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Under Pressure: Baber on Hong Kong’s Sevens World Series dream

Gareth Baber pictured with Hong Kong women’s coach Anna Richards. Photo: HKRFU.

Gareth Baber pictured with Hong Kong women’s coach Anna Richards. Photo: HKRFU.

GARETH BABER is charged with steering Hong Kong to a place on the HSBC Sevens World Series via the 12-team Qualifier at the Cathay Pacific / HSBC Hong Kong Sevens. The former Wales Sevens scrumhalf and coach says he’s relishing the challenge of creating Asian sporting history.


By SportAsia


How much of a challenge is it to win the 12-team Qualifier and make Hong Kong the first Asian side to become a core team on the HSBC Sevens World Series?

Everyone who’s playing in the Qualifier is only interested in winning, no matter what pool they’re in. We have a responsibility to all the stakeholders in the Hong Kong Sevens and the Hong Kong Sports Institute to put ourselves in a position to potentially earn a place on the World Series. Obviously that would be something special for Hong Kong.


What are your thoughts on the teams Hong Kong have been drawn with – Italy, Tunisia and American Samoa?

If you’re going to play in these tournaments, the only real thing at the end of it is to win the tournament. That’s what we’re going to be going for; that’s what we’ve set our sights on. We realise we’ve got a job to do, not just against the teams in our pool but across all the teams in the other pools as well.


I’m not going to comment on individual teams. They’re not playing on the World Series so you’re not seeing too much footage of them. At the end of the day, all of the teams have the same objective as we have and that’s to win. It’s only the number one team that has anything at the end of this tournament.


In last year’s Qualifier in London, Hong Kong came up against teams who had spent the whole season on the World Series. Does the fact every team in this year’s Qualifier is not playing on the World Series give Hong Kong their best chance to get through?

As the coach of Hong Kong, you’ve got to realise that things are in your favour to do that. We’re in a home draw. The teams we’re facing are not playing on the World Series. We just have to prepare the way we always prepare we do for every tournament.


We’re in a good mindset, we’re in a good place as a squad. We came back from Darwin with two good victories, for the men and women’s teams, and we’ve just got to keep on with that positive mentality through till the end of March. Obviously we also play in the Asian Sevens Series and are prepping for the Asian Games later this year as well.


If Hong Kong were to qualify for the World Series, what would it do for rugby in the city?

Firstly, I have to manage expectations. The World Series is a tough environment. If you get in there by managing to qualify, then you want to hold yourself in there, so it would add pressure to Hong Kong rugby because you have to maintain that ability to stay in the series. There are some good teams in there, 15 good teams, and none of them want to get relegated. You can see a level of quality at the top of the game.


Having said that, as athletes, that’s where they want to perform. As staff and management, that’s where we want to perform. Certainly as a nation, Hong Kong wants to get itself in that position where young kids are looking up to these senior pros and saying, ‘You know, that’s a good place to be. I want to go and perform for my nation out there on the World Series.’


Does the team’s work at the Hong Kong Sports Institute since last year give them an edge?

Yeah, absolutely; it certainly gives this group an edge. I can’t comment on what other countries are doing or what their rugby programmes are like or how they’re resourced. It’s a phenomenal facility we’ve got at the Sports Institute.


I was fortunate enough to play on the World Series for four years and coach for three years. I played for Wales at the Hong Kong Sevens in 2003, ’04, ’05 and ’06, and coached in ’07 and ’08. I’ve managed to see a lot of places around the world where rugby is played and this is probably one of the best facilities I’ve ever been in. We’re working hard to squeeze everything out of it we can to generate as much as we can for these players to perform at the highest level.


Hong Kong has a relatively small player base at the top level. Will you be nervous in the coming weeks about possible injuries to players?

Yeah, absolutely. You’re always an injury or two from having a big dent in your squad. That’s the nature of rugby. It’s a physical game. To use a cliché, it’s not tiddlywinks. Injuries will happen and no doubt they will happen between now and the Hong Kong Sevens. People will be disappointed, but the nature of being effectively a professional athlete is that you’re only an injury or a pull or a strain away from making the next tournament.


So, yes, I’ll be a little bit nervous between now and then, but part of what we’re doing now at the Hong Kong Sports Institute is to grow the number of players who can play at that level. It takes a lot of hard graft, but fortunately we’re being offered that opportunity at the Hong Kong Sport Institute along with support from the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union.


Hong Kong has performed well, but missed out on its last two attempts to qualify for the World Series. What difference can the home crowd expect to see in the team this time following their time in the Sports Institute?

You pointed to getting there or thereabouts on many occasions. A lot of that comes down to consistency and the behaviour of being professional. The fact that the players are with the staff every day, working on elements of their game in a professional manner, means that it becomes second nature to them.


Being in finals, being in tight situations, they will better understand the behaviour and the players around them, and ultimately they’re a bit tougher in terms of mentality to make sure they grasp those opportunities and make sure nobody takes it off them.


How much have you learned about the previous occasions where Hong Kong came close, but were unable to make that final step?

I’ve heard a little bit of exactly that; that they were just maybe lacking a little bit of game management that comes with playing the game more regularly, with more of the analysis we’re able to do with them now on a daily basis.


But again, it’s that big mentality, that behavioural thing that comes with being a professional and treating your lifestyle as a professional as well. As a group, the men’s and women’s teams are only young in terms of their professional careers and we’ve got to learn very quickly.


Rugby’s quite a dynamic sport. Things change very quickly and they’ve got to be willing to jump on with that – and they are. They’re absorbing everything we’re doing at the moment, so hopefully when they do find themselves in a tight spot or they’ve got to close a game out, we’ve got the mentality to go over the top of a team; they’ve got that mentality purely because of their behaviour and the way they think.


How much has the victory in Darwin in January helped the team’s self confidence?

Again, I need to manage expectations. We weren’t playing against national teams like we will be at the Hong Kong Sevens, but any win is positive. This is why we play the game. Elements of the things we worked in in January were mentality and they found themselves in a couple of tight spots in Darwin and were able to get through that. The lessons were learnt.


Now, they’re going to go up against tougher opposition and find themselves in tighter spots, so you’re going to hope that some of that experience and the positivity from Darwin is in their heads and they can close out those games.


How much are you enjoying this role and this huge challenge in only your first few months in charge?

I’m enjoying it enormously. As a head coach, you want to get yourself in a position where you can put a programme in place that you know can make a difference and can make a difference quickly. Being at the Sports Institute and being supported by the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union mean that we can make those changes quickly.


As I said, rugby’s a dynamic sport, it moves very quickly, so you have to be ahead of it and we’re doing everything we can. I’m enjoying the pressure of staying ahead of the players and taking them somewhere that hopefully they can get to in a short period of time and then beyond.


Interview conducted jointly by SportAsia and South China Morning Post

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