Ben Ryan is a god in Fiji but with a World Series victory looming, Gareth Baber could one day be considered his equal
Former Hong Kong boss amasses impressive record in first 18 months in charge of the Olympic champions and should add to that in Paris this weekend
You would have to be an idiot to question the impact Ben Ryan has had on rugby sevens in Fiji, the love the people have for him and his standing in the country.
But as Fiji surge towards victory in the World Rugby Sevens Series, it does make one wonder – what would current coach and former Hong Kong boss Gareth Baber have to do to receive the same sort of treatment as Ryan?
Could anyone leave the same impression as the Englishman, and be showered in as many accolades?
In three years at the helm Ryan won two World Series – including taking Fiji back to the top after a nine-year wait – and gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the first ever sevens’ gold medal and Fiji’s first Olympic medal of any colour.
He also won two Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens, a number Baber matched within 18 months in the job.
It helped that Ryan is a top bloke who has time for absolutely everyone and even worked for free at one point, but he still speaks his mind and ruffled more than a few feathers at the Fiji Rugby Union.
— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) June 3, 2018
His on-field achievements were rightly magnified ten-fold for their sheer significance and led to Ryan’s face appearing on a 50 cent coin and also a commemorative $7 note.
He received the Companion of the Order of Fiji, was gifted three acres of land and given a traditional chief’s name – Ratu Peni Rayani Latianara – by the people of Serua province.
Quite the line-up, that, and one that Baber would not even be thinking twice about trying to emulate.
But while Baber might find it hard to become a chief and have his mug adorning currency, there’s no reason why he can’t emulate Ryan’s success on the field.
Into his second season in charge – and his first full season – Baber has Fiji on the brink of winning the World Series at the final round in Paris this weekend.
After winning four legs on the trot – including Hong Kong – Fiji sit seven points clear of South Africa and only need a top-three finish, something they’ve achieved in the past seven tournaments, to confirm their victory.
It will be arguably a more dominant series win than any that Ryan oversaw; Fiji have five legs in the bag and could make it six on the weekend, while they never achieved more than four under Ryan.
In fact, Baber has overseen Fiji’s most successful season when it comes to tournament wins.
Once the islanders (presumably) get the job done in Paris, their attention will turn to the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco in July, a tournament Ryan never coached Fiji in but a chance for Baber to get one up on him all the same.
— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) June 6, 2018
There will be two more World Series before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 – a tournament Baber has stated he is determined to still be around for.
Provided he is and Fiji remain somewhere near the phenomenal level they are at now – an impending Olympics should ensure they do – Baber’s resume should make for fairly interesting reading in two and a half years.
Should Baber pocket an Olympic gold medal, a World Cup and two or three World Series victories he could even go past Ryan’s achievements in a similar amount of time. Premature maybe, but certainly not ridiculous.
And what then? A traditional chief’s name and a plot of land for Baber? Maybe his face on the Fiji Bitter bottle?
Most likely, the novelty has worn off and Baber will struggle to reach the heights of Ryan in the public eye regardless of his success.
There will always be the notion that Ryan laid the foundation for Baber to build on, but one thing that should not go underestimated is Baber’s ability to identify and harness talent.
Years in Hong Kong working with a limited player pool ensured he became proficient in that area.
But traditional names and national ales aside, Baber has already surpassed the expectations many had of him when he was the surprise pick to replace Ryan and struggled to have an impact early.
He’s got Fiji absolutely flying and, while the ability is there in spades, creating harmony in the team is half the battle, and it’s a battle he’s winning.
Call me an idiot, but maybe, just maybe, the Fijian public may have to one day consider opening their hearts to another hero from abroad.