Kurt Baker will be watching on from the other side of the world when the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series returns to Hamilton for the first time in three years next weekend.
Baker, one of the most decorated players in All Blacks Sevens history and a member of the team that won the most recent men’s tournament contested at FMG Stadium, flew to Washington DC on Friday with his partner and young daughter to grasp a new opportunity.
Having called time on his Series career following December’s Emirates Dubai 7s, it was announced the 34-year-old had accepted an offer to become a player-assistant coach at Major League Rugby side, Old Glory.
It means that when the action gets underway in Hamilton next weekend, Baker will be settling into his new life almost 14,000 kilometres away on the USA’s east coast.
But, having represented the All Blacks Sevens across 14 trophy-laden years, making 233 Series appearances and winning five Series titles, two Rugby World Cup Sevens and two Commonwealth Games gold medals, he has no regrets about walking away when he did.
“To be honest, I was at a time with sevens where I'd had a good stint, I'd achieved some pretty amazing things that I thought I never would have achieved in a sevens jersey,” Baker told World Rugby.
“So, I think the time was probably right, and then the opportunity arose with the Old Glory, which for me was really exciting.
“It was a good chance to get away, get out of my comfort zone, try something new and, you know, I suppose if you look at the States as a rugby country, they're still pretty young.
“So, it's an exciting opportunity for me and my family to go there and make a real fist of things. So, you know, it probably worked out great with the timing really.”
“I just wanted to enjoy it”
Although Baker is keen not to become a “rugby tragic that can’t leave” the game, he is excited by the opportunity he now has to take his first steps in coaching.
“I'm still passionate about rugby as a sport, whether it's sevens or 15s but the way I saw it was, going somewhere different is a great way to learn a different way of coaching,” he added.
“I've been involved in the New Zealand Rugby set-up for a long period of time and so I probably only know one way.
“So, I think it's a great opportunity to go somewhere different, have a different style of play, a different style of culture. I think it'll be better for me to learn as a coach.”
Baker had known Dubai would be his final stop on the Series well before he landed in the UAE for the tournament and so he was determined to enjoy every moment of his last two days in the famous black jersey.
“I was really content with what I achieved in the sevens jersey, so I told myself I was going to be more proud of myself as opposed to sad that I'm leaving,” Baker explained.
“Before the tournament started, I just wanted to enjoy it for what it was. I never had to question my competitiveness so that was never going to be an issue whether it was my first or my last tournament.
“So, it was more about having fun and just, you know, making sure that whatever I did in the jersey at that tournament, I could walk away and be proud of.”
He did just that, appearing off the bench in all six of New Zealand’s matches as they finished third at The Sevens Stadium.
Dubai was a neat place for Baker’s sevens journey to end. It was there that he made his debut on the Series back in November 2008 and having seen the tournament grow, it is one of his two favourite stops on the circuit, alongside London.
Looking back at his storied sevens career, Baker namechecks DJ Forbes, Tim Mikkelson, Scott Curry and “some amazing wingers” but says it would be unfair to single out one former team-mate as the best he played with.
In terms of the silverware he won, there is a special place in his heart for the RWC Sevens 2018 title while marking his 50th tournament in the black jersey with victory in Los Angeles last year was a proud moment.
Of his five Series titles, the most recent in 2020, in which the All Blacks Sevens won three of six tournaments before the pandemic brought a premature end to the season, stands out.
“That team was going pretty bloody well,” Baker said.
“I know it was a portion of the season, but I think had COVID not shut things down it might have looked a lot more convincing as a Series title win.”
Olympic gold is the one medal that eluded Baker during his playing career, but he is typically sanguine about the fact the pandemic delayed the Tokyo Games at a time when New Zealand were in such good form.
“Anyone who’s watched sevens or played sevens knows it's a pretty fickle sport,” he said. “It doesn't take much to be on the winning or losing side.”
Baker might be focused on his new challenge in 15s, but you can be certain he will be keeping tabs on events at FMG Stadium next weekend.
“Sevens will always be a part of me, whether it's what I achieved as a player [or] hopefully going forward, there's an opportunity around some sort of coaching,” he concluded.
“You know, out the side of my eye, I'll always be checking what's happening in the sevens world. It's obviously a pretty interesting race at the moment for the top spot and I think Hamilton will be a pretty important part of it.”