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Perry Baker drops retirement hint despite wowing fans in Hong Kong

By Liam Heagney
USA's Perry Baker races away to score against Spain on Sunday (Photo by Mike Lee, World Rugby)

Hong Kong 7s was at its ‘Hang it in the Louvre’ best on Sunday. The finals day atmosphere was so incredible that organisers at their post-tournament drinks debrief later that night breezily described it as the greatest edition in the 30 years the event had been staged at the iconic Hong Kong Stadium.

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So manic was what unfolded that during the second half of the New Zealand versus France men’s final the fancy-dressed hordes packing out the South Stand were heard chanting ‘Hong Kong 7s, Hong Kong 7s, Hong Kong 7s’.

Think of it, when does any rugby fan ever hear the name of a tournament chanted loud and proud? Never. That spontaneous homage perfectly illustrated what a bucket list-type event the Hong Kong 7s truly is.

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Jannes Kirsten speaks fondly about life at Exeter

Bulls forward Jannes Kirsten tells Liam Heagney about how much he enjoyed playing at Exeter Chiefs.

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Jannes Kirsten speaks fondly about life at Exeter

Bulls forward Jannes Kirsten tells Liam Heagney about how much he enjoyed playing at Exeter Chiefs.

The South Stand, though, wasn’t the only section of the stadium in full voice over the course of the finals day.

For instance, some hours earlier, a pile of fans congregated near the pitch-side tunnel exit had repeatedly chanted ‘Baker, Baker, Baker’ in honour of Perry, the famed American speedster who has defied the assumption that a player is supposed to slow down the older you get.

The USA legend is just months shy of his 38th birthday in June, but he reminded everyone at the weekend that he still has serious game and can perform with jaw-dropping excellence.

His team looked set to be beaten by Spain in the seventh-place play-off. Down 12-17 on the scoreboard, there was less than two minutes to play when he received a pass out wide inside his own 22. Nothing was on when he received the ball and clutched it under his right arm.

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The magic then just suddenly ignited, beginning with a feint left and a beautiful step right to elude Anton Legorburu. Next, he suddenly slammed the brakes on to catch Eduardo Lopez, who ran by him and into a collision with his own man Legorburu.

With two opponents now out of the game, Baker revved his wheels again to elude the clutches of Jaime Manteca, who finished sprawled on the ground and clutching air outside the 22. Alejandro Laforga was the next covering player up, attempting to head Baker off approaching the 10-metre line.

The Spaniard’s desperate scramble failed, though, allowing the veteran to gallop away into the clear and he then savoured every remaining moment of his solo score, giving the South Stand fans a celebratory wave before turning around and using up as many seconds as possible before finally grounding.

Over went the conversion kick from Madison Hughes to push the USA into a two-point lead that they held on to, leaving Baker jubilant that he had so significantly contributed two days after he admonished himself for losing his bearings in the closing moments against Argentina, another game where he scored from distance.

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When he spoke to RugbyPass on the Friday after the Americans clung on to beat series leaders Argentina, Baker candidly said: “I had a mistake at the end there running out of bounds but the boys had my back and they fought hard. My team just trusts me so much and I need to finish for them and take my opportunities.”

Two days later, the compliment was certainly repaid, Baker having his team’s back and stylishly taking his opportunity to get the win that helped to keep the USA in eighth place on the HSBC SVNS Series standings and on course to make the Grand Final in Madrid.

The 37-year-old burst out laughing soon after when RugbyPass asked why age was just a number, not something negatively affecting his contribution.

“I guess my play overall speaks for itself to say that I can still play,” he beamed before hinting that retirement might finally still be coming soon.

“I have been in the game a long time, I love it but I think it’s the sort of time we do something else now,” he admitted, adding, “Yeah, I’m a little slower now. A little slower. Not as fast as I was when I first started but it’s not too far off it.”

Baker’s tournament-ending try against Spain was his 36th overall in Hong Kong, equalling the record that had solely belonged to England’s Dan Norton, but there are other milestones the American is targeting before the season comes to a close in July in Paris.

“We still want to make it to Madrid, play in a top eight and try and win it all, and then we will talk about the Olympics. The atmosphere here in Hong Kong is always great and the tournaments all around have been good.

“It’s just fun playing rugby. When you get fans to come to watch and enjoy it, what more can you ask for.”

Baker should know. The former NFL hopeful signed full-time with USA in 2014, so he knows first-hand how sevens has developed this last decade. “It’s a great competition. The series has changed so much from when I first started to now.

“Faster game all around and just better competition out there and it’s just tough with the opposition. No matter who you get it’s going to be a tough fight.

“But the fans we have, the support system we have is amazing. Just hearing USA everywhere, just the atmosphere for rugby – everyone who comes here enjoys rugby and we just want to put on a show for them and perform. I love playing in atmospheres like this.”

Singapore, Madrid, and then the Paris Olympics. It might be Baker’s last lap on the sevens circuit. If so, let’s appreciate everything he does in the next 15 weeks. Hang it in the Louvre, indeed.

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