NAIROBI, Kenya, September 30 – As much as Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) boss, Mwangi Muthee, portrays business is normal at their headquarters along Nairobi’s Ngong Road, nothing is further from the truth as evidence emerged Tuesday of divisions in top management.
Just a day after Muthee dispatched a lengthy appreciation message to those involved in the 19th Safaricom Sevens won by invitational side, Welsh Warriors, his Secretary General Eddie Omondi fired another statement disowning the chairman’s proclamation saying it was not the decision of the Board.
“As the Hon. Secretary of the Kenya Rugby Union, I wish to clarify that the Board of the Union has not met or deliberated any matter related to the 2014 Safaricom Sevens. As such the statement issued by the Chairman, is made in his individual capacity and not on behalf of the Board.
“The Board of the Union shall duly issue a statement once it has met over the matter,” Omondi asserted.
Muthee’s earlier statement read in part; “ At the conclusion of a great 19th Safaricom Sevens, on behalf of KRU I would like to express my gratitude to the Organising Committee that worked tirelessly, often round the clock for days prior and during the tournament.
“There were hundreds of volunteers who dedicated themselves to an excellent job. Special commendation goes to persons who directed the operations.”
The two contradicting sentiments coming from the Union’s top officials brought to the fore simmering undercurrents thus far confined in Ngong Road headquarters hot in the heels of a fortnight-long strike by seasoned national sevens team player throwing preparations for ‘Operation Rio’ in disarray.
The aggrieved regulars, 18 in total are opposed to the Union’s move of adjusting their terms of engagement to performance contracts but in light of Tuesday’s development, it is difficult to tell whether the entire or part of the governing body is involved in the impasse.
“We have very many superstars in our team but they must show leadership and be good examples to upcoming players. They should be tolerant and be there to entertain but should not be in the front leading revolt.
“We must go for the performance contract, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the technical bench everybody must be ready to face scrutiny. Issues of indiscipline will not be tolerated in any circles of cause I always advocate for dialog between squads, management and technical bench but nobody should negotiate holding a trigger,” Muthee stated regarding on the players on strike.
Their absence was felt at Safari Sevens where the three Kenyan teams, Shujaa, Moran and Simba Saba that featured new faces failed to hit the heights on home soil with the former surrendering the Main Cup title to settle for the Plate.
KRU dramatically axed the 18 dissenters who were led by vice captain and the country’s record try scorer Collins Injera last Wednesday after they declined to accent to the new contracts.
Fly half Biko Adema, Patrice Agunda, Horace Otieno, Oscar Ouma, Philip Wamae, Dan Sikuta, Dennis Ombachi, Billy Odhiambo, Michael Agevi, Tony Owuor, Michael Wanjala, Felix Ayange, Oscar Ayodi, Eden Agero, Sammy Oliech and Lavin Asego complete the list.
Barring a last minute change they are also in line to be omitted when national head coach Paul Treu names his squad Wednesday for the 2014-15 HSBC Sevens World Series opener in Gold Coast, a day before they depart for a five-day camp in South Africa after declining to apply for visas.
But is Kenya ready to do without the seasoned players? And is this the right time for the technical bench to take risk in fielding in-experienced players when the team is targeting a top four finish in this season’s IRB World Series to clinch automatic qualification for 2016 Olympics?
“Everything is always a risk and there is no guarantee if we do take our most experienced players we will win the tournament so the odds are exactly the same, every person in this life wants opportunity and now we are opening the door,” Treu who is on the spotlight this season after setting qualifying for the Summer Games as his aim declared in an attempt to tow the official line.
It has not been lost on the rugby fraternity that a similar tiff between the players and KRU over contracts also manifested itself two years ago under his predecessor, Briton Mike Friday, but the then technical boss managed to diffuse the situation on the hush at Ngong Road, without the theatre of the absurd playing out in public domain as is the case now.
“Out of the respect we have for the lovers of rugby in this county and beyond, we had chosen to keep quiet as we tried to sort the issues we had raised behind the scenes.
