University rugby has produced some outstanding young talents over the last decade, and with the quality of the leagues across the system ever expanding, it has begun to attract some of the top coaches in the game.
Having previously worked with Fiji Sevens, Edinburgh and Cardiff Blues, Gareth Baber is currently the Director of Rugby System at Cardiff Met University and his appointment is a great example of the growing standard of student rugby.
Rocking a moustache for the men’s health charity ‘Movember’, Baber reflects on his first few months working in a top BUCS environment.
"Obviously it’s a bit of a change in relation to what I was doing previously and have done for the last two decades," Baber tells TRU's Ben King. "It’s a slightly different challenge, a slightly different role and a slightly different perspective you have as a coach in a Director of Rugby position.
"This is the first time I’ve worked with so many individuals across both the men’s and women’s game as well as the junior stuff as well. I’m getting used to university life as well but yeah, starting to understand how it fits together."
Next game. New line up.— SportBroadcastMSc & Sport MediaBSc (@MetBroadcast) October 11, 2023
Awesome to have Met’s new Director of Rugby Systems, Gareth Baber, join @SOCsportsmedia tonight for our build-up to the @CardiffMetRFC match v @DURFC
An Olympic ?? gold medal winner as Fiji 7s coach in 2021. pic.twitter.com/ofl7TexkOk
After the first nine rounds of BUCS Super Rugby, Cardiff Met have four losses to their name already. Whilst this may be below the Welsh side’s expectations, Baber recognises both the impressive standard of the league, but also the need to build resilience across the whole season - something he is really looking to drive into the playing group.
"I think that obviously there’s really strong quality in terms of the players in the league. I think that the challenge in the league is around understanding what those levels of performance look like throughout a whole season over a period of time.
"That doesn’t come quickly, that comes with understanding how you consistently manage your team and bring attention to what it is that makes them develop and grow as a team and then consistently be able to put that on a field."
Having never finished in the top two in BSR, Met will be hoping to be in the running for both the league and the cup come the end of the season.
Adding a coach of Baber's experience to their set-up certainly points the Archers in the right direction to achieve just that. However, whilst he has certain performance outcomes in mind, the former Edinburgh coach emphasises the importance of building a sustainable model for long-term success in his first year in the role.
"You certainly want to be in a play-off position with a home advantage [top four finish in BSR] and you would think that would be everybody’s goal, but I’m looking at our outcome goals.
"I’d rather see a clarity of what we’re good at. What do we need to develop in our game to be able to instantly map out what those performances look like?
"Whilst there are some outcome goals that people want to look at and will ultimately see as a method for generating performance, in my experience if you look too hard at that and you don’t look at what the quality of delivery, process and learning is, you’re probably going to miss out on where you want to get anyway."
Whilst Met are yet to claim any silverware in BSR, over in the women's game, it has been a different story for the Welsh institution. Having won the BUCS title on no less than 10 occasions in the past, the Archers are certainly in the hunt once again as they currently sit top of the Women’s National League.
"There’s obviously been some good work done this year, and Lisa [Newton] who heads the team up is working to establish a system and way of operating as a group of student athletes who are open-minded enough to recognise the areas they need to develop.
Thank you @TalkRugbyUnion for editing out all the umms from the transcript ??— Lisa Newton (@LisaNewton20) November 5, 2022
On a serious note, this is personal for me, @cmetwrfc1 gave me so many opportunities and I want our Archers to thrive here too
My daughter is very lucky to have them as role models ??#onceanarcher https://t.co/ePP4RvkJni
“If you can surround that style of learning with good coaches [as well as the insight offered by Player Development Lead and former Wales international Eli Snowsill] then I think you’re starting to create an environment and an ecosystem around those players which supports them. They feel heard then, and they feel there is a trust between them and the coaching group.
“What I can tell you in my own opinion and experience is that is where you start to get leaps in performance and changes in behaviour around focusing on what makes us good and not getting blindsided by the time you possibly don’t get there.”
Cardiff Met University is one of six universities in the UK to have a team in the top divisions of both men's and women’s rugby and, alongside this, they also have nine BUCS teams across the club playing on a Wednesday.
There is often an abundance of talent below the top teams and with his role allowing Barber to work across the whole club, he is eager to get the best out of his players at every level.
"I’d say, yeah, we are in a good space," continues the Welshman. "There are good quality talents and good individuals within that (the club but naturally, you only find some of that out once you get into it and you test and challenge them outside the rugby field.
"And yes, there’s potentially going to be individuals in there who then start to leap up teams and hold their hands up for getting up that ladder. That’s what makes a good environment, one that is aspirational."
Having won an Olympic gold medal as Head Coach of the Fiji sevens at Toyko 2020, and also worked with high-performing Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh squads, Baber's coaching CV speaks for itself. Despite university rugby being a completely new environment, the 51-year-old’s coaching fundamentals remain the same.
"It is a bit cliche, but one of the biggest characteristics of coaches is authenticity and understanding. You know, what you are as a person, how you create relationships and rapport.
"How do you influence others? Not necessarily to have the same views as yourself, but influence them to open their minds to how they potentially can achieve things that they didn’t think they potentially would be able to.
"Fundamentally, coaching is no different if I'm coaching for my kids at a young age or if I'm having a conversation with someone that's going through difficult things in their lives. Coaching is essentially about a relationship."
Having been away from his family for seven months during preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Baber is no doubt enjoying having his son, Adam, close by as he enters his second year of studies at Cardiff Met.
"He was away in Kenya in the summer playing for the Hong Kong under-20s side and unfortunately on his first session back in Cardiff, he broke his hand.
"It’s an unlucky situation, but he’s ambitious and he wants to make the most of himself and I’m hopeful he gets over these injuries. He really enjoys the rugby here and like all players who want to make it up to that performance group, he wants to challenge himself."
The ambitious environment Baber is now a part of at Cardiff Met is clear to see and as he continues his role, he will hope for more of the same success he has achieved throughout his illustrious coaching career so far.
Baber will undoubtedly be impressed with how his teams performed this week. Cardiff Met pulled off a wonderful 17-10 win against second-placed Loughborough University to gain their first victory since round three.
Exeter University continued their dominance this season as they reached the halfway stage of the campaign unbeaten. In their latest success, they overcame a resilient Leeds Beckett University side to secure all 5 points in a 33-24 win.
Elsewhere, Durham University and Bath University achieved bonus points victories at home, with the two sides both winning 27-7 against Swansea University and Cardiff University respectively.
Cardiff Met University welcomed Exeter University to the Welsh capital and having beaten last year's finalists in Round Four, the league leaders completed the double over the Devonian side, as they came back from behind three times to win 24-22.
Elsewhere, Edinburgh University made it back-back to wins as a 58-0 demolition of Cardiff University takes them up to second place.