Friday, 29 January 2016

Kenya Sevens - Seven Top Moments of the Rugby 7s team

2016 marks a momentous year for the game of rugby and in particular the shorter version in the Sevens. Taking a look at both the 2015/2016 IRB Sevens Series and the Olympic Games in Rio in August, Kenya's team is well-placed to claim its place and maybe rewrite history too...
20 years ago, the Kenya 7s affectionately known as Kenya Shujaa team journey started in earnest as one of the most exciting and hard-working teams in the rugby series. It also marked a start of its major sporting event in Kenya in the Safari Sevens. Through this storied past, we have decided to take a sneak peek of the top 7 moments of the game in the last 20 years since it gained prominence in this part of the world.

[NOTE: This is no scientific list and its given its order more by the chronology of events.]

1. Kenya qualifies for 3rd Edition of Rugby Sevens World Cup (2001) in Argentina

It had taken about 5 years to build a formidable team. The team had played as an invitational team at the Middlesex 7s,  Commonwealth Games in 1998, as as Dubai and Stellenbosch legs of the inaugural IRB Sevens series in 1999. The Safari Sevens also worked to whip up local team support and appetite for the game, as well as expose the team to opposition of similar experience.
At the third edition of the Rugby Sevens World Cup, Kenya announced its entry into the global stage.
From Africa there were its more fancied counterparts in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Though the team didn't score any victories thus finishing last in the Pool (along with Fiji, Argentina, South Korea, Russia and Ireland), they did play in the Bowl beating France 12-5 before losing in the semis to Chile.

2. Kenya beats Australia - Hong Kong Sevens (2002) - IRB Sevens Series 2002/2003

Following good outings in 2001 and 2002 in various invitational tournaments and the Commonwealth Games, Shujaa team was slowly cementing its place in the game. In 2002 at Wellington 7s in New Zealand, Kenya caused a major upset topping Australia 15-12. By the end of the IRB series, Kenya was placed in the ninth position finishing within the top 10 bracket.
Ben Ayimba's a coming for you...Image courtesy of

The performances in this season helped the team's campaign in becoming a core team of the IRB Sevens Series in 2004. The series usually comprises of 15 'core' teams named each season depending on their experience and performance of past seasons.

3. Kenya finishes joint 3rd at 5th Edition of Rugby Sevens World Cup (2009) in Dubai,UAE
Come 2009, the Shujaa team was enjoying a rare era of success despite having a semi-professional team. It had managed to groom some great talent that even one of its players became coach and helped it one of its best seasons ever.
That player was none other than Benjamin Ayimba. Initial skepticism coming from many quarters was quickly vanquished when the team reached 7 out of 9 semi-finals and 1 final of the IRB series. In H. Kayange and C. Injera, the team had two players who came of age and produced try after try.

In the same year, the Rugby Sevens World Cup was held in Dubai, UAE. They played in a tight pool consisting of England, Tunisia and Hong Kong emerging second.  The team scored a major win over Fiji beating them 26-7 in the quarter-finals, before losing out to Argentina in the semi-finals. The team would finish joint 3rd with Samoa.

These accomplishments saw the team's Collins Injera and Humphrey Kayange awarded the Order of the Golden Warrior (OGW) by the Head of State for their role.

4. Kenya beats New Zealand  AND
Kenya reaches Final  of Wellington Sevens (2013) - IRB Sevens Series 2012/2013

2010 and 2011 were tough years for the team and the mixed performances had the Kenya Rugby Union and sponsors influence the hiring of the management team. On the field though, Kenya Shujaa had by now become a crowd favourite and attracting attention across the series tournaments.
Once again, at the Wellington 7s, the team bested a top seed this time ,the hosts New Zealand in a memorable game. The game ended 19-14 to mark Kenya's first roll into a Final.

In the final, Kenya was primed to play England - so much for patriotism on the side of coach Mike Friday who's English native. If the semi-final game was a toughee, the final was a cracker and nerve-wrecking affair, requiring extra-time to be decided. And were it not for captain Andrew Amonde and Oscar Ouma being sin-binned, maybe it would have gone either way...see below;

5. Kenya finishes 5th in IRB Sevens Series for 2012/2013

Sterling performance by Kenya Shujaa finishing in its best ever position , 5th in the IRB Series deserves a mention. Given Mike Friday's hard work with the team (we all remember how massive they all suddenly looked even for winger Collins 'Collo' Injera who had a tough season with the cancellation of his contract).
There were suddenly vested interests in the game some being from the Board and also the interference with the management and contractual issues. This notwithstanding the team put in its best boot forward.

6. Kenya finishes 4th in 6th Edition of Rugby Sevens World Cup (2013) in Russia

The team's performance in the IRB series meant the team was girded with positive energy going into the Luzhniki stadium, Moscow, Russia. The most outstanding had winger Willy Ambaka being voted into the IRB Series for 2012/13 Dream Team. Pool C pitted Kenya against Samoa, African rivals-Zimbabwe and Philippines. The team topped the pool and advanced to the quarters beating France 24-19. Once again Mike Friday's charges were to face a familiar foe, England. It was another closely-contested game ending 12-5 for the English.
Willy Ambaka whizzes past a New Zealand player - image courtesy of AFP

With the team seemingly disappointed to have to play in the third-place play-off, they lost 29-5 to the Fijians. What was worse was the how the management were treated with Friday tendering his resignation as the obnoxious now became putrid. His departure marked the end of a fairy tale season and downward trajectory of the team for the next two seasons.

7. Kenya qualifies for Olympic Games in Rio (2016)

Having endured a rough 2013/2014 and 2014/2015, the Kenyan team had one last chance to redeem itself. The change of technical bench from Paul Treu to former international Felix Totty Ochieng had not brought back the spark to the team's performance. Many even started questioning if the team still deserved to be accorded the 'core team' status. It was a trying time indeed with the 2015 Safari Sevens - which usually serves as a warm-up to the team's IRB series - having the lowest attendance ever in recent times. Tournament sponsor Safaricom had earlier in the year withdrawn its support meaning the 7s circuit was a dour affair leading to the scenario described above in the Safari Sevens.
The 2014/15 season was used to select automatic qualification to the 2016 Olympics. This was given to the top 4 teams at the end of the season. Kenya missed this badly and had to settle for the African Olympic qualifiers.
A few positives though were the return of Richard Omwela to head the Kenya Rugby Union. Choosing to go retro and nostalgic the Board chose Ben Ayimba to steady the ship. The team also had a mix of talent bringing on board tested players as well as grooming the new talent for the 2015/2016 busy season.
In the Final of the qualifiers, Kenya faced arch-rival Zimbabwe. The latter looked like they had secured the place scoring a try in the dying seconds, almost putting the game beyond Kenya's reach. However a moment of inspiration from speedy Dennis Ombachi saved the day and as they say the rest is below;

Quick Notes:

  1. Kenya Rugby Union officials have indicated they have worked on the players contracts and they can rest easy as they play in the Series for 2016.
  2. Collins Injera  will be chasing more tries seeking to catch Argentina's Santiago Gomez's tally of 230 tries and England's Ben Gollings 220 tries.Possible? Who knows...

Semper fortis Kenya Shujaa !!!

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