The Rugby Year 2021…

2021… If I were to describe it, it felt like a proper line break from a front row, slow/stuttering at the start, picking up steam, before finishing off with a real flurry. It had its fair amount of challenges both on and off the pitch, but we can be happy that we made it this far. Let’s look at some of the highlights.

The year of the Lionesses (Photo – KRU)

Kenya Cup

KCB cemented their place as one of the greatest sides of our times after claiming their 4th Kenya Cup title on the trot, 8th overall in what can only be termed as the greatest comeback in a Kenya Cup final. Trailing 20-0 at HT to Kabras, in a game of rains and stops, the lions crawled back to win 28-25 in sudden death, they were trailing 25-18 with under 10 minutes of regular time to play.

Apart from KCB and Kabras, other stand out sides in what was a tough Kenya Cup season were the Strathmore Leos and MMUST who were fresh from promotion and finished in third and sixth respectively. Oilers and Nondies also caught the eye with their improved performances from previous seasons.

Vincent Onyala in action in the 2021 Kenya Cup final. (Photo – KRU)

As mentioned, it was a very trying season for all clubs, played in unprecedented times, with stoppages, match postponements, inter county travel bans, no fans, no funds, changing the league format four weeks into the season, the list is endless. It is really commendable to all the teams who participated and KRU who oversaw this special season.

Looking forward to the 2021/22 season set to kick off this Saturday, it is great to see that we are back to full complement, with Homeboyz back in the fray. What is even more exciting is that we now have a women’s Kenya cup league running concurrently, if you watched the Lionesses play this year you’ll agree that this is a much needed move.

Of concern though, is that there has been no mention of when the lower leagues will resume, here is hoping that a solution to whatever is holding up this vital part of our game is solved quickly.

The Chipu

It was a short and sharp year for Chipu, as head coach Curtis Olago described it in his episode of Our Rugby Stories, it was a crash program, with little over four weeks of preparation, the team successfully defended the Barthes trophy that they had won in 2019.

Chipu also had a crack at the Safari sevens, it was great to see the young guns get exposed to this level of play early on and earn a respectable 9th place finish.

Overall, our transition rate from Chipu to both the Simbas and Shujaa has improved during this period, as we await the 2022 calendar let’s hope we get more game opportunities for the age grade sides. It is encouraging to see KRU doing a bit of work with schools, streamlining the coaching standards across the country at the early stages.

The Lionesses

In more ways than one, 2021 was the year of the Lionesses! The impact of the strides that the women’s game has made this year will be felt for some time.

First up the sevens lionesses played in two international and one continental invitational tournaments in the run up to the Olympic games, rubbing shoulders with core sides and posting improved performances at each of those outings. Leading to a respectable 10th placed finish in Tokyo after claiming a 21-17 win over Japan, a side that beat them 41-0 at the Emirates Invitational earlier in the year.

The sevens lionesses fittingly wrapped up the year by winning the Safari 7s title, with two full sides on display, emphasis is on the full.

Janet Okello in action against Colombia (Photo – KRU)

The fifteens lionesses came agonizingly close to qualifying for the Rugby World Cup repechage tournament, falling 16-15 to Colombia at the Nyayo National Stadium. While this brought what would have been a fairy tale ending to the XVs Lionesses, it does not dampen the strides the team made in the run up to this qualifier.

A two test series against Madagascar in July at the Nyayo stadium ended in back to back 27-15 and 10-0 losses for the Lionesses, but that was not the highlight, with the sevens side in Tokyo, this was the first time that Kenya fielded a women’s squad without our house hold names.

A month later, the fifteens Lionesses would play another two test series, this time against the Springbok women in South Africa. The Lionesses went down 66-0 in the first test, before fighting gallantly to a last minute 29-22 loss in the second test three days later. While all this international action was going on locally, the KRU Women’s festival, played in 15s franchise and 10s earlier in the year, add onto this satellite women’s tournaments in Bomet and Nanyuki just to mention a few, sinking our player depth even deeper!

At this point, women’s rugby is our best bet at making it to a 15s world cup, with a little more focus and investment we will be in with a real shot for the 2025 World Cup, especially with the new 16 team format!

Shujaa

Every other year for the last decade it has always felt like we take four steps forward, then twelve steps back and a further four with the Shujaa, 2021 didn’t feel any different, or was it?

The year started off with Shujaa already in camp, preparing for the Olympic games, ahead of them were invitational tournaments in Madrid, Dubai and South Africa in preparation for the Tokyo games and the world sevens series, which at this point was yet to be confirmed.

Back to back cup final losses to Argentina in Madrid, followed by third and fifth place finishes in Dubai, gave us all a sense of cautious hope, seeing as the big sevens nations had not participated in the two tournaments and that we were losing to the likes of Chile.

Andrew Amonde and Collins Injera in action at the Olympic games (Photo – Mike Lee – KLC fotos for World Rugby)

A ten day training camp at Stellenbosch saw an extended Shujaa side finish second to the hosts ahead of Uganda and Zimbabwe in back to back mini tournaments.

Up next, the Olympics, where a last minute 19-14 loss to USA set the tone for what was a disappointing 9th place finish for Shujaa after further losses to South Africa and Ireland coupled with wins over Japan and a revenge one over Ireland. After the tournament, sevens stalwart Andrew Amonde announced his retirement from international duty, though we know he’d probably strap up once more if given the chance, right? 🙂

From this point on it was water buffalo season as Alvin Otieno took the first two legs of the world sevens series by storm, with Shujaa finishing second and third in the Vancouver and Edmonton sevens tournaments. Once again ahead of the Dubai sevens this Friday, we are cautiously optimistic, as our overly physical approach to the game with no clear fall back plan has seen us struggle against USA, Spain while totally crumbling to South Africa and yes the big boys are back!

It was great to see three national sides participating at the Safari sevens, this plus a host of local players filling in for the invited sides. The more players we expose to such tournaments, the better! Shujaa eventually scrapped to a 12-5 win over Germany to ensure that the Robin Cahill remained at the clay house.

Even as we look forward to the 2022 season and the Commonwealth games, it is concerning to see the union cut off certain players from the team masking it as being ‘too old’ or asking them to ‘prove themselves.’ We forget that one of the reasons we take those twelve steps backwards, is that we simply can’t manage a transition. Here is hoping this one will be different…

Simbas

If 2021 was the year of the Lioness, the Simba is the most improved. This will go down as the year that we lost to Senegal in a rugby world cup qualifier, at home, then played Asati at 13!

After that shock defeat to Senegal, the Simbas technical bench probably in panic mode, scrambled the side, made six changes including shifting Samuel Asati and his whole 4’2 frame (midget power!) from 9 to 13, while we got the result against Zambia, the side looked in sixes and sevens! Did I mention that we also axed a bulk of experienced players ahead of these tests? Again, we don’t know how to manage transitions.

With that win over Zambia, we will be facing Uganda in the Rugby Africa Cup quarter final in July 2022, after those round one fixtures, I could have not been the only one who was worried about our chances in that quarter final.

The rugby gods heard our cries, as a four match end of year tour (including two tests) to South Africa was announced in October, with the Simbas playing a Currie Cup all star side, Namibia, Brazil and Diables Barcelona (initially this was supposed to be a Cheetahs side).

Midget power – Asati to Tanga for a try against Zambia (Photo – KRU)

In the first match, Simbas were rightfully blown off the park by a strong all star side, the 85-17 score not withstanding, we displayed sparks of brilliance especially through our backline link up play of Asati (at 9), Kubu and Onyala, it was a welcome sight from what we had seen at Nyayo.

Those sparks built into a small fire in the first half against Namibia, leading 24-19 at the breather, that fire was quickly put out in the second half, as we fell 60-24. Once again that backline link up play was great, this time backed by the forwards who went toe to toe with the Namibians in that first stanza.

Our fire was now a flame and it razed through a resilient Brazil side 36-30, to claim 3rd place in the four team Stellenbosch Challenge which also featured Zimbabwe. The Simbas go into the last match on Thursday with a real fire and belief in their bellies, result notwithstanding, the side now looks a lot more promising and settled going into the next rounds of the world cup qualifiers.

The Highlights…

First up, has to be the Kenya Rugby Union for successfully hosting multiple international tournaments, namely; three Rugby Africa tournaments in one, the Repechage qualifier against Colombia and finally Africa’s premier sevens tournament, the Safari Sevens, as well as completing the local leagues, during these challenging coid times where bigger unions and sports federations across the world have struggled to, that is no mean feat! (Yet Rugby Africa still decided to take the qualifiers to France…)

For the 2021 player of the year, my top picks would be Jone Kubu, Samuel Asati, Janet Okello, Grace Adhiambo and Vincent Onyala. I am sure I have missed quite a few, feel free to add them in the comments section.

Alongside the Lionesses, this year belonged to the legend Humphrey ‘Tall’ Kayange, who in the span of three months became the first Kenyan to be appointed to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athlete Commission and inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame. A true testament to the man he is!

On a sad note, 2021 is the year we lost Benjamin Ayