When rugby fever ruled the country, fans would turn up as early as 9am for the sport’s marquee tournament, Safari Sevens. They would spend the weekend imbibing drinks and following the action on the pristine RFUEA grounds in Nairobi.
The social fans would then troop to Tusker Village for entertainment and music into the wee hours of the night. Complimentary tickets were the in-thing, as no one wanted to miss the tournament.
Fast-forward to today and the colour, noise and glamour of the tournament have disappeared. Lack of publicity and a dearth of high-profile teams has contributed to its near demise.
Started in 1996 by the Rugby Patrons society, Safari Sevens was the highlight of the rugby calendar for both rugby lovers and social fans, who used to turn up in large numbers.
Kenya beat Fiji to win their first Sevens World Series title in 2016. /COURTESY
Its decline sums up a wider decay in the running of the sport, which climaxed in a widely publicised stunt by national team players at the Paris 7s World Rugby Series in June last year.
In a controversial move to protest delayed payments by Brand Kenya, the Shujaa players blanked out the sponsor’s logo on their shirts using duct tape. The Tourism ministry reacted by cancelling Sh20 million sponsorship to the national rugby sevens team, and other sponsors have shied away.
The subsequent financial struggles and underlying problems are coming into sharp focus ahead of the eagerly awaited elections next month in the Kenya Rugby Union.
Four candidates have thrown their hat into the ring for the position of chairman. Former vice chairman Sasha Mutai will be making a second stab at the seat, having lost to incumbent Richard Omwela by 25 votes to 23 in 2017. Secretary Oduor Gangla is also in contention for the top job, alongside former KRU director Asiko Owiro and director Ezekiel Owuor. The elections are slated for mid-March.
Whoever gets elected will serve a term of four years, not two, as has previously been the case. The election, insiders say, is timely, as the sport is crying out for someone to address discontent from affiliates, apathy within the sport, lack of sponsorship and dwindling interest in viewership of the game.
Lyle Asiligwa (C) and Aron Ofworoith of Harlequins scramble for the ball against Vincent Mose of Impala during their Kenya Cup match tie at Impala grounds on January 26 last year /JACK OWUOR
ROT BEGINS AT CLUBS
Interviews with sport legends and associates paint a bleak future for the sport, suggesting unless urgent steps are taken to arrest the decline, things will get out of hand.
Kenya rugby legend Edward Rombo, who had a distinguished career in the sport in the 80s both at home and abroad, said the upcoming polls are not enough to cure what ails the game in the country.
The former Mean Machine and Mwamba winger said the rot in the sport starts with the clubs, who in turn present officials to the union for elective positions.
“These officials don’t have integrity, and when they get elected at national level, they carry the mess to the national office,” Rombo said.
He said some board members are there for selfish interests. “In our day, the leaders were selfless and loved the game. The current crop of union leaders leave a lot to be desired from what you hear,” he said.
Rombo cited former KRU chairman Mwangi Muthee as a case study of poor governance. “He is a visionary leader who meant well for the sport, but he was let down by a board of directors who were not aligned with his vision and made his tenure untenable,” he said.
Rombo said the sport needs go back to its roots and elect men and women with a passion for the game. “It’s sad to see what is happening. I can equate the sport to the country’s general elections, where politicians dangle cash to voters,” he said.
“The same is happening at clubs. People are being bribed with small money and handed trips to the Dubai and London Sevens at the expense of the game. This has, in turn, eroded the credibility of the sport.”
The rugby legend said until clubs change those in charge, the sport will suffer for the longest time. “Rugby is all about the clubs, and the clubs make up the union. Until the membership of clubs decide enough is enough, we are still going to have questionable characters running the game,” he said.
He said the money in the sport has also not been managed well. “In our days, we were playing with passion and pride for the nation. Money came later and has helped, but I believe it has also been a curse, especially when you have national team players refusing to play over cash,” Rombo said.
The rugby legend criticised the standards of the game, citing “basic mistakes” by top players in the Kenya Cup. “This is supposed to be our best league, yet it reminds me of high school rugby. A lot needs to be done to improve the basics across all levels,” Rombo said.
He said the sport has grown since his playing days, but lack of structures is hampering development. “Do we have structures like age grade, which can tap young players at high school level or even primary school level? None at the moment exist,” he said.
Michael Onsendo of Harlequins RFC palms off Clofey Omondi of Nakuru RFC during their Kenya Cup tie at the RFUEA grounds on January 12 last year / JACK OWUOR
NO STRATEGIC PLAN
Former Kenya 15s coach Michael ‘Tank’ Otieno, who played for Kenya in the 80s and has been a selector, team manager and currently coaches Blak Blad in the Kenya Cup, said the sport lacks a strategic plan to facilitate the growth of the game.
Otieno said the game is in a bad state due to lack of planning. Money won’t cure the ills the sport is facing, he said. “I’m hearing people campaigning but where is the plan and structure to develop the game at the grassroots? Without that, we are not going anywhere,” he said.
Otieno said bad leadership in the sport in the last couple of years has made sponsors distance themselves from it. He said sponsors will only come when there is a plan and structures to take the game forward.
“Stakeholders want to see a blueprint or vision and a strategic eight-year plan, which can culminate in milestones, including either qualifying for the World Cup or Junior Rugby World Cup,” he said.
The coach said the game is in crisis, as evidenced by Kenya’s poor performance at the repechage, where the country failed to qualify for the Rugby World Cup in Japan, and the dwindling fortunes of the Kenya Sevens team in the World Sevens Series.
Otieno said the union needs to involve former players in the sport’s development. “Why can’t the union get some of the Kenya old boys or greats from the past. We are ready and willing to offer our services,” he said.
Former Kenya Rugby Union secretary Zach Oloo, who served in the 1990s, concurred that the game is in chaos. Oloo said board members lack integrity and can’t be trusted to deliver. He questioned why directors fly to World Series events like Dubai, Cape Town or Paris, yet players have not been paid. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
Oloo said in his days, board members used to pay money from their own pocket to travel for such tournaments. He said the governance of the game has not kept up with the rapid transformation of the game in the country in the last 30 years. “The numbers have increased but transparency and accountability have not been at par,” he said.
Former KRU chairman Mwangi Muthee. /FILE
Former KRU chairman Mwangi Muthee said rugby is the easiest sport to manage, as long as you have the right managers on board.
He said the board directors have to work and not expect an easy ride once elected. “People have to roll up their sleeves and work for the sport and forget their personal interests,” he said.
Muthee said it is high time to weed out bad elements and look for workers. “People need to put in the hard work when they get elected, and they will reap the rewards for the sport,” he said.
The former chair said the world over, it is corporates who fund the sport and not the government. “The government’s role is to provide infrastructure and an enabling environment. We shouldn’t depend on handouts from the government to fund rugby,” he said.
Muthee said the union should stop complaining about lack of funds and focus. “When I was at the helm, we were not immune from harsh economic times, but we were able to raise money and get funding from corporates to push the sport forward,” he said.