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The blunt Baber verdict on fifth place Fiji's conditioning levels

By Liam Heagney
Fiji huddle after their fifth place at the Hong Kong 7s (Photo by Mike Lee/World Rugby)

Gareth Baber didn’t pull his punches on Sunday in Hong Kong when reflecting on his first sevens tournament back involved with Fiji after the recent sacking of Ben Gollings. The Welshman was at the helm when the Fijians successfully defended their gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

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However, while he had a lengthy preparation to make that retention mission successful in 2021, he has just 16 weeks remaining to pull the strings in support of new head coach Osea Kolinisau if Fiji are to top the podium in Paris at the end of July.

It’s a tall order. The Islanders might have looked powerful in putting South Africa to the sword by a 33-14 margin in their final match this weekend in the Far East, but it was merely a fifth-place play-off.

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The reality wasn’t lost on Baber when he spoke to RugbyPass in the stadium tunnel decorated with pictures of golden Fijian teams celebrating previous Hong Kong title wins.

“Frustrating,” he said when asked to summarise his first event back with a Fijian squad that had struggled this season under Gollings, finishing third in Cape Town, fourth in Dubai and Perth and sixth in Vancouver and Los Angeles.

Collectively that is good enough for them to be running third on the HSBC SVNS table with one leg remaining in Singapore before the season-ending finale in Madrid, but winning titles is what Fiji are about – not finishing their match schedule in places like Hong Kong at 3:15pm, nearly four hours before the cup final took place between New Zealand and France.

“It’s lovely to be back involved but I want to be in the position six o’clock tonight where you are going out to play another game. We’re not there and we need to work harder.

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“Our focus is about developing our levels through the next two tournaments but obviously back home in training in Fiji for the purposes of getting to an Olympics and winning another gold.

“That’s what the country demands, that’s what the expectation is on these players and we recognise there is some work to be done in terms of our conditioning levels and obviously stopping the opposition from having the best of their pressure in the game and we have got to do that through what we bring to it so yeah, we have some stuff to work on.

“It was a good finish (against South Africa) but we recognise there is a lot of work that needs to be done to put yourself in those top four spots and push through to finals, that is where we are used to being – especially here in Hong Kong – and we have got some work to do be at that. It’s nice to get in those positions and win the final game, but ultimately our goal is to be in that finals play-off.”

What scuppered Fiji’s hopes of winning the Hong Kong title for the first time since 2019 was their second-half quarter-final display on Saturday night against the eventual winners New Zealand.

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They had fought back from an early concession to lead 12-7 at the interval, but the pressure told in the second period as the Kiwis broke Fijian hearts with two tries in the closing moments, the second coming in the last minute of the 12-19 defeat.

“We know how tight the margins are, we know that. It’s not a secret in sevens,” reflected Baber. “The ball is only on the field for six and a bit minutes and you have got to make the most of it. I thought that quarter-final we controlled the game for the majority of it.

“However it can break you in the space of a minute, a minute and a half and that is exactly what New Zealand are like. They threatened and they deserved that victory in the end. We have got to do more to be able to be in positions in games to be able to close them out.

“They stuck in there. They made fewer errors than we did in the second half. First half they made more errors, but they just had a good, strong understanding of how they were going to win the game.”

That’s an understanding that Fiji will work on over the next few weeks to ensure they are prepared to do better in Singapore on May 3-5.

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