7’s Propels Kenya onto world stage

Kenya – hitherto a virtual non-entity in the world of rugby – has been propelled on to the international stage following their recent impressive showing in the sevens World series.


Less than three years after launching an aggressive campaign, the national sevens team, known as Shujaa (Kiswahili for heroes), have caught the imagination by registering impressive victories over rugby superpowers including South Africa, New Zealand, England and Argentina.


They have shown their consistency on the sevens World series tour this season and were just one game away from winning their first-ever cup final.


Their performance now ranks them on a par with athletics – Kenya’s dominant sport since independence in the 1960s.


“Awesome. Absolutely awesome,” remarked Jack ‘Saik’ Sikenyi, a former rugby player, who was among thousands of fans who had thronged a popular Nairobi pub to cheer the team during the London Sevens last week.


“The team keeps improving on their game in every tournament and we are rooting for them all the way. It is only a matter of time before we win the cup,” he said.


Kenya’s superlative showing – coming from a country where rugby is not a traditional sport – has intensified calls for the rugby sevens to be made an Olympic sport by 2016.


The chairman of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (NOCK) Kipchoge Keino, who is also an IOC executive committee member, has lended his support.


“I believe that rugby sevens has a great potential to become an Olympic sport,” the athletics legend said during the IRB World junior rugby championships in Nairobi this year.


The IOC is expected to make the decision in Copenhagen in October and it is highly likely that rugby will be one of two new sports to be elected for the Olympic Games in 2016.


Rugby last featured in the Olympics in 1924 in the 15-a-side format having made its debut in 1900.


Pundits point to the entertaining nature that the sevens elicits.


It is packed with action, pace and high intensity – a joy to watch for the spectators – something the young Kenyan team has executed well on their way to the top of the world stage this season.


After reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in Dubai and the Hong Kong sevens, the Kenyans moved a notch higher by qualifying for their first ever Cup final in the Adelaide Sevens in Australia, where they lost to reigning champions South Africa.


They have won the admiration of their fanatical supporters both at home and abroad – a feat only matched by the athletes or to a lesser extent by the national cricket side.


“Rugby is still regarded as elitist. But I think that this is the right time to … sell Kenya through the sevens and reward the guys. They need to be superstars,” said James Kabuthi a fan.


The popularity of the sevens game in Kenya began in 1998 after the introduction of the popular Safari Sevens the year earlier. But with its growing success, it might have a negative impact on the fortunes of the 15-a-side game in Kenya.


Although the current sevens skipper Humphrey Kayange and his brother and IRB World series leading scorer Collins Injera honed their careers in the 15s, the traditional version is struggling through lack of investment.


The 15-a-side national team failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup after being beaten by Tunisia but many observers believe it will be disastrous for Kenya to put more concentration only on the shorter game.


“Kenya has got its rightful place in the sevens but we need to go back to the drawing board and work on the 15s as well,” said Nairobi veteran sports commentator Joshua Shitikho.


“It is only in the 15s that we discovered Kayande who was playing as a centre and now he’s a prop in the sevens. The two versions complement each other.”


Sapa-AFP

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