NAIROBI, October 25 – Kenya’s march to next year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai begins at the end of this month in Tunisia where the Africa Zone qualifiers will be held from October 31 to November 1.
With an experienced squad assembled on the back of an impressive outing in the 2007/2008 International Rugby Board (IRB) series and regaining this year’s Tusker Safari Sevens title, there is no doubt in national sevens coach Benjamin Ayimba’s mind about the mission his team needs to accomplish in Tunis.
“Qualifying is not an option, we have to do it,” said Ayimba who featured for Kenya in both the 2001 and 2005 World Cups in Argentina and Hong Kong respectively.
Ayimba, and Kenyan rugby fans as a whole, cannot be faulted for thinking that qualifying for the fifth Sevens World Cup should be a formality but mere qualification is not enough for the former Kenya captain.
“I think we are already in the World Cup. We just have to do the job and do it well because we want to qualify as the number one team primarily because there are only three places available and we want to make a statement,” he added.
Ayimba’s side headline the tournament as top seeds and are in Pool A with Morocco and Ivory Coast, both unknown entities in the abbreviated version of the game a fact which makes this qualifying assignment even trickier.
The national team will be renewing their acquaintances with six countries that took part in the Safari Sevens which makes their North African mission even tougher since those countries namely hosts Tunisia, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda will raise their game against Kenya, a fact which Ayimba is aware of.
“We are taking everyone seriously because everyone wants to beat us regardless of what method they use but it shouldn’t be a worry at all,” said Ayimba who is almost completing his second year as Kenyan coach.
Other countries that will be making an appearance in the ancient Carthagian city are Senegal, Madagascar, Nigeria, Cameroon and Swaziland. South Africa qualified automatically after they reached the quarter finals in Hong Kong, 2005.
The four pool winners will progress to the main cup semis with the finalists and the winner of the third place playoff booking their places in the World Cup finals.
Last week’s training camp in Mombasa which ran alongside the Driftwood Sevens in which the national players participated in as part of their preparations was an indicator of how seriously the team is taking the qualifiers which will be played under scorching conditions.
One of the attributes that Ayimba and his coaching staff were looking for while in Mombasa was performance under pressure and how it will reflect on proceedings on the battlefield.
“We picked the players in because they showed good strength in terms of mental maturity which in turn helped their clubs which was what we were looking for,” explained Ayimba.
The team that was named last Wednesday is regarded in many quarters as one of the best ever assembled due to its performance in last season’s IRB series and its overall experience.
The return of Gibson Weru and Ben Nyambu is the most telling selection by the management as both players missed the latter stages of Kenya’s international campaign but are in the squad due to their past experience.
Weru’s form is not in doubt following the integral part he played in Nakuru’s Enterprise Cup win in September and can fill both the scrumhalf and flyhalf positions making him an asset to the national side.
Nyambu is expected to continue where the titanic Edwin Shimenga left off last season, a hard act to follow especially when you take into account how Shimenga’s exploits in the set piece put Kenya on the front foot time and time again against more illustrious opposition.
Nyambu will have to replicate that alongside newly appointed deputy captain Dennis Mwanja who had an unforgettable season which produced 18 tries making him Kenya’s top joint try scorer.
In Lavin Asego and Biko Adema, Kenya has playmakers who can dominate and turn a match with just a flick of the switch. Asego’s strength in contact burst of pace when spots a gap has served his country well in past assignments and should come to the fore in North Africa.
Adema is one of the best defenders in the country and has a handoff that keeps even the most rabid defenders thinking twice about chopping down the Nondies standoff.
The former Saint Mary’s captain came into his own at the last Safari Sevens and will be keen to continue that form come the qualifiers.
Humphrey Khayange is undoubtedly the new face of Kenya sevens rugby and will resume his role as captain.
Khayange’s leadership was integral in the last IRB series where he led Kenya to the main quarter finals in five out of the seven legs most notably in San Diego where Kenya reached the main semi finals.
Khayange has forged a reputation for his unorthodox play and his graceful running and long stride has had him compared to Kenya’s world class track athletes by international commentators.
His brother Collins Injera lit up the past series with some spectacular solo efforts that produced a personal tally of 18 tries, form that has crept into the ongoing National Sevens Circuit.
Kenya will be banking on that stellar try scoring record to materialize again in Tunisia and for the upcoming 2008/2009 series where Kenya will be seeking to go all the way in at least one tournament.
Humphrey Kayange (captain), Collins Injera, Lavin Asego, Horace Owiti (Mwamba), Biko Adema, Benedict Nyambu (Nondescripts), Brian Nyikuli, Naftaly Bondo, Innocent Simiyu (Impala), Dennis Mwanja (Kenya Commercial Bank, assistant captain), Gibson Weru (Nakuru RFC).
Non-travelling squad: Vincent Mose, Cyprian Shimenga (Nakuru RFC), Wilson K’Opondo (Mean Machine) and Joshua Gathumbi (Strathmore University).
Officials: Benjamin Ayimba (coach), Felix Ochieng (assistant coach), Oscar Osir (team manager), George Odhiambo (physiotherapist), Geoffrey Kimani (sprints coach).
Pool A: Kenya, Morocco, Ivory Coast
Pool B: Tunisia, Senegal, Zambia
Pool C: Zimbabwe, Madagacar, Botswana, Nigeria
Pool D: Uganda, Namibia, Cameroon, Swaziland