Desert glory beckons

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NAIROBI, Kenya, March 3 – The pristine State House, Nairobi gardens is alien to the rugby fraternity who have had to do with little government endorsement for like an eternity.RUGBY_ACTION_237650496.jpgBut for national rugby sevens captain Humprhey Kayange to receive the flag from President Mwai Kibaki and a handsome monetary package for their efforts in the International Rugby Board (IRB) Sevens series, it was a moment for the Mwamba center to savour.

“That is a moment I will remember for sometime. I was a bit shaky because its not something that happens everyday, but I was humbled and privileged to receive the flag from the big guy (President Kibaki) as it is a motivator for us at the World Cup,” said Kayange.

Never before has there been such immense interest in Benjamin Ayimba’s side which is heading for it’s third tournament Rugby World Cup Sevens after strutting their stuff in Mar Del Plata and Hong Kong in 2001 and 2005 respectively.

From major corporate bodies to institutions not known for their affinity with the oval ball everyone has been falling over each other to have a piece of the side.

For Ayimba who featured in the previous two world cups as a player, there is no better authority on who can chart how the national set up has progressed over the past eight years.

“It is so big now. The players have become professional, the management is operating on a different level and the game is understood by more people now. We also have access to more resources which make it a big difference from 2005,” said Ayimba.

Team selection apart, Ayimba’s helm at the team would not have been a success without his supporting cast of assistant coach Felix Ochieng and team manger Oscar Osir.

Ochieng and Osir both know what it means to play in a World Cup having also donned the national jersey in Hong Kong and Argentina and their experience and input has already told since they took over.

The inclusion of specialists like nutrionist Wanjiku Wairia and sprint coach Geoffrey Kimani has ensured that the team operates at optimum efficiency and if the word from the management is to go by, the team is in the form of their lives.

The recall of former Innocent Simiyu is timely after he missed the first four legs of the IRB series.

Simiyu’s inspirational and solid performances over the past four years has been the foundation upon which the current squad has been built.

Ayimba justified ‘Namcos’ inclusion as justified because of the aforementioned experience he brings to side in which he is widely respected both as a player and a leader.

His performance in last year’s Safari Sevens after missing the London and Edinburgh IRB Sevens legs was testament of how he can seamlessly fit into the side and make opponents know that he is on the battlefield.

“For me its just a continuity of the task and the challenges ahead for the team and I’m just viewing it as a simple call up to the team,” said Simiyu who is also a proven performer for the national fifteens team for whom he made his debut in 2002.

The triumvirate of Simiyu, Gibson Weru and Lavin Asego as always will be the keys to Ayimba’s goal of bringing home the Melrose Cup.

Collins Injera who heads in to the tournament as the current top try scorer in the IRB series will be in the crosshairs of the other teams which could be to the benefit of another tried and tested speed merchant Sidney Ashioya who was recalled to the team earlier this year.

Ashioya’s form in Wellington and San Diego was enough to convince the management that he is primed for Dubai where his bursts of speed and elusiveness could come in handy particularly against Pool E rivals England and the main cup knockout stages if Kenya get that far.

The match against England will serve up an interesting duel between Injera and out of favour England test winger Tom Varndell who is viewed in many quarters as one of the quickest backs on the planet though Ayimba brushed aside the threat posed by the Leicester Tiger.

“We don’t see Varndell as a threat. Fifteens and sevens are totally different and I can tell you we’ll run rings around him,” said Ayimba.

Amongst the forwards, Wilson Kopondo will be keen to repay the faith bestowed upon him by his coach. Kopondo was a revelation in the first leg in Dubai with support play that put Kenya on the front foot time and time again.

Victor Odour’s work rate in every facet of the game has been something to behold ever since he became a feature in the team.

The Mwamba hooker was Kenya’s hero in the 24-7 over New Zealand in San Diego scoring two tries from around the fringes of the set piece rather than from broken play.

His abrasive ball carrying and intense work rate in the tight has been the source of inspiration for his team going forward and the bane of opponents who have to tackle him.

Kayange has grown into the role of skipper and has been as authoritative as a leader should be. His leadership skill set came to the fore in the 21-17 win over South Africa in Wellington while his eye for a gap, nine times out of ten usually results into a try for him or a supporting player.

Six games now stand between Kenya and the title which is currently in the possession of Fiji.

Kayange and company stand a chance of becoming the second national team in addition to cross country to flaunt the tag of World Champions.

Not only will it ensure that both the major rugby union titles will reside on the African continent, it will be a major boost for the game in a country which is due to host the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy (JWRT) next month and also eager to make great strides in the longer version of the game.

Former national sevens player and Nondies centre Shaka Kwach who played alongside Ayimba, Ochieng and Osir summed up the strides the team has made since his playing days.

“It makes me very proud to see that these players have come this far. For us, going into the world cup knowing that there is nobody we cannot beat on any given day including the likes Fiji, South Africa and New Zealand, I believe that this team has every chance of winning the World Cup,” said Kwach.

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