Road to Rio

Rugby7sThe Kenya Airways-sponsored Kenya Rugby Sevens team, playing under a new coach, have the 2016 Rio Olympics on their minds

The appointment of Benjamin Ayimba has galvanised the team and already seen them qualify for the Olympics in fairytale style. Ayimba was appointed Head Coach in October 2015, replacing Felix Ochieng – and there are high hopes he can bring back the glory days.

As a former Nondies, Cornish Pirates and Impala back row forward – and a former Kenya Sevens captain – he brings huge experience to the role. In fact, he has even done the job before – guiding the Kenya Sevens to their first ever World Series cup final in Adelaide in 2009, as well as to the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai, in what was the team’s most successful ever season.

I’m very glad the appointment came my way,” Ayimba said. “But I’m not going to make any predictions about our season. It’s way too early to start that discussion. I was impressed with the boys’ performance in the Olympic qualifiers but we need to keep on improving and to become more consistent. We are taking it one step at a time.”

Ayimba is aided by Assistant Coach Paul Muranga, Sports and Conditioning Coach Geoffrey Kimani, Physio Lameck Bogonko and Team Manager Newton Ong’alo in a new-look backroom set-up.

Their tenure certainly started well. Kenya clinched their place in Brazil at the African qualifying tournament in Johannesburg with a last-gasp try from Dennis Ombachi during a nerve-wracking final against Zimbabwe.

Ombachi’s try came when Kenya looked dead and buried at 17-14 down; but with time all but out he raced 65 metres, fended off a tackle and forced his way to the line to become a national hero in a 21-17 victory.

Earlier in the match, tries from captain Andrew Amonde and Collins Injera had boosted the favourites, only for Zimbabwe to fight back. But the eventual triumph was deserved – Kenya had beaten Mauritius, Senegal, Madagascar and Tunisia to reach the final, and always looked likely to take top spot.

All eyes now are on Brazil in a few months’ time. Rio’s Sevens will be the first time the event has been staged at an Olympics, running from 6-11 August. South Africa will also be at the Games, having clinched their place last year.

The IRB Sevens Series
To reach the Olympics in top form and full of confidence, Kenya must first negotiate a season in the IRB Sevens Series.

Ayimba’s men began in Dubai in December, with the Head Coach naming four debutants in his squad – Robert Aringo, Nelson Oyoo, Jeffrey Oluoch and Frank Wanyama. He also recalled Willy Ambaka and Oscar Ouma – the former earning his first call-up since 2013.

Willy Ambaka has tremendous pedigree, having played professional rugby for French side Olympique Lyon and South Africa’s Western Province, while Ouma spent last season at Sri Lankan side Kandy Sports Club.

The team lost narrowly 14-12 to Australia in their opening game under the new boss but also lost 19-12 to England and 12-10 to Wales before beating Japan 17-12 in the Bowl quarter-final. A 33-7 defeat to France in the semi-final means there is plenty of improvement to be made but plenty of optimism, too. Kenya are certainly setting their sights on bigger targets for the rest of the campaign.

Kenya continued their progress in the second tournament of the year in Cape Town – coming agonisingly close to reaching their first final since 2013. Ayimba’s side scored an outstanding victory over South Africa in the group stage – especially impressive as their opponents went on to lift the trophy. They also drew with England, beat USA and were so close to beating Argentina in the semi-final, when Biko Adema’s last-gasp kick, which would have taken the game to extra time, hit the post.

Kenya eventually bowed out with a narrow 28-26 defeat to France in the third-place play-off; but fourth place in such a competitive tournament was nevertheless a huge boost for the team.

It was also a great tournament for hosts South Africa, who beat Argentina in the final, with coach Neil Powell saying: “I’m really proud of them.”

Sevens dates…
February 6-7: Sydney, Australia
March 4-6: Las Vegas
March 12-13: Vancouver
April 8-10: Hong Kong
April 16-17: Singapore
May 14-15: Paris
May 20-22: Twickenham
August 6-11: Rio Olympics