Kenyan rugby on the rise

In a country where rugby has made little impression beyond its borders, the swift rise of the Kenyan Sevens squad has caught the imagination.

Even traditional rugby nations like Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa have taken notice of Kenya’s emergence on the International Rugby Board (IRB) World Sevens Series.

The circuit consists of eight legs with the last two at Twickenham on May 23-24 and Murrayfield in Scotland on the following weekend.

Kenya lie a respectable sixth of 12 in the standings, boosted in Adelaide earlier this month when, with the nation’s rugby followers in a fever, they reached their first final.

They lost out to South Africa 26-7 but only after an earlier 17-5 success over Argentina.

In the Wellington leg in February, Kenya had beaten South Africa for the first time in 19 meetings with a 22-17 scoreline.

In the Sevens World Cup in Dubai in March they recorded a 12-0 quarter-final win over formidable Fiji and then beat New Zealand 10-7 in preliminaries back on the circuit in Hong Kong.

Such results from an all-amateur squad will have pleased sponsors Virgin Atlantic who have stumped up 11 million Kenya shillings ($138,000) to keep the Kenyans on the circuit.

Kenya has a long tradition of world-class middle and long distance athletes. Soccer and cricket have suffered of late but the rugby Sevens squad has made some amends.

“A tiny rugby nation Kenya, with just a handful of top amateur players, had defied the established order to advance to nirvana,” wrote columnist Charles Nyende in the Daily Nation after Adelaide.

Kenya’s most noted player in recent times is Edward Rombo, who broke into the English professional rugby league scene for Leeds and others in the 1990s. He also coached the Kenyan Sevens side from 2004-2006, laying firm foundations.

The current performances have brought recompense.

Mobile telephone operator Safaricom rewarded each of the 12-man squad with 250,000 Kenya shillings ($3,125) after the World Cup in Dubai, a tidy amount in Kenya.

Before the tournament, State telecommunication corporation Telkom Kenya had weighed in with four million Kenya shillings ($50,000) for the team.

“This is one of the most successful sports teams in Kenya with three successive World Cup appearances. The progress is visible to all,” said Dominique Saint-Jean, Telkom Kenya’s CEO.

National coach Benjamin Ayimba said: “We started the campaign two years ago. We have our goals, which we wanted to attain. We are almost there. We live and play as one family.”

Meanwhile, the Kenya Rugby Football Union has unveiled a five-year plan which will focus on improving the traditional 15-a-side version. Big guns beware.