Rugby Sevens – Aiming High

From grass roots to World stage, Kenyan rugby sevens is going from strength to strength. Waihiga Mwaura caught up with the Kenya Airways-sponsored national team after the recent Commonwealth Games.

Rugby7sWhile Kenya may be chiefly known for its dominance in middle and long distance running, the sport of rugby, which requires a mix of speed, agility, intelligence and strength, is also fighting to capture the nation’s psyche. You cannot retrace Kenya’s rugby history without mentioning the 1998 Commonwealth Games where, for the first time ever, rugby sevens was officially introduced to the programme. An all-amateur Kenya sevens team travelled to that tournament as underdogs, virtually unknown, partly because they had not yet achieved core IRB status. Led by captain Paul “Pablo” Murunga, a marketer by profession, the team was eventually eliminated in the bowl quarter-finals. Sixteen years later and the national sevens team is a force to be reckoned with on the global circuit. This success hasn’t happened arbitrarily, according to Kenya Rugby Union Public Relations Officer Michael Kwambo, but resulted from a deliberate effort by the Union to draw talent from the counties.

Kindly give me an overview of rugby in Kenya starting at the local level?
Michael Kwambo: Kenyan rugby is experiencing tremendous growth, and this has everything to do with the relative success of the national team over the past few years. We have more schools and communities embracing the game with each passing day. The Kenya Rugby Union has responded in kind by setting up competitions to absorb as many teams as possible.

For instance, we have a second-tier competition running alongside the main tournament during the Kenya National Sevens Series. The regular fifteens league competition has been expanded and we now have a second-tier national league currently contested across five regions in the country. This league serves as a pathway to the top-tier Kenya Cup league, which features the leading club sides in the country.

What other measures has the KRU put in place to tap into talent at the grassroots?
Michael Kwambo: We also have a provincial tournament, the Rugby Super Series, an elite competition with the best players in the country turning out for their respective provincial sides. This tournament has served as a pathway for many of those who have gone on to feature for the various national teams.

The Kenya Sevens core members are now semi-professional and the team enjoys a multi-million-shilling sponsorship deal from the national carrier Kenya Airways. They are a core IRB side with a technical bench led by Coach Paul Treu. Indeed Treu’s credentials are impressive, having led his former side, South Africa, to the IRB Sevens World Series title in 2008/09 and winning 14 tournaments in all. He also coached the Springbok Sevens team to three Rugby World Cup Sevens championships and is credited with responsibility for the bronze medal they achieved at the Commonwealth Games in India in 2010. He works hand in hand with the Team Manager Steven Sewe, who has been with the team for the last three years.

What sort of training strategy do you use to bring the best, or should I say the ‘beast’? out of the boys?
Steve Sewe: The team has its training sessions grouped into three categories: gym sessions, a pitch session, and video sessions. All three are critical for the players’ preparation.

The gym sessions are themselves divided into various categories – intense strength training, and cardio training, which usually concludes with a pool session or ice bath for recovery.

The pitch sessions involve skills, defence and attack training. We consider all areas of game play, including things like the size and location of the pitch, our next opponents, and so forth.

Finally in the video sessions, we analyse our mode of play against that of our opponents. We load the game plans onto the players’ tablets and they can watch them while on the move.

The stature of the Commonwealth Games has grown, judging by the calibre of athletes who attended the 2014 edition. How did your preparations intensify as you got closer and closer to this landmark tournament?
Steve Sewe: At the conclusion of the 2013-14 series the team went into a short recess, as prescribed by the strength and conditioning coach, after which they embarked on gym sessions with the aim of gaining body mass. This involved strength training, and their nutrition was monitored closely. This went on, in a cycle, for about six weeks before the sprint training started. At the Glasgow games, the team lacked depth as most of the players had been absorbed into the full 15’s team for the Rugby World Cup qualifiers. This posed a challenge and we only had a full squad for a week before the games began.

With a passionate fan base that accompanies the team wherever they play across the world, many thought that the time was ripe for Kenya to finish on the podium at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. But that was not to be, after New Zealand knocked them out of Main Cup contention in the quarter-finals and Wales sent them packing with a 28-5 victory in the Plate semi-finals.

In your honest opinion, what hindered the squad from a podium finish at the 2014 Commonwealth Games?
Andrew Amonde, Captain: We were really focused on getting a medal. Look what we had going for us – the calibre of our players, their experience throughout the IRB circuit. Yes, there was a lot of pressure on us, myself included, but we were focused and our goals were set on nothing less than a gold medal. Remember only four of us had ever played in a Commonwealth tournament and these games come only once every four years, so the excitement among the boys was palpable. But things didn’t go as expected. In my honest opinion, we played well, but we were not able to get past New Zealand. They were a more experienced side, and being the top rugby team in the World worked for them. We dominated possession but they were clinical in all they did, and one small mistake cost us the tournament.

Collins Injera, Top Try Scorer: I want to begin by saying that I believe the boys did their best under the circumstances. Most of us were drafted into the 15’s team prior to the Commonwealth Games, so fatigue haunted us. In addition we played two tough matches back to back. Our final group game was against South Africa, the eventual winners of the tournament, while our quarter-final match pitted us against New Zealand, the eventual runners-up. Excuses aside, we did not convert our chances. If we had five chances we only took two or three of them, against opponents who are ruthless when given a chance. We need only five per cent more input to become a dominant team on the series.

Gaining strength
Andrew Amonde, Captain: What many have forgotten, however, is that while we in Kenya has been working hard to improve our standards, other nations have been working even harder. Since the announcement in 2009 that Rugby Sevens would be included in the Olympics starting in 2016, more money and time have been invested in the sport in established rugby-playing countries, as well as in nations that have not traditionally embraced the fifteen-man game. Countries are opting to contract sevens players full-time, and there is a greater emphasis placed on areas such as analysis, nutrition, and strength and conditioning.

“We continue with the hard work. Nothing comes easy. Our motto is, ‘We are going to the promised land.’ The heartbreaks are many, as are the challenges that we go through. But we dream of one day being a team that can win tournaments consecutively,” the captain declared.

When the team returned from the Commonwealth Games a short recess was in order. Focus is now on the 2014-2015 World Rugby Sevens Series, which kicked off on 11 October in the Gold Coast Sevens in Australia. Prior to this, Coach Paul Treu and his technical bench toured the country following the National Sevens Series and picked the most talented players for the global circuit.