7s rugby and Baber

Fiji Airways Fiji mens 7s coach Gareth Baber speaks to his players during their training session at Albert Park in Suva on Wednesday, January 09, 2019. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU

As the sparkle from the gold win in Tokyo slowly diminishes, there are more pressing issues on hand as rugby and life moves on in this fast and ever changing world.

Do you know that the World Sevens Series is underway in Canada this weekend? Don’t worry, Fijian 7s is not in North America.

But the star-studded lineup in Canada includes teams who are off the blocks early in the rebuilding phase — South Africa, USA, Kenya, Ireland and a host of other emerging teams.

Welshman Gareth Baber landed his biggest rugby victory as coach of the Fijian 7s at the Tokyo Olympics.

Now the ball is in his court as I understand he has been sent a new contract to continue as coach to the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

If he takes up the offer, he’ll become the first man to last in the job for 8 successive years.

It’s no easy feat coaching the Fiji 7s team. You can’t imagine the scrutiny you come under with the job.

The trials that a man goes through are sometimes too tough to handle.

Imagine the huge load to carry with the weight of the nation on your back each time the team plays – Fijian fans only want a win.

In the rugby world, to get appointed as the Fiji 7s coach is classed as the toughest job to have in the country.

Why pick Baber

He has earned the trust of stakeholders and he has provided proof that he can deliver the result.

If someone asks me today, the answer is simple and crystal clear — I’d say there’s no other person in close proximity to Baber for this job.

His wins perhaps outweigh the losses.

In my books, he failed in 2018 when Fiji missed gold at the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup but the golden run in Tokyo made those losses drown as one would in quicksand – a long three years.

At the top of this list for a rugby fan would be that he guided and plotted a winning formula for retaining the gold medal at the showpiece 7s event in the world.

Baber also notched the most wins by a coach in the World Sevens Series (11), surpassing the former mentor, Ben Ryan, by two.

But what stands out for me is the five dozen-plus players that made it through the extended training squads and travelling teams over his tenure from 2016 to the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.

He added three players to his side for Tokyo who would have all missed out if the Games went ahead in 2020.

Sireli Maqala, Iosefo Masi and Jiuta Wainiqolo (five tries in Tokyo) sprung into contention in late 2020 and the rookies made their debut in Townsville at the Oceania meet, but on the world stage it came as golden debuts in Tokyo.

Baber showed he has an eye for talent and he nurtured them well to execute the perfect plan to win gold in Tokyo.

He lost some key players along the journey, but stayed on track with some great outings in the World Series before finally putting the cherry on the icing in Tokyo.

Nurturing Talent

Gareth Baber proved that nurturing talent is key to building a good side for major events.

He lost some key stars along the way who were earmarked as sure starters for the 2020 Olympic Games.

In fact in early 2017 when Baber was a few months into the job, he had players from the 2016 campaign led by Osea Kolinisau and included players who later snapped up overseas contracts – Jasa Veremalua, Setareki Bituniyata, Nemani Nagusa, Mesu Kunavula and Alivereti Veitokani while others fell out of favour – Vatemo Ravouvou, Samisoni Viriviri, Joeli Lutumailagi and the talented Amenoni Nasilasila.

He lost some key players just months out of the Tokyo battle – Paula Dranisinukula and Sevuloni Mocenacagi.

I’d scratch my head and ask how you replace talent like that in a team, especially after the duo commanded starting-seven spots and played big roles in the side in the lead-up to the big outing.

At the beginning of 2019, the loss of Amenoni Nasilasila was a bitter pill to swallow.

Baber lost in the Namatakula man a talented player who had the ability to turn games on its head with a sidestep or fake-apass and glide through a space and race to the try line to win the match.

To lose a special talent like that in your build-up phase hurts and sets your plans back.

In fact the coach classed Nasilasila as the most talented player he coached in Fiji.

Baber built his Olympic side around players who provided great leadership led by Jerry Tuwai, Kalioni Nasoko and Josua Vakurinabili while he assembled others around them starting in 2019.

Young stars Meli Derenalagi, Napolioni Bolaca and Asaeli Tuivuaka joined Vilimoni Botitu and Aminiasi Tuimaba to form a solid combination.

But Baber believed in the young guns and believe me or not, they pulled the trigger when it mattered to send our nation to the top of the medal podium for gold again – proudly, the only nation in the world to win 2 Olympic Games gold medals in rugby.

And Gareth Baber did everything right to see our team get through that journey.

I guess I would be scribing a totally different piece today if the result didn’t go our way or perhaps writing about who should be our next coach, trying to cast the net to see who were available from overseas or if a local could be looked to as an ideal choice.

Coach development

This is an area of concern and something that needs to be implemented in the near future.

Many avid rugby fans have been calling for Fijiana 7s coach Saiasi Fuli to be promoted to the men’s coaching job, but I guess the Fijiana have a plan and a model in place with an aim to win gold in Paris 2024.

And Fuli will be the master tactician for that journey. At home, in my view, there’s no other person who can take up the Fiji 7s top job and take on the high-profile challenge that comes with an international coaching position.

Some have also mooted Jerry Tuwai’s name to take up coaching, but I guess he isn’t ready just yet for the pressures of international rugby.

Coach development is an area for FRU to look at as we progress towards seeing a local man take the Fiji men’s 7s coach’s job.

Our local coaches need to be exposed to the highest level, learn the tricks of the trade, and get well-versed with international knowledge and understanding, the drive needed to stay at the competitive edge of elite level rugby and the ability to be thorough in execution, in turn, delivering positive results.

It’s a big year for 7s in 2022. The possibility of the World Series getting on the runway from March (fingers crossed), the elusive Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next August plus the World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa next September.

The dilemma will be if Baber doesn’t  renew his contract. Fiji will have to look for options and will hope we land a candidate of high caliber and with contracts for perhaps Neil Powel, Clark Laidlaw and others coming to an end soon, who knows who will get attracted to the island paradise for the toughest job in the land.

Cooper and Springshocks

Quade Cooper marked a fabulous Test return with a sound general game at pivot for Australia and helped them with eight out of eight kicks from the tee for the gritty win over world champions and world number one South Africa in Gold Coast last Sunday.

It was great for fans as most have been on the wrong side of the burner with three losses to New Zealand.

Cooper showed class at number 10 and looked cool under pressure and his variation in play with short passes inside and outside plus his chip kicks over the defence line had the springboks guessing and chasing for most of the first half.

Cooper’s match winning penalty saw fans look away or erupting in cheers ahead of the kick sensing a win, but as Cooper took the kick and all cameras followed the ball sail over.

The first reaction seen of Cooper was a picture of a calm and collected man. No Ronaldo style celebration at all.

His post-match interview and social posts a day later truly shows Cooper has learnt a lot and matured in the last four years when he was missing from top level rugby.

The Springboks ruined their chances with inaccurate goal kicks and poor discipline.

They will surely be a different package in the return clash tonight.

And in Cooper’s words – It’s already a new day today and last week is history.

Have a great weekend, stay safe and enjoy some great footy with the NRL finals and the Rugby Championship matches.

  • SATISH NARAIN is a sports commentator with FBC. The views expressed in this article are his and not of The Fiji Times.

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