Tuesday 11 December 2018

Humbling Kenya trip delivers perspective in abundance

Oscar Simiyu of KCB makes a move in their game against Homeboyz in what was a hard-fought battle. Photo: Eric Onchiri
Oscar Simiyu of KCB makes a move in their game against Homeboyz in what was a hard-fought battle. Photo: Eric Onchiri

Alan Quinlan

Sport can often feel like one of life's great levellers - an opportunity to escape day-to-day troubles; to release competitive energies in a healthy environment; to build social skills; and learn life lessons in one satisfying swoop.

The international language that accompanies it still amazes me.

Turn up with a football in Latin America, a cricket bat in India or a surfboard in Hawaii and you won't be long making friends. 

I was fortunate enough to see the enthusiasm for rugby in Kenya first-hand on a recent visit to Nairobi, and while the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the youngsters, the basic skills and the high regard for the game's values remain the same, the sport is operating in a truly different realm to what we know.

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As I approached Githogoro Village in Runda, about a 20-minute drive north of the city centre, I didn't know what to expect but I was certain that an open mind would be a valuable asset.

Once I parked up, the kids started to flood out of the slum, streaming towards us with beaming smiles and a striking wonderment at the appearance of their visitors.

The hair on my arms generated great fascination, while many of the kids also rubbed our skin to investigate its texture.

Covered

The pitch was merely a dust bowl covered in grit and stones. Some kids had shoes, some didn't. But once there was a ball to chase, catch or pass, little else seemed to matter to the 300-plus youngsters and Community Rugby Association (CRA) coaches at the two-hour training session.

The atmosphere and sea of smiles at the morning run-out was just like any other underage training camp - even bringing back memories of my first days at Clanwilliam when winning was secondary to having fun - but, of course, in entirely different circumstances.

There were kids as young as three years old running around on the same field with guys who were on the cusp of selection for the national Sevens side, and a chance to travel to such exotic places as Hong Kong, Las Vegas and Dubai for the World Series.

The imagery used by numerous charity aid appeals has possibly desensitised us to situations of horrific poverty across the globe to some extent, but to see it so close was deeply affecting.

We may have shared a playing field and have a common passion for the game of rugby, but to observe how the sport operates in Kenya with such limited resources was an incredibly humbling experience.

You can help the kids with basic skills, techniques and tactics but unfortunately I found myself unable to answer plenty of their questions during my visit.

"What can we do better?" "How can I make it as a professional rugby player?"

I won't hesitate when asked simple queries about playing the game but, unfortunately, some answers aren't so straightforward.

The Sevens side may have blazed a trail in terms of international rugby recognition but there is still some way to go for the 15-a-side game to follow suit, with a lack of consistency - in performance and governance - one of the primary restricting factors.

That being said, Kenya are a key member of the continent's chasing pack, desperately trying to follow the standard set by the Springboks.

Namibia have won the Africa Cup for the past four years, with Kenya's 'Simbas' crowned champions in 2011 and 2013, and runners-up in 2016 and 2017.

The winners of the 2018 edition, which runs from June to August, will secure automatic qualification for Japan 2019, and begin their preparations for daunting Pool B fixtures against back-to-back world champions New Zealand, continent kingpins South Africa, and Italy.

This year's Africa Cup runners-up will also get an opportunity to join the winners in the same intimidating pool, as they will go forward to battle it out for the 20th and final World Cup spot at a four-team repechage.

Kenya are ranked 30th in the world, sandwiched by Belgium and South Korea, and they are desperate to reach a first World Cup.

With playing numbers close to 40,000, rugby more than holds its own on the national sporting spectrum.

There is a remarkable pool of talented athletes in the game - one look at their Sevens side is all you need to confirm that - so you would like to think the future is bright for rugby in Kenya.

They are certainly not short on enthusiasm, something that was in abundance on and off the field at the top-of-the-table Kenya Cup clash between KCB and Menengai Cream Homeboyz at the Nairobi's KCB Club in front of a crowd of about 3,000 enthralled supporters.

The sun was beating down on the dusty community pitch that is the subject of a multi-pronged tug-of-war between sporting codes in the city.

The game was untidy at times, knees and elbows flying around, players getting scratched, but the intensity never wavered in the energy-sapping conditions. The athleticism was a sight to behold.

Powerful back-rows, lightning outside backs, absorbing wrestles around the contact areas. I absolutely loved it.

Standard

It's hard to gauge where the standard was at, but some of the players I saw would be well able for AIL rugby.

In front of me was a sandy playing field, more than 7,000km from my familiar wintry surroundings, yet once the rugby began, I started to feel at home.

Seeing such potential roused my inner coach.

They're already doing a lot right. Their technique around the breakdown and in the tackle was largely excellent, but a few basic tactical lessons - such as learning how to make the most of a 3 v 2 situation, knowing when to kick and when to pass - could have made a considerable difference.

There is a lot of hard work being done to develop the game in places like Kenya, and the $400,000 (€320,000) of annual investment they receive from World Rugby is making an impact, but that alone won't help them close the gap on the superpowers of the game.

The circumstances of poverty, political instability and the absence of rigid sporting structures add further obstacles to what is already a monumental task.

When you consider that Ulster's Charles Piutau is set to become to first player to earn £1m (€1.14m) per season at Bristol when he moves later this year, and the colossal money so many of the Champions Cup sides are spending, it highlights the heavy ground rugby in developing countries has to wade through in their bid to close the gap.

The Rugby Patrons Society is one of the organisations trying to grow the game in Kenya, and I had the honour of speaking at their annual dinner after digesting the best the Nairobi club game had to offer, albeit in altogether different surroundings - in the plush Muthaiga Country Club.

The event acts as a fundraiser for the CRA, the goal of which is to help more and more children experience the thrill of playing rugby that so many of us take for granted.

Legends of the game such as Keith Wood, Willie John McBride and Gavin Hastings were guest speakers at the dinner in previous years, so I was relieved to see that my name rang a bell with at least a few of those present!

I shared my rugby experiences with them as best as I could, and tried to relate that to what I had observed during my sojourn.

These people want to break down barriers for Kenyan rugby, to develop pathways for young players into the professional game, and see the 'Simbas' compete in the sport's biggest tournament.

You can't help but admire their ambitions, and from what I saw on my brief visit they have some incredible people trying to catapult the game to the next level.

Kenyan rugby may be operating on an uneven playing field but with additional internal investment, and the improvement of coaching structures, they would be more than capable of punching above their weight.

Their style of play on the Sevens circuit has captured the imagination and recruited a number of unlikely Kenyan rugby fans. After the experience I had, you can add yours truly to that list.

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