Kenya’s sevens stars showing way for rugby at home

When the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Japan in September there will be at least one viewer kicking his heels on the sidelines.

For Davis Chenge, the captain of Kenya’s national team, the failure to qualify for Japan 2019 still rankles.

While Kenya’s men’s sevens team has enjoyed huge success and brought the sport to a whole new audience throughout the country, those playing the more traditional format have struggled to make the same impact.

And though the sport is gaining in popularity with participation increasing, Chenge believes that has more to do with the shorter format of the game rather than his team’s efforts.

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“I would credit the sevens team for that because they’ve had to come a long way and lately they’ve been performing really well,” Chenge told CNN.

“That’s because of their continued hard work and investment into the game. And now, the 15s team are working really hard to ensure we get to the level that sevens are at. That has made people really develop interest in rugby.

“Also corporates are getting interested and are investing more in the game and that’s helping it grow. Another thing also is the values that the rugby game instils in individuals, in the players. It’s encouraging a lot of youth to join and really helping their lives.”

Kenya’s 53-28 defeat by Namibia in August last year meant Chenge’s troops would have to negotiate the repecharge if they were to make it through to the World Cup.

But the Simbas lost all three games and finished bottom of the four-team table.

Chenge believes a lack of investment in the larger format of the sport has hampered the team’s chances.

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He says players are often forced to choose between their jobs and training, meaning that preparation ahead of matches is often less than ideal.

“The financial situation has been a really major setback towards our preparation and performance in games,” Chenge added.

“We don’t prepare well because guys are forced to miss training because of the finance issues. It’s also forcing people to have to do a kind of a job or have some other hustle and that takes time off their rugby training and recovery time, so sort of affects performance also.

“Also we are having to miss players because some players are being told by their wives they have to choose either to play or to work and we’re losing a lot of great players in that.

“I feel like if we are able to get our financial situation at a good place, we’ll be able to perform even better because now we have guys focusing only on playing, on rugby, do a great deal in the development of rugby in Kenya.”

It was back in April 2016 that Kenya’s men’s sevens team burst into the limelight by winning its first ever title in Singapore.

That success combined with the sport’s inclusion at the 2016 Olympic Games helped catapult it into the public consciousness.

But while the 15-a-side game takes precedence in most countries, it’s the other way round in Kenya.

Collins Injera, one of the world’s top sevens try scorers, believes the extra exposure has meant sevens has a far higher profile and far better resources behind it.

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“I think since rugby became an Olympic sport, that has really put pressure on teams in terms of really developing the sevens game,” Injera told CNN.

“I know most teams out there use sevens as a development tool working towards the fifteens but for us it’s different. Sevens is the one that is bigger than the fifteens. Even when you get sponsorship, most sponsors say ‘I’m sponsoring the sevens team.’

“It should be the other way round. Sevens should be a feeder program to the fifteens but for us it’s different.”