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21 April 2024

Warriors on success path

Kenya's sevens side gain inspiration from their hordes of fans as they sing battle cries. (PATRICK CASTILLO)

By John McAuley

If Kenya triumph at the IRB Rugby World Cup Sevens this weekend it will justify the earnest endeavours of coach Benjamin Ayimba.

The emerging African side have surprised the sport by collecting wins against some of the shortened format's leading nations, highlighted by their 24-7 victory against New Zealand at the USA Sevens last month.

The win secured a quarter-final spot in San Diego and, while Ayimba recognises his side have excelled under his tutelage in the past three years, he's set his sights on the game's ultimate prize today.

"Everyone laughs when I've been saying for three years that we're going to win the World Cup," he said following yesterday's emphatic 43-7 win against Hong Kong. "We're on our way to do that – I fully believe we're going to achieve that goal – and we will give thanks to God when we do."

The phlegmatic coach has endured a challenging time in charge, battling against frugal funding and the ensuing difficult conditions to push his team to the pinnacle of sevens rugby.

Kenya have made tentative steps to professionalise the sport, soundly backed by Virgin Atlantic, their first global sponsor. But Ayimba admits he still requires additional support to drive the nation forward.

With the country boasting some of the world's finest long distance runners, rugby struggles to attract the revenue needed to compete at the highest level.

"It's a chicken-and-egg situation because we have to do very well on the pitch for sponsors to come in so we afford to take these guys out of school and work," says Ayimba. "Only then will they be able to play rugby full-time.

"It's a difficult thing to do, especially now with the credit crunch, but we need the government to chip in. Rugby is not our national sport, so the government wasn't very concerned with it – until last week.

"Just before the World Cup there was a major drive for the team in Kenya, which was very encouraging. Once more and more people want to get involved it becomes easier to collect the money to make the game the professional sport it needs to be."

The Africans have had the backing of a vociferous vocal support this week. Their fervent fans follow the side around the IRB Sevens circuit, and can often be found leading the post-match tribal dance, a show of appreciation that has lit up the event.

"The support makes us feel like we are at home," explains Humphrey Kayange, the Kenyans' powerful captain. "When we concede a try, they push us on to improve ourselves.

"The song is for warriors going into battle, and it gives the team the motivation and the feeling that we are going to go out there and win. It shows you're playing for the pride of your country.

The imposing forward was not as brash in his predictions as Ayimba, insisting that Kenya must take it "one step at a time" as they progressed through Pool E – which they did with England – into the last eight of the Melrose Cup.

However, the Kenyans are right to be optimistic. They were on course to finish fifth in the IRB World Sevens Series last year, ahead of established duo England and South Africa, before injuries to three key men ruined their chances.

Victories against New Zealand and South Africa this year proved their 2008 success was no fluke.

And although Kayange doesn't publicly share his coach's confidence, he echoes the sentiments that the sport must be made professional to help the country progress further.

"What we've done over the past three years – to come out of the ranks and play with the big boys – has been very impressive for us and show we can compete," says the man nicknamed "Tall".

"But there are still definitely some things to rectify before we become one of the truly top sides.

"Most of the big teams such as New Zealand, South Africa and England have a strong rugby tradition and are professional so we need to make a big step to make Kenyan rugby sevens professional back home.

"We're not there yet, but we're competing with the elite in the sport and doing really good. A lot still has to be done, but we want to just keep winning on the pitch."