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Baber’s sights set on more Olympic gold for Fiji

Gareth Baber with his Fijian Sevens players

Baber’s sights set on more Olympic gold for Fiji

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We saw Jade Jones fall at the first hurdle in her quest for a third successive Olympic gold in Tokyo and the great American gymnast Simone Biles also missed out on another gold through injury.

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The pressure was on them as favourites, as it was on Team GB swimmer Adam Peaty to deliver. He did manage to defend his 100 breaststroke title in the pool and now the pressure switches to a Welshman in the Rugby Sevens to deliver the goods.

Gareth Baber has been planning and plotting to keep Fiji on top of the world in the small sided game ever since he took over from Englishman Ben Ryan as head coach. When Ryan’s side deliver the first gold medal in Fijian sporting history in 2016 he was made a tribal chief and showered with gifts and land.

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None of the trappings of success that the 2016 team acquired are of any great interest to Baber. He just wants to keep his side on track for the final.

So far, so good, with a semi-final shoot-out against Argentina already secured thanks to wins over Japan (24-19), Canada (28-14) and, in a repeat of the 2016 final, Team GB (33-7). There then followed a comprehensive win over Australia in the quarter-finals (19-0) to set-up a semi-final showdown with Argentina.

Team GB made it through to the final four thanks to a shock 26-21 comeback quarter-final victory over USA to stay in the hunt for another possible medal. They now face New Zealand.

Given the strange build-up to the Olympics, which were postponed for a year, Baber can feel rightly proud of the reaction of his players to date in Tokyo.

“We suffered national and local lockdowns in Fiji last year, but we always had an ability to keep going with our training. There were 50 COVID cases, but contained,” said the former Wales Sevens international.

“They don’t possess the infra-structure medically in Fiji to deal with the mass casualties we’ve seen everywhere else. We only had two deaths in the first wave, but they both had underlying medical issues.

“Even so, we saw a nation on tenterhooks to find out the strain and severity of it and how it was going to affect the wider population. We had been a bit isolated from it and some people felt it would catch up with us.

“We were lucky in not having it around us because having vaccines and injections is not as routine in Fiji as it is in UK, Australia and New Zealand.”

Baber admits there was “an inevitability the virus would reach Fiji” and by the time they left there has been 59 deaths in a population of only 900,000. That made planning for the Olympic defence very difficult against a background of strict COVID protcols and lockdowns.

The World Series was put on hold and the final run-in to Tokyo proved to be a logistical nightmare. Having played against each other at home, the Fijians headed to Townsville in Australia for a holding camp, and to play some games against Australia and New Zealand, and then straight on to Japan.

Having gathered his players together at a Christian hostel in Suva in April allegedly for a week-long camp, Baber was then forced to keep them together in a secure bubble since then due to the escalating COVID crisis.

They haven’t seen their families since and even when they return to Fiji after the Games they will have to spend two weeks in quarantine.

“My eldest daughter and middle son went back to Wales for school last year. My wife and youngest son then came back with me to Fiji. We came home in December and went straight into lockdown and I returned to Fiji on my own on 5 January,” he added.

“I never planned to be in Fiji without my family and being this far away from them is difficult. You have a family for a reason – I quite like them and being with them.

“They were destined to come to Tokyo and my wife couldn’t believe she was going to miss out because we always wanted to share the Olympic experience as a family. But I’m in a privileged position to be doing what I’m doing and there are a lot of families in worse position than ours.

“When COVID hit it meant we hadn’t be outside the country since last February. We’ve been fortunate in that being an island and not being locked down we could continue playing domestically and training.

“We decided we needed to get the players playing, both 15s and 7s and we had about a dozen tournaments over the last seven months. That was physically intense and the players in my squad had targets on their backs and people went after them.

“Sometimes it wasn’t always legal and the problem was we were playing against other Fijians. That didn’t teach us to play against Aussies, Kiwis and others.

“In the World Series you learn so much about the other teams and that means you can work to get things right for the next tournament. It’s a real learning experience for younger players which helps to change personalities and to help players to mature.”

Judging by their first three results, however difficult the build up and preparation has been the Fijians are on course for a successful title defence.

“I’m a logistician by trade – I did a Masters degree in transport at Oxford University – but it has blown my mind what it has taken to get us from Fiji to Australia and then up to Japan. It has been a huge undertaking from the national governments and World Rugby,” added Baber.

“I would be lying if I said I hadn’t envisaged us being in a situation where the players have played their best game ever in the final and taken the chance that God has given them to win gold again. But I’ve also had to plan around us losing it as well.

“Either of those scenarios involves us coming back here and quarantining in individual rooms in a hotel for two weeks before going back to meet our families and the rest of the nation. We are trying to do it for the greater good of the country.”

Having been in Fiji since January, 2017, during which time he has coached his side to a record breaking 11 titles and a World Series victory, Baber knows he will have to consider his future once the action in Tokyo is over. He has been ‘on the road’ since 2013, when he first left Wales to join Leigh Jones and Dai Rees in Hong Kong as their national sevens coach, but isn’t ruling out a prolonged stay in the south pacific.

“When you come to Fiji you can’t help but let the country get under your skin. The job is mad, but I’ve got an affinity with the people here and I love what I’m doing,” he said.

“My big desire is to return to the 15-a-side environment in the future, but this experience has seriously moved me on as an individual and a coach. I eventually want to put something back into Welsh rugby.

“It’s never a linear approach when you are a coach. I’ve gone around the houses, but I’ve learned a lot from my time in both Hong Kong and Fiji.

“There is a Super Rugby franchise being developed here in Fiji and I’m currently part of those conversations. I’m still investigating further work here in Fiji and back at home, but my family is in Cardiff.

“Being a coach is a pretty selfish existence and my two sons are at key periods in their education. I’m coming up to 50 and the last 45 years of my life have all been about rugby.

“I want to be challenged in a rugby environment, but also to be part of something positive. I really enjoyed my time working with Dai Young and Justin Burnell at the Blues and playing at the Dragons and Pontypridd.

“Some of the most fun I’ve had in my rugby career was in Wales.”

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