HONG KONG, China, Mar 20 – A year ago Fiji were running away with the World Rugby Sevens Series, about to win a record 16th Hong Kong title and a few months away from precious Olympic gold.
Now they are struggling for form having lost key players and their lauded coach Ben Ryan.
The new man in charge, Gareth Baber, admits he is under huge pressure to get Fiji back to their all-conquering ways, starting with the defence of their Hong Kong crown early next month.
“The Fijians love Hong Kong, there’s a mystique around playing in Hong Kong for the Fijians that brings added pressure,” former Hong Kong coach Baber told AFP in a teleconference call.
The Pacific islanders have won more times in Hong Kong than anyone else and in four of the past five years.
“I suppose (it’s) because people think you have a right to win there. I know exactly how difficult it’s going to be,” said Baber of the weight of expectation on his team at their “home” event in Hong Kong.
The World Sevens Series champions for the past two seasons are yet to win a tournament this term.
Their most recent outing was chastening — a 40-7 semi-final thrashing by England in Vancouver.
Welshman Baber only took over in December — after the season’s opening two tournaments in Dubai and South Africa — and maintains that Fiji still possess “great talent”.
South Africa have won four of the six World Sevens Series events this season with England taking the other two but Baber says his side remain competitive, the Vancouver “massive blooper” aside.
“We haven’t been far away. We lost 19-12 to South Africa in the final in Vegas,” he said.
“Apart from the massive blooper against England in Vancouver, we then went on to beat a very good US side that pushed South Africa all the way. There’s not a lot between us.”
Sevens is Fiji’s national sport and the team were given a rapturous reception after winning the nation’s first Olympic medal, trouncing Great Britain in the Rio final to take gold.
Baber knew following Ryan, who has legendary status in Fiji, would be tough especially during a period of transition.
“Performances have been mixed but I think there’s an inevitability about that with what the players have been through after the Olympics, the loss of some of the players and the change in coaching,” he said.
“Around six left from that Rio team which, when they’ve been playing over two or three years, is major chunk out of seven players on the field and 12 in the squad.
“But this is a different team and it will evolve. It’s not at the performance level I want it to be at moment but we are all working hard.”