Ex-Hong Kong rugby coach Gareth Baber returns for Sevens looking for first win as Fiji coach

The Olympic champions have been suffering a post-Rio hangover since winning gold

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 5:07pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 10:36pm

Former Hong Kong head rugby coach Gareth Baber returns to familiar territory with Fiji next month, but with his new team in an unfamiliar position.

The Olympic gold medallists and reigning HSBC World Sevens series champions are without a win on the series this term.

Baber’s side were humbled 40-7 by England in the semi-finals of the last round in Vancouver and the Welshman is already feeling the pressure from a Fijian media and fanbase that expects victory at every tournament.

With the Cathay Pacific / HSBC Hong Kong Sevens the tournament Fiji want to win more than any other, Baber will take his men to his old stomping ground at the Hong Kong Sports Institute a week ahead of the April 7 kick-off in a bid to ensure they retain their title – and silence his critics.

“There’s a bit of a legend been created in terms of the rugby that has been around here for the last three years and in fairness to [former coach] Ben Ryan he created that with the other coaches and the players,” said Baber, who has lost half of the Olympics squad to big-money offers from club sides.

“There’s an obvious expectation in Fiji that every time they win – that’s been borne of the quality that has followed the team over the last few years, but this is a different team.

“It will evolve, it’s not at the performance level I want it to be at moment, but we’re all working hard to develop that.

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“I’m trying to communicate that to the media – the scrutiny that surrounds the players is marked, they can’t move without people making a comment about what’s going on, but I understand where that comes from, and it’s up to me to ensure it doesn’t become a hindrance.”

Fiji will take on Hong Kong in a training hit-out ahead of the World Series flagship and Baber is hoping his familiarity with the competition, and the added importance his players give to Hong Kong, leads to a first win of the season. Fiji are drawn with New Zealand, Wales and Japan in Pool C.

“I know it’s going to be a difficult pool ... but the Fijians love Hong Kong, there’s a mystique around playing in Hong Kong for the Fijians. That comes with a little bit of added pressure I suppose, because people think you have a right to win there, but I know exactly how difficult it’s going to be.

“I suppose what’s good for me, going to Vancouver and Las Vegas they were the first time that I’ve been there ... you’re playing a bit of catch-up with other teams and other management groups.

“From a Hong Kong perspective I pretty know how it runs and that’s got to be little bit of advantage.

“Fijian boys wear their hearts on their sleeves and that sort of bounce we get from being in Hong Kong could be just what I need to get our first win of the series.”

And Baber, whose family are still in Hong Kong to finish out the school year, will be keeping a close eye on his former team under new head coach Paul John as they look to win the World Series Qualifier and join the big boys.

“Absolutely ... I’ve got great pride in the steps that have been taken in Hong Kong rugby and would love to see them get promoted to the World Series,” he added. “Chile [in HK’s group], were in the tournaments we played in Vancouver and Vegas so I’ve taken some information back for [sevens coach] Jevon [Groves] and Paul from that.

“I know Paul very well and it would be nice to see those two taking Hong Kong to where I’d love them to be.

“It was my dream to take them to the World Series, obviously with the timing it hasn’t happened that way, but I’ll definitely be keeping as close eye on developments at the weekend.”