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Gareth Baber answers SOS: 'I just want Fiji to be successful'

By Chris Jones
Edinburgh assistant coach Gareth Baber before the United Rugby Championship match between Leinster and Edinburgh at the RDS Arena in Dublin. (Photo By Sam Barnes/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Gareth Baber knows all about handling the massive expectations of a nation after masterminding the Fiji men’s defence of their Olympic Games sevens gold medal in Tokyo. Baber had to replicate the gold medal success of Ben Ryan’s men in Rio and now he has accepted the challenge of helping Fiji win a third successive title in Paris in just 18 weeks.

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Baber, who flies to Fiji from Heathrow today, will arrive in Nadi on Monday and has been asked to use his vast sevens knowledge to support new head coach Osea Kolinisau, the former Fiji 7s captain and Olympic gold medallist from Rio, who replaced England’s Ben Golling, sacked after failing to win a leg of the HSBC SVNS during his time in charge.

The Welshman, who will work with the players and coaches,  will undertake the role in two-week blocks as his family are now based back in Cardiff and accepts his arrival will raise expectations for both the men’s and women’s seven squads. He told RugbyPass: “I know that as Fiji if you don’t win every tournament then you have lost – that’s the kind of narrative and the psyche of the nation which creates a standard and expectation. The Fiji men’s squad is capable of winning gold in Paris and they could probably still do it without a coach because they have that much talent.

“This is not about sprinkling fairy dust, it is about understanding the hard, tangible elements you need to put together to be able to get those levels of performance to realise potential when it matters and in 18 weeks that is my challenge. I just want Fiji to be successful.

“Osea won a gold medal as a player and he has an understanding of what is required having gone through a tough evolution with Ben (Ryan). Osea is a strong character and growing as a coach and I have been through that process myself with Fiji and I believe that will help the men’s and women’s programmes working with Saiasi Fuli. We don’t have four years to the Games and so it is distilling down what the teams need.

fiji sevens baber
Fiji Sevens coach Gareth Baber.

“I have had mentors in my career and there are some things you don’t know as a head coach and until someone shines a light it can be something quite simple but powerful in creating that environment that is necessary to be able to play at the levels the team need to reach. That is what I will be looking to do with players, coaches, management and stakeholders.  Ultimately, I am on a short turnaround – we need to get performances from somewhere. We will have to work really hard and smart to make those changes.

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“It was tough for Ben (Gollings) and he did well to try and get through that process and I know the huge expectation around one-off tournaments let alone a series over multiple years.

“Coaches like myself and Ben Ryan, you come in with a reputation but that is only relevant as far as getting the wins quickly under your belt. It seems that getting consistent performances has just been out of Ben’s (Gollings) reach for many different reasons not least because there are a few teams on the world sevens circuit like Argentina, Ireland and now France with Antoine Dupont who have established consistency. To have someone like Dupont involved is good for the sevens game and it raises the profile to have a player of that quality in the tournament. Argentina and Ireland have shown what can be achieved when you have the right programme in place.

“Ben (Gollings) would have known that Fiji are always capable of winning tournaments and it is just about getting that level of consistency and I feel for him. But we take these jobs on knowing there are these challenges.”

Since guiding Fiji to that gold medal triumph in Tokyo, Baber has been part of the Edinburgh coaching set-up and is now director of rugby systems at Cardiff Metropolitan University, the rugby hotbed that produced England’s Alex Dombrandt. The university has agreed to release Baber to undertake his role with the Fiji men’s and women’s sevens as the National Programme Manager and the targets that come with the new role include a top-three finish in Madrid in the 2024 finals for the men and a top five for the women and the same rankings for the rest of the HSBC SVNS.

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His first tournament in the role will be the famous Hong Kong sevens leg of the HSBC series on April 5-7, an event that has a special place in Fijian hearts and where Baber used to coach the local rugby union team. The next round is in Singapore on May 3-5  and then the new finals event in Madrid from May 31 to June 2 before Paris and Olympic title defence. Fiji’s men are third in the HSBC table while the women are seventh with the top eight in both tables going to the finals in Madrid.

The landscape in Fiji has changed since he left the islands with the Fijian Drua offering a successful Super Pacific Rugby option for young players in the country. “The Drua have been threatening to achieve these great results and they are becoming more consistent which is great,”  he explained, “The challenge is that the talent from the villages that would have naturally headed to sevens a lot of that is being honed for the Drua and the Flying Fijians. Sevens has its place and is crucial to the people of Fiji and how the game evolves.

“We need to get the level of performance that means we can deliver when we get to Paris. This an 18-week challenge and I am still very involved with Cardiff Met and really enjoying that role which revolves around a high-performance system working with great people and it’s nice to work in my home city. I will be back in Cardiff after the Olympics.”

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