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A Kenyan Sevens player (with ball) during a match against Zimbabwe on a leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series.


Early reality check for Africa’s new rugby leadership as a continental power falls off global ladder




IN a World Cup year as we are now, other things being equal, talk about African rugby right now will normally be revolving around the Springboks.

Who is going to lead Bokke, in their World Cup title defence, if regular captain Siya Kolisi will not be able to make it?

However, in terms of rugby, whilst geographically they are our kith and kin, we in the rest of the continent just do not live on the same planet with the Rainbow Nation.

But away from that, world rugby is changing – not satisfactorily, but markedly.

At least the big boys in the game are beginning to think of themselves as part of a global family, asking themselves if it is really worth it to continue being called the best in their little world of “Six Nations”, pun intended.

Or The Rugby Championship, high-sounding as it is, but involving only four of the world’s best rugby-playing southern hemisphere nations.

But forget about this aristocratic structure of world rugby; let’s talk about something rather different now.

This week, if you follow this game beyond the normal boundaries, you would have come across a global-headlining story of Kenya being relegated from the World Rugby Sevens Series.

An important country in Africa, being relegated from the top-tier league of the game’s number two format, seven years after winning their historic first title in 2016.

When Kenya beat Fiji in the final of the Singapore Rugby Sevens to claim their first World Series title seven years ago, they were heavily tipped to be world-beaters of Sevens rugby in the not-too-distant-future.

Does it not remind you of another Kenyan sport, in which such heights attracted rave reviews, only to come for naught in the future?

Well, in the case of Kenya’s Sevens rugby team, the only way – in their pomp – seemed to be up.

It took the East Africans 140 tournaments to become champions on the circuit, only the second African nation after South Africa to win a World Series leg.

The World Rugby Sevens Series – which is played over 10 tournaments across 10 cities in the world – is Sevens rugby’s premier competition. All the top-rugby playing nations in the world play in it, so Kenya winning the Singapore leg in 2016 was no small feat.

Now, only South Africa remain a core member of the event from this continent. A core member plays in all 10 tournaments.

Kenya’s relegation, which comes after 23 years, has not gone down well across the proud East African nation.

The whole country has waded into finger-pointing mode, and even the government of Kenya, which unlike in my own country puts significant sums of money into national teams, has not been spared the blame for the demise of the Shujaa.

Coming from Zimbabwe, I do relate, as my entry into the noble profession coincided with a feel-good Kenyan story. 

In 2003, Kenya sensationally reaching the semi-finals of cricket’s World Cup, and looked well on course to become the next Test-playing nation of world cricket.

I spoke to Robin Brown, the former Zimbabwe player and coach, who years later went up to Kenya to coach the national side in the hope of bringing them back to their promising era of two decades ago. To his dismay, he said, the damage had already been done because of power struggles and greed in Kenyan cricket, in anticipation of a windfall as Test cricket loomed. To then try and restore Kenyan crickets status, Robin said, was flogging a dead horse.

Whatever happened to Kenyan cricket cannot be allowed to happen to Kenyan Sevens rugby.

Kenyans 7s, a beacon in African after SA, should not go Zimbabwe’s way. Zimbabwe, unlike Kenya, has not been a core member of the World Rugby Sevens Series.  But they used to be somewhere around there, invited to at least three legs of the series, and leaving some of the world’s best teams clutching at thin air.

In 2009 at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai, the Zimbabweans, who are nicknamed Cheetahs, clinched the bowls section of the tournament and punched above their weight for a few more years to come.

These days, few in the nation give the Cheetahs a second thought, for Zimbabwe’s team has become the best punching bag workout for beginners in world Sevens rugby.

The sooner Zimbabwe abandon their policy of only-locally-based players, the better, because the talent pool is markedly thin.

But what about Kenya after all these years of standing up to the world’s best teams on the Sevens circuit? Their fall will have a heavier sound, louder enough for Herbert Mensah, the new president of African rugby who swept into office on the pledge of commitment to equity in world rugby.