Kurt Baker hoping All Blacks Sevens can rise to the occasion in Cape Town
As the most successful team in Rugby World Cup Sevens history and winner of the last tournament on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, it is little wonder New Zealand are amongst the favourites to lift the Melrose Cup on Sunday.
New Zealand are the only team to have won Rugby World Cup Sevens three time before – in 2001, 2013 and 2018 – and Kurt Baker, one of the players present for the latter two triumphs, is confident his side can carry the weight of expectation on their shoulders and go all the way again.
“There’s always expectation with our team, we put it on ourselves to go and win tournaments whether it’s the World Cup, the World Series or whatever,” said 33-year-old Baker,.
“So there’s no hiding from the fact that we are expected to win but we also expect ourselves to win. It is pretty exciting to have the potential to get three in a row but there’s a fair amount of water to go under the bridge before we do it.”
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Clicking at the right time
New Zealand missed the first four rounds of HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2022 due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions but go to Cape Town with momentum behind them.
Clark Laidlaw’s team finished the season as one of the Series’ in-form teams, adding to the silver medal they won in their first tournament back in Singapore with another runners-up finish in London before taking the Los Angeles title a fortnight ago. It was a special way for Baker to mark his 50th international tournament for New Zealand.
“It’s been difficult for everyone (due to COVID-19) but I think the fact we just couldn’t get out of New Zealand probably did mean we just couldn’t get any meaningful competition for a bit longer than other teams. Whether that’s the reason why we’ve taken a while to hit our straps I’m not sure but I suppose we left LA last week on top which is always good going into a tournament like the World Cup,” he said.
“I think we just clicked as a team, there are a lot of things we have been working on technically and I suppose our group has changed a fair bit over the last 12 months from tournament to tournament.
“There are some new young guys who are pretty exciting players who just hadn’t had opportunities, I think it just sort of came to the point where everyone had a bit more time in the saddle.
“I suppose we had our backs against the wall a bit, too, when we were down a few men early in the tournament, so we had no other choice but to put our hands up.”
With a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games added in for good measure and the likes of Scott Curry returning from injury in time for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022, New Zealand will be one of the teams to beat in Cape Town.
“You look back to the 2018 team, or any successful team, and there is usually a fair bit of experience in it and to have someone like Scus - who has been one of our inspirational leaders for a period of time - is awesome for our group. But also we have some young, exciting guys as well so I think the mix is right, it is just going out there and doing it now.
“The way we see it, World Cups, Commonwealth Games and Olympics are the pinnacles. To win any of those three, we’d think of it as very special,” he added.
“Looking back, San Francisco is still one of my favourite tournaments. I don’t know whether it was because it was in America where sevens was taking off at the time and the American people really got behind it but the rugby seemed to blow their minds a bit.
“I feel like Cape Town is going to be another level on from San Francisco if the final of 2019 is anything to go by (New Zealand beat South Africa 7-5). The South African fans are pretty passionate.”