Pulling power of Fiji rugby obvious at Commonwealth Games
GOLD COAST, Australia (AP) — The Fijian netball team went missing Saturday on the Gold Coast, failing to turn up to watch the semifinals of their Commonwealth Games sport.
Instead, they were found 30 kilometers (19 miles) further south at the rugby sevens where the Fijian men, Olympic champions, began their campaign with a 63-5 win over Sri Lanka.
There is an intense affinity between this nation and this particular sport.
But with that comes great expectations, particularly if you're the coach.
Gareth Baber knew it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach the Pacific Island nation's sevens team but couldn't comprehend how much support — and scrutiny — was wrapped up in Fiji's cultural identity.
Without exception, the village, the church and the rugby field are three key elements of Fijian society.
In the past, national holidays have been declared based on the team's international success.
"Pressure? Have you been to Fiji? It doesn't matter if it's a beach game ... or playing at the Olympics, rugby is taken very seriously," Baber said. "This is no different ... the expectation is to win every game."
Baber said the players and their supporters were used to winning in the world series and the Olympics, "and Commonwealth Games will be no different."
"We know what Fiji is here to deliver. We are fortunate and blessed to be in a position to represent Fiji and the people back home."
Barber said his players had done the country proud.
"I don't think rugby has possibly changed in Fiji over the past 100 years in terms of the way the players play rugby in Fiji," he said. "I am blessed to be in the position and see what it means — and rugby is the social glue that pulls everyone together."
Baber said his squad did not have access to lavish gyms or modern aquatics centers and their style of play is as exactly how people would see the game played every time the players find "grassland or the mud".
"The players are very humble ... the players do not understand what they have achieved."
The theory seems to be that a team that prays together, stays together. Players often pray together before and after training, and players write messages on their wrist tape quoting verses from the bible.
Should Fiji win the men's gold medal on Sunday, it will be their first in the Commonwealth Games.
The Fijians finished runners-up to New Zealand in 1998 and Manchester 2002, and won bronze in Melbourne in 2006.
But Fiji did not compete in 2010 due to a military coup, their suspension was lifted in time for Glasgow 2014 but too late for their rugby sevens team to compete.
They're making up for lost time, following the opening win with a 54-0 thumping of Uganda.
In a disappointing result for the hosts, Australia's 26-17 loss to England late Friday put them out of medal contention.
In the women's competition, Olympic champion Australia will meet Canada and New Zealand play England in semifinals.
The Australians will need a more disciplined game after Fiji's physicality saw them lose composure tonight.
It was only with Fiji's Pricilla Siata sitting off courtesy of a yellow card that Australia had the extra player, allowing Charlotte Caslick to break the deadlock and gifting her side a 17-10 win.
In Sunday's men's semifinals, New Zealand will play England followed by Fiji verses South Africa.
At the 2014 Games in Glasgow, South Africa won gold and it was the first time New Zealand had been beaten since men's sevens was introduced in 1998.
The Kiwis have enjoyed an easier run into the gold-medal match and boast a 113-plus points differential.
Their first real test is likely to be the gold medal match against defending Commonwealth champions South Africa or Olympic champions Fiji.