Next sevens challenge

Members of the Fiji Airways Fiji 7s team sing the national anthem before their cup final match against Kenya at the Canada 7s in Vancouver two weeks ago. Picture: JOVESA NAISUA

Members of the Fiji Airways Fiji 7s team sing the national anthem before their cup final match against Kenya at the Canada 7s in Vancouver two weeks ago. Picture: JOVESA NAISUA

AFTER scooping the Canada 7s in Vancouver last weekend, Gareth Baber’s Fiji Airways Fiji 7s team have put their hands up that they are genuine contenders to take on the world in 2018 and achieve “Mission Impossible”.

Never before has anything been so daunting in sevens rugby as the opportunity facing top sevens champions like Fiji in 2018.

We have the 2017/2018 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series to end in May, the elusive Commonwealth Games gold medal in Australia in April and the Melrose Cup, the World Sevens title in August.

We have won the HSBC series three times, the Melrose Cup twice but managed to take home silver at the Commonwealth Games.

Having also bagged the Olympic Gold medal in 2016 under Englishman Ben Ryan, this tiny island group with a population of about 900,000, has the reputation of producing the most feared sevens teams in history.

But many hurdles such as lack of funding, special sevens training facilities and equipment that teams such as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, USA and England have made the effort harder and the mission looks impossible.

Then there’s the wealth of talent being developed by top sevens countries, who have maintained the core of their combination of experienced players for the past three to four seasons while Fiji continually lost theirs to overseas rugby clubs.

South Africa dominated the HSBC series last season winning five tournaments while New Zealand are the defending Melrose Cup champions and they are still hurting from their failure to win gold in Rio according to an interview by former skipper Wilkinson on television.

While Fiji rugby fans have been concerned with winning every tournament Welshman Baber had it all under his perspective even against the tide of public opinion after poor performances in his first HSBC series season.

As he has revealed he was not only developing a winning team but a winning squad of players.

So seeking the services of Europe-based players lsuch as Leone Nakarawa, Semi Kunatani, Josua Tuisova and Semi Radradra is essential.

Having followed Baber’s coaching in past tournaments Fijian rugby fans can be assured that we have a coach who is vigilant in the analysis of every aspect of the performance of his team and is prompt in making the necessary changes when required.

No matter how good a player is there are many other factors like injuries, close marking and special attention of the opposition and unknown distractions that can affect his performance on the day.

So far Baber’s coaching team have been on the ball and making winning moves like a chess player would. The fitness is perfect and Naca Cawanibuka’s is doing a grand job as well as the other team specialists.

After the loss to USA in Las Vegas I was asked of my fifty cents opinion around the grog bowl and suggested that maybe it could have made a difference had Eroni Sau ignited the lovo pit against USA before sending in Army speedster Alasio Naduva to blast through the sizzling, hot white stones.

Sau’s damaging tackles would have mellowed the opposition a little, especially speedster Perry Baker before Naduva came in to unravel the cooked dalo, pork dripping with melted fat, chicken and palusami.

Well that’s what happened in Vancouver, curry and roti included and everybody enjoyed the sevens feast. Mesulame Kunavula and Paula Dranisinukula also proved to be effective impact players in Vancouver while Baber gave the rugby world a sneak preview of what former schoolboy track star Batinisavu Uluiyata had in store when he ran 75 metres, outpacing Spanish defenders to score his first HSBC series try. His defence was sound like his cousin’s Semi Kunatani, his pace blistering.

After the Vancouver win former coach Ryan said he would be surprised if Fiji did not win both Commonwealth and Melrose Cup.

Ryan’s book on the Olympic gold medal victory will be published on May 31 titled Sevens Heaven: The Beautiful Chaos of Fiji’s Olympic Dream.

The inspirational story of how one man changed a nation, how that nation changed the man and how together they made sporting history.

“It is late summer 2013. Ben Ryan, a red-haired, 40-something, spectacle-wearing Englishman, is given 20 minutes to decide whether he wants to coach Fiji’s rugby sevens team, with the aim of taking them to the nation’s first-ever Olympic medal. He has never been to Fiji. There has been no discussion of contracts or salary. But he knows that no one plays rugby like the men from these isolated Pacific Islands, just as no one plays football like the kids from the Brazilian favelas, or no one runs as fast as the boys and girls from Jamaica’s boondocks. He knows too that no other rugby nation has so little —— no money and no resources, only basic equipment and a long, sad history of losing its most gifted players to richer, greedier nations.

“Ryan says yes. And with that simple word he sets in motion an extraordinary journey that will encompass witchdoctors and interfering prime ministers, sun-smeared dawns and devastating cyclones, intense friendships and bitter rows, phone taps and wild nationwide parties. It will end in Rio with a performance that not only wins Olympic gold but reaches fresh heights for rugby union and makes Ben and his 12 players living legends back home.”

Well Ryan has achieved his dream and written a book.

Welshman Baber is on a similar mission, impossible it may look. But he has a bigger book in store if he achieves all in 2018. If he sticks around until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and win a second gold medal, he would definitely surpass the Englishman’s achievement.

But those are the ambitions and aspirations of Fiji rugby fanatics, which are themselves Mission Impossible or maybe possible if we have the money to field two different teams.

There’s a lot more to be done and with the growing intensity of competition raw talent is no longer enough to ensure consistent performance and served its purpose when there was only a single tournament like the Hong Kong Sevens.

The HSBC series, Commonwealth Games, Melrose Cup and Olympics are a different kettle of fish. They are similar to running brawls.

Baber’s original mission, required by Fiji Rugby Union, was to lay the foundation for the development of the sevens game locally which would produce a consistent performance on the international scene.

With the proper systematic sevens program set up, any local Tomu, Dike and Are can coach Fiji. How long this will take, only time can tell.

More Stories