

Which raises the question - is it only players who are full-time at the Sports Institute who will carry the torch in the future?

That seemed to be largely the case at the Hong Kong Sevens with 10 of the 12-strong squad being full-time athletes.

The other two, Kwok Ka-chun, a fireman, and Tsang Hing-hung, a policeman, are on the part-time roster like Robertson, but are based here most of the time and available for training.

That was not the case with Robertson who, as a pilot, needs flight time to gain his full wings.

Baber, perhaps trying to get the message across that players needed to commit themselves fully to the programme, had no option but to overlook Robertson.

With such a small player base - and we didn't need former All Blacks fullback Christian Cullen to point this out - can Baber afford to continue like this? I don't think so.

Yes, the players who are full time at the Sports Institute stand to gain because they are under the eye of the expert day-in and day-out, but until we have an army of players banging on the HKSI door, we must make the best of all available resources.

Mark Wright is another example. The Japan-based professional went with the squad to Zimbabwe for the training trip prior to the Hong Kong Sevens but apparently was not fit enough compared with the rest.

He failed to make the final cut and was named 13th man, only to be called up in case of a last-minute injury.

Wright, who captained Hong Kong at the 2010 Asian Games, was too experienced a player to be left out. We should have found room for him for there is no substitute for knowledge and experience.

New Zealand sevens guru Gordon Tietjens swears by these qualities.

Just look at his captain, DJ Forbes, whose awesome performance during the latter stages of the All Blacks' march to Cup glory made such a telling difference. At the end of the day, smart rugby will always prevail.

Never mind. It was just the Hong Kong Sevens and a bid to enter the World Series. Come September, however, all that will change when Hong Kong travel to Incheon, South Korea, for the Asian Games.

With the men having won the silver medal four years ago - the women fell short of the bronze, just - expectations will be raised, with sights set on nothing less than a gold medal.

Baber and rugby sevens will be judged on that performance. He has six months to deliver. The honeymoon is over.

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