There’s a lot of gold in Fiji’s medal cabinet from the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2018. From the last five tournaments, Fiji’s players have returned to the rugby sevens-obsessed Pacific island with four gold medals and one bronze. Their global success has put them top of the standings on 145 points, four points ahead of fierce rivals South Africa with two tournaments to play.
“It’s fantastic to be performing well, not just for the players and staff, but also the fans at home in Fiji,” said head coach Gareth Baber. “There was a plan before the season started that we needed to look closely at certain elements of our game, specifically the physical make-up of our side. If we could get that right, we would be able to make it through all the tournaments on the series.
“We took a view that we wouldn’t look to peak too many times, but more to stay within a bandwidth we could consistently operate in for longer periods of time. You are never quite sure how it is coming together, but it seems like we are going in the right direction. We started slowly in Dubai and Cape Town, but the series is beginning to take shape now.”
Baber arrived early last year with plenty of pressure on his shoulders. After transforming Hong Kong’s sevens programme, he joined a Fijian team at the top of their game. Under former coach Ben Ryan, Fiji had just won the 2015-16 world series and Olympic gold. They were formidable. However, in Baber’s first year Fiji finished up third with a single tournament win coming at Hong Kong.
“I certainly learned a heap in that first series. You rely on what you are as a person and your relationships with the players, that was a huge emphasis through that stage. There was a big gap left by captain Osea (Kolinisau) who knew the systems and had the team’s focus. I picked Jerry (Tuwai) to take over as captain and he has been fantastic. Now we’re making good progress and the players are responding well.”
Hamilton back in January was a turning point for Baber and Fiji. The first tournament win of 2018, led to a bronze in Las Vegas and a triple threat of gold medals at Hong Kong, Vancouver and Singapore. Throw a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games into the mix and things are looking good for Baber.
“For any group, you have got to see some wins to make it worthwhile, whatever that might be. For us, winning in Hamilton, beating Samoa, New Zealand and South Africa created a bit of momentum and the players found the level they could operate at consistently. It was fresh in their minds after that, so when we went back to Fiji they knew they had to operate at that level whatever they did, as South Africa had done the previous season. That’s professional sport mentality, you look at your players like Djokovic and Federer in tennis and your top sprinters, or top racing drivers, how do you recreate constantly in their lives the standards they need to live at to win?
“We try and make every element of preparation competitive; sometimes it’s in team meetings, sometimes it’s in the gym. I like to put them in situations that they will feel uncomfortable in. They love competition in every element. Backs v forwards. Little quizzes. Small players vs big. They thrive in those tough situations, and that’s been very pleasing to see in tournaments like Singapore. They find the strength and experience to finish off teams when we look like we are dead and buried. That’s what great sportspeople are made of. My job is to take that “outcome pressure” away from them so they can just enjoy the game.”
If Baber’s words have been exemplified by any moment this year on the world series, it was in Singapore in late April. Time was up on the clock, Fiji were 21-22 down against Australia, then flyer Alasio Sovita Naduva scored an incredible solo try to take the tournament win. Calmness under pressure has always been Fiji’s way of playing rugby sevens. However, for Baber there’s constant work to be done.
“In Singapore, a couple of areas that didn’t function as well as they should were the kick-offs and line-outs. It’s a like a game of whack-a-mole; you think you have something right then you look over there and something else pops its head up. That’s just sport and we are constantly looking how to develop our game.”
Heading into London, the penultimate round of the men’s world series, Fiji have drawn three tough opponents; Cape Town and Vegas finalists Argentina, double London winners Scotland and Commonwealth champions New Zealand. Three teams, with three entirely different approaches to the game of sevens.
“There are two or three different style in our pool approaching London,” said Baber. “Argentina, they have an intensity without the ball, they look to go hard at you early in attack and defence so we have been getting prepared for that element.
“Scotland, the threat there is akin to Northern Hemisphere sevens, creating width on the game with good passing skills, coming onto the ball at pace. New Zealand? We pretty much go toe-to-toe with them.
The series will finish in Paris but sights are already set on July 20-22 when Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco rolls into town.
“It’s going to be in such as iconic stadium, and an amazing city. The fact it’s in the USA, will come with some added razmataz and energy.
“Based on our series so far, nothing is certain. We missed out on Commonwealth Games which hurt big time. I’ve been pleased with the progression the players have made and we are striving for high performance. It’s been a while since Fiji have won the Rugby World Cup Sevens. If we are playing good rugby we can do it.”
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Americas Rugby Championship 2018 - Round 5
CHILE v CANADA: 17-33
URUGUAY v USA: 19-61
BRAZIL v ARGENTINA XV: 8-28