The long road to Nairobi might only be a brief stop-over on Colombia’s journey to New Zealand, but it's a crucial one. Las Tucanes will play against the Kenyan Lionesses on Wednesday at Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi.
The first time Colombia’s women's 15s side has travelled to play overseas – the trip to the Kenyan capital involved stops in Panama and Istanbul – has a huge prize at stake: the winner of the one-off game will advance to the Final Qualifying Tournament that will decide the final qualifier to Rugby World Cup 2021, to be played in 2022.
The landmark trip will be a huge learning curve for a team that first played international rugby in 2003 against Venezuela and only played again in 15s twice, both times against Brazil in 2019 and 2020. The second of those two matches saw them claim the ticket to play against Kenya, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic the match had to be postponed until this month.
Going into the unknown, coach Raúl Vesga Mujica is uncertain of what to expect.
“We don’t have much idea of what Kenya will be like, but we prepared the best way we could,” he said. “Looking at the ranking, we believe it is possible.” Kenya are currently ranked 25th and the Tucanes five places below.
He does acknowledge that “the Lionesses have more experience than us when it comes to 15s, but in the intense preparation ahead of this trip we played a few practice games with male teams.”
The Lionesses were in Stellenbosch recently to play against the Springbok Women. After losing 66-0 in the first test, they will have taken a lot from the rematch, which they only lost 29-22, after leading 22-17 with 10 minutes to play.
The support of World Rugby has allowed the Colombian Federation to bring 32 players from Cali, Bucamaranga, the coast and Bogotá to a three-week training camp in Medellín, the nation’s rugby hub.
“This time allowed us to work on our fitness and play games against U18 boy's teams. We then selected the 26 players that have travelled,” explains Vesga Mujica, a former national men’s coach.
In Kenya, he will have rugby grey matter at hand, with former Tucanes captain Sebastián Mejía Gil and former internationals Andrés Quintero, Solangie Delgado and Lisette Martínez as assistant coaches.
“Since our last two games against Brazil, we’ve evolved a lot. Sebastián has brought some of the weapons used by our professional men’s team; his wife Solangie, as a former Olympian, fully understands the women’s game; Andrés focuses on set-pieces and Lisette has led the sevens programme that took the women to the Youth Olympics.”
Four of them played in Buenos Aires three years ago – Valentina Tapias, Laura Mejía Diosa, Unstoppable Leidy Soto and Valeria Muñoz – while there are four full Olympians from Rio 2016 in former World Rugby Council Member Alejandra Betancur, Isabel Romero, Camila Lopera and team captain Nicole Acevedo.
With regional development centres scattered throughout the country, the net has ensured that the best Colombian players – save a couple injured – are taking a strong step towards New Zealand.
“Our goal,” says Vesga Mujica, “is to be faithful to our game plan and if we do that, we’ll be in a position to win the game. For that we need discipline. The Federation’s goals include being in RWC beyond 2021, although if it comes now we’ll be delighted.
“Kenya will be a strong team with fast players, which we’ve seen in Tokyo. Our game plan will include what we’ve seen of them.”
As much as this will be the first time these two teams play each other, it also represents the third international opponent for Colombia.
“It will be a great opportunity to have experience in 15s outside of the region. Experience will make us grow,” concludes Vesga Mujica.
You can watch the match via the following platforms: