Kenya is more than just a Sevens nation

(IRB.COM) Friday 9 May 2014
 Kenya is more than just a Sevens nation
An improving Kenyan Simbas side managed to beat Eastern Province in their debut game of the Vodacom Cup in South Africa (Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images)

By Ken Borland

The Vodacom Cup – South Africa’s developmental competition for the provincial teams not involved in Super Rugby – has entered the semi-final stage with overseas visitors Kenya no longer in contention but the tournament did offer the African country the chance to further grow their 15-a-side team.

The Kenyans played as the Tusker Simba XV and although they only won a single match – their opening encounter against the Eastern Province Kings – the fact that they did not finish last in their section provided some comfort.

Kenya were invited by the South African Rugby Union, as part of their mandate to help improve and develop the game in Africa, to take the place of Argentinian side Pampas XV and the east Africans were only too happy to take part, giving a crucial boost to their preparations for the final African World Cup qualifier to be played in Madagascar from June 26.

Namibia have been the African qualifiers for the last four Rugby World Cups so the rest of the continent are trying to close the gap to them. Zimbabwe – who along with Ivory Coast are the other African nations to have previously qualified for the showpiece event – and Madagascar are the other countries still in the running for England 2015.

Simbas enjoyed an encouraging debut

Encouragingly for Kenya, the Tusker Simba XV performed to the same level as Namibia’s Welwitschias did when they played in the Vodacom Cup in 2010-11, losing 13 of their 15 matches, winning once and drawing the other game.

And the Tusker Simba XV also suffered some misfortune, losing two of their matches – against Border and Boland – in the final minute.

“It was a great experience and, as we try and qualify for Rugby World Cup, the best thing is to play more games. Last year we won the Africa Cup in Madagascar but that was only with some games before that. The only way to change that was playing in the Vodacom Cup and it has been a huge success,” Kenya coach Jerome Paarwater said.

A lack of conditioning was one of the concessions the Tusker Simba XV had to make against almost entirely professional opposition but the size and attacking promise the Kenyans showed was enough to suggest the 15s team could follow their Sevens counterparts up the world rankings.

Learning to compete with full-time pros

“Size is certainly not a problem with the Kenyan players but there is a lack of facilities in Kenya for them to work on their conditioning, which you need to be competitive against professional players for a full 80 minutes,” said Paarwater, the former Western Province loose forward.

“But we’re getting them a bit stronger and bigger and the skills levels are improving, so those are positives. 

“The Sevens background of the players means they’re not afraid to attack, it comes naturally to them. It helps that our two wings (Leonard Mugaisi and Dennis Osinde) are both pacy and strong, both around 108 or 109kg.”

The scrummaging – built around huge identical twins Joseph and James Kang’ethe – was also solid, although they did attract some yellow cards.

Socio-economic hurdles to overcome

While Kenya’s urban areas are relatively wealthy and modern, 75 per cent of the population work in the agricultural sector and food security is an issue – 38 per cent of the population live in poverty. So there are socio-economic issues that hold Rugby back, too.

The International Rugby Board is involved in growing the game amongst the youth population in Kenya. Programmes like Get Into Rugby ensure that kids who would normally be herding cows get a chance to experience the beautiful oval-ball game. In addition, the IRB and the Confédération Africaine de Rugby (CAR) are supporting Kenya and, indeed, the three other teams who will play in that crucial RWC 2015 qualifier in Madagascar.

Kenya’s strength and conditioning coach Mike Shamia, with the generous support of SARU, has been sent to the world-renowned Stellenbosch Academy of Sport in South Africa for three weeks of intensive training.

“The IRB is heavily involved with development and the Under 19 team, which is great because Kenya Rugby has to step up their junior structures, that is the future. The IRB funds development programmes and it has given our Sevens team lots of help too,” Paarwater said.

WP Rugby Union is assisting Kenya's emergence

“It’s good that the Kenya Rugby Union has had to find its own sponsors. It means they don’t just ask for handouts.”

The Western Province Rugby Union in South Africa, from where Paarwater has been seconded, has been a great help, also providing medical supplies. Western Province’s skills and lineout coach Mpo Mbiyozo will also be sent by CAR to Kenya to continue the work he started with the Simbas during the Vodacum Cup.

There’s nothing ham-fisted about the way Rugby is being grown in Kenya, as the remarkable success of their Sevens side shows, and they are becoming a growing force in African 15s as well.

“They’re quite jacked up and really serious about Rugby in Kenya, including women’s Rugby. They’re always trying to improve,” Paarwater said.

This feature forms part of our Around The Regions series exploring the game beyond its traditional heartlands. Do you have an interesting story to tell about Rugby around the world? Let us know by emailing