Kenyan rugby takes giant leap forward(IRB.COM) Friday 28 August 2009
Kenya's Sevens team has taken the world by storm in recent years, finishing sixth in the last World Series and reaching the semi finals of the Rugby World Cup Sevens earlier this year in March, but the sport's appeal in the country is blossoming far beyond the game's abbreviated version.
Sevens captain Humphrey Kayange and his brother Collins Injera may be the highest profile of the country's players after the global exposure that Sevens has afforded them, but they still turned out for the national 15-a-side trials recently and helped the country to victory against Uganda in the first leg of the Elgon Cup.
Kenya's men line up against Uganda in the second leg of the annual trophy this weekend with a 30-22 lead, while the women's team also starts with an advantage in Kampala, having won 38-5 in Nairobi.
There is no doubt that Sevens has played a leading role in raising the sport's profile in Kenya, but another reason for recent development is the growing club scene and success in attracting locals in addition to ex-pat players.
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Harlequins in Nairobi is one club that has made huge efforts to expand its player base, notably in visiting and recruiting the youth of Kibera, the largest shanty town in Africa with an estimated population of one million. Inside Kibera, the Kenyan Rugby Union is running an outreach programme to introduce local children to Rugby.
"We specifically target the Kibera area for two reasons: number one, the average kid here has a lot of time on their hands, and number two they are also very committed to sports, they take up sports and take it very seriously," said Erick Situma, the union's Development Officer.
As talented players emerge they may be recruited by clubs like Harlequins but until recently there has been no formal place for rugby in the school system. However, following the success of the Sevens team and hard work at the union offices, most notably in hosting this year's IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy, the government has now been persuaded to adopt Rugby as an official school sport.
Explosion in player numbers
"Ten years ago we had round about 2,000 players playing rugby in the country, we now have more than 20 active clubs and the player base around those clubs should be about 15,000 around the country," said the Union's General Manager, Auka Gecheo.
"Together with the government of Kenya, we have then taken rugby into the primary school level and the interest has been overwhelming. We are hoping to generate numbers of over one million by the end of the year and have more than 30,000 primary schools playing rugby in Kenya by the end of the year."
Significant progress which could be further enhanced in October, when the International Olympic Committee votes to decide whether or not to include Rugby Sevens in the 2016 Games.
If successful, the Sevens game could have an even more profound impact across Africa, with Kenya enjoying a head-start both on and off the pitch: in the thick of the action the likes of Kayange and Injera have fired the nation's enthusiasm, while in celebrated athlete Kip Keino the country also possesses a National Olympic Committee Chairman with experience of the sport.
Kip Keino: "I enjoyed rugby"
"I started rugby playing when I joined the police," Keino told Total Rugby. "We had a rugby team in the police college, so I was one of them and I was playing on the wing. Later on I found that tackling was very hard, so I had to decide and change and go to athletics, which I performed very well at. But rugby I enjoyed. I enjoyed playing. "
Keino won two Olympic gold medals on the track and, while he was unable to comment on Rugby's chances of winning Olympic recognition, does believe the sport has plenty to offer.
"We want the youths in the country to play games - idle minds are always destructive," he added. "That is why we want to encourage our youth to be able to take part in any activity, even rugby, and we want to see our women, girls in high school, take part in rugby.
"This is very important because you build up teamwork, and that is a key thing."