“Senior players met the team management, and raised the issues such as contract cancellation without prior notice, delayed August salaries, medical cover/Player welfare, retainer for the new players called up to the team and end of year bonus deductions,” part of a statement signed by the axed players stated as they sought to clear the air on what they suggested was a smear campaign against them by Union boss (es).
It continued; “We have never refused to talk and discuss with the technical bench or the KRU. We feel that we have not been unreasonable with whatever issues we have raised. We are not rogues, rebels or superstars.
“For most of us rugby has been part of our lives and played a big role in being role models in society and not forgetting the amazing support of the 40M+ over the years in good and bad times.”
Veteran and former skipper Humphrey Kayange who co-signed the player’s response was technically abandoned after fracturing his ankle during the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last month against New Zealand.
With the blame game going on between KRU and National Olympics Committee of Kenya, it took the intervention of State through Commissioner of Sports Gordon Oluoch, earlier September to promise the Government will refund him the money he spent on surgery in South Africa.
“I have asked for more details from the insurance company that was supposed to cater for him and know the nature before refunding him that’s if he used his money.
“It’s unfortunate if he used his own money. I can’t blame Nock before I know exactly what transpired,” Oluoch said at the time.
The inspirational player will miss the opening three rounds of this season’s IRB World Sevens after being sidelined until February next year.
‘Culture of rugby’ at Safaricom 7s diminishing
On a positive note the three day tournament gave young players like Alex Olaba, Billy Isabwa, KCB’s Jacob Ojeey and Homeboyz duo of Bush Mwale and Augustine Lugonzo a chance to shine and gain valuable experience as the hastily assembled Morans who came to being days ahead of the event after a British side pulled out sparkled.
However, the three-day event failed to ignite the rugby faithful who have patronised it to the rafters in years gone by shied away making the 60,000-seater Kasarani Stadium resemble a ghost town especially on the last day when official figures pegged attendances at 20,000.
They accused KRU of giving title sponsors Safaricom, who are nonetheless much welcome to the event, too much leeway in dictating the organisation of the event, the decision to take it to the facility they have taken under their wing a key sticking point particularly with IRB observers in the country to inspect the viability of Kenya hosting a HSBC World Series round.
The detachment between the fans and the sponsors was also experienced in other rounds of the local domestic circuit also backed by the giant integrated communications services provider.
Many lovers of the game felt the ‘culture of rugby’ that combines the game and fun is dying slowly especially as differences between Safaricom and fellow prime sponsors; beer manufacturers, East Africa Breweries Limited, played out in Kasarani with the early closure of the event on Sunday way before the alleged stipulated 9:30pm, locking out a planned after party on ‘security grounds’.
Attendances have sharply dropped since organisers, at the behest of the title sponsors, shifted the event from its RFUEA traditional venue along Ngong Road to Nairobi’s Nyayo Stadium in 2011 and 12 with the worst numbers witnessed at this year’s event but Muthee attempted to save face.
“We thank thousands of supporters who came to the Safaricom “Home of Heroes” Stadium. The 60,000 capacity venue affords plenty of comfort.
“The roughly 35,000 fans on Saturday and almost 20,000 on Sunday may have looked to be in a half-empty or half-full, whichever way you look at it, stadium. Those were comparable crowds to attendances in Gold Coast, Dubai, South Africa, Wellington, Edinburgh, Las Vegas and certainly bigger than in Tokyo and Moscow at the World Cup last year.
“The only bigger attendances are in Twickenham and Hong Kong. We thank our spectators for an electrifying atmosphere at the Safaricom Stadium, especially on Saturday, supporting the local teams and appreciating the visitors from the bottom of their hearts.”
The intrigues, accusations and counter-accusations between the involved parties do not provide a conducive environment for ‘Operation Rio’ to be actualised as the ongoing saga continues to dominate the build up to Gold Coast and the longer it runs, Kenya can forget about their celebrated sevens team packing their bags to Brazil.