Gareth Baber: "Sevens rugby is like tiki-taka football"

Baber, who coached Fiji's men to a record-setting run of tournament wins, scoring the big one at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, explains the attacking skills that make rugby sevens a game he still cannot take his eyes off.

Playing and coaching rugby may have been Gareth Baber’s job for more decades than he might care to admit but put a good game of sevens in front of him and he remains a happy man. 

“You can’t take a breath when you watch great sevens,” Baber said ahead of the latest round of the HSBC SVNS 2024, which kicks off in Vancouver on Friday, 23 February. 

“There is jeopardy and there is risk in everything that everybody does. It’s exhilarating and it’s exhausting.” 

Sevens is, according to the Welshman, rugby boiled down to its glorious core. 

Full speed ahead

“When you think about a playground, getting six or seven people together and they just play, what they would naturally do is run at each other and pass the ball into space,” Baber said. 

“That relationship between understanding where space is and how you utilise that space is the game of rugby and why I love sevens.” 

Pace is undoubtedly key, and not just in the most obvious way. 

“When you talk about pace there’s a few things that come to mind,” confirmed the man who led Fiji men’s team to a record 11 tournament victories from 2017-21. “Out and out pace of somebody to run 80m and beat everybody because they are quicker. 

“But then equally there is the pace that’s required to create pressure in the game by increasing the speed at which you do things.” 

Two world-leading men’s teams – one of which Baber knows inside out – embody the varied application of pace in sevens. 

“When you talk about the Fijians, what they do when they attack defenders is they do it with such pace that defenders struggle to get in a position to create dominance in the tackle,” Baber said. 

“It may only be over six or seven metres but they are using that pace in a different way to create pressure on two or three defenders, which gives them an opportunity to then go and play elsewhere.” 

By contrast, South Africa take a completely different approach – they beat teams by “being quicker than everybody else in everything they do”. 

Basketball style

This is why for Baber, rugby sevens is like the non-stop movement of ‘full-court basketball’, or the ‘tiki-taka football’ made famous by the all-conquering FC Barcelona team. 

Add in eye-catching offloads, and there’s no wonder fans all over the world are tuning in to HSBC SVNS 2024. 

“What you are trying to do all the time as attackers is suck defenders into an area, either to create space elsewhere or to create an opportunity for you to beat them to the next space: and the offload is a classic example of that,” Baber said, explaining why his former charges in Fiji excel at this most thrilling of skills. 

“What they are particularly good at is their recognition of the body language and anticipation of what the ball carrier is going to do, to get themselves into the next space. 

“They then have that capacity when they are in the tackle to get their arms free, and an innate awareness of how to be subtle in the pass.” 

It is all of this that leads to the basketball-style flicks over and behind heads that often define Fiji’s play – and, most crucially of all, result in tries. 

The whole picture

There are some rugby basics underpinning all this attacking flair. Baber lists four: the catch and pass, good tackle technique, work in the contact area, and a strong running game. But there is one more, that may surprise some. It is a skill Baber thinks is still often underused. 

“Wherever you are on the field, if you can spot the defence is not in a position to protect that space in behind then players that have that ability – almost footballing instincts – to be able to create subtlety in a kick, either for themselves or others. That’s a real key element of attacking in sevens,” the coach said. 

All you need then to bring everything together is ‘vision’ and the ‘ability to see patterns in the game that are always there’. 

Simple? Perhaps not. But brilliant? It certainly is.  

By Luke Norman