The 'ludicrous' build-up facing Fiji as they bid to defend Olympic gold

Coach Gareth Baber and his Fiji players are enduring the most “ludicrous” build-up ever to an Olympic Games that will mean his players will have been away from their families for 18 weeks by the time they complete their sevens gold medal defence in Japan.

Quarantine restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has meant the Fiji players , who are hoping to win a second successive gold medal, have been operating in a training bubble and will only leave in June to take part in a mini-Oceania sevens tournament against Australia and New Zealand in Townsville -the only international competition Fiji will have played in the 16 months leading into then Tokyo Olympics in July.

The lack international competition and quarantine restrictions is also impacting on Baber’s plans to bring back key players currently operating at some of Europe’s top clubs to bolster the Gold medal bid.

Baber is still hoping to include Bristol’s Semi Radradra, Pau’s Aminiasi Tuimaba and Castres based Filimoni Botitu and believes it would be possible to integrate them into the squad thanks to their previous sevens experience.

Australia and New Zealand have just held a series of matches between the countries to try and improve their preparations for Tokyo leaving Fiji to play catch-up having been restricted to tournaments staged in the Islands. While Baber can take some comfort from the fact every other gold medal chasing sevens nation is also battling against disrupted preparations, he recognises the unique pressures facing his men.

Baber told RugbyPass: “When you look at the gold medal defence from a sports science and coaching perspective it is particularly ludicrous for any country try to win the title. The expectation in Fiji is that you will defend the title despite not having played international competition for 16 months.

“It is a real challenge when things are constantly changing and I have never encountered anything like this before. I have been howling at the moon at times and the biggest difficulty is asking players and coaches to be away from families for so long.

“We are able to do some training together and have been in the same facility for about five weeks which has been pretty tough given the restrictions in the country. The intention was to go a regional focussed preparation for the Olympics and we have been trying since February to make that happen and now it is in June which is very close to the Olympics.

“We will go to Australia and play against New Zealand and Australia plus one other team in a pared down version of the Oceania tournament and it would be our one and only chance for international competition before the Olympics. With the quarantine restrictions we would have to go straight from Australia to Japan and our training base in Oita.

“It will be the first time we have been out of Fiji since last February (2020) and that is particularly tough. We have had local tournaments but Fiji doesn’t play against Fiji in the Olympics and we want to test ourselves against teams who operate differently. Playing on the sevens circuit young players get to play in different countries and mature and develop by dealing with pressures and you are missing out on that experience.

“We have been creative in Fiji to try and prepare the squad and there are still possibilities of bringing players back from Europe where the season is continuing. I want to see players competing against New Zealand and Australia and we will be looking at doing that if we can get the European based players back. The international release for the Olympics is only 21 days and so you are beholding to the goodwill of the clubs.”

Initially, Fiji will do their quarantine period on the Sunshine Coast before heading up to Townsville for a three-day competition and Baber added: “We have had the first vaccination and will do two weeks quarantine when going into Australia and that is a huge issue in itself and then play the tournament. We could not afford another two weeks in quarantine after that just before the Olympics and it’s not a case of “woe is me” it is just a reality of the situation.

“We have had a lot of support from the Governments of Fiji and Australia where we will be based for just over a month. It has been tough for everyone and we are very privileged to be able to do this and all nations have been ripping up plans and its about being flexible.

“You want to do your best for Fiji and be in a position to defence the gold medal and the squad will have been away from the families for about 18 weeks by the end of the quarantine following the Olympics. Fijians are so family orientated and no one planned that to the situation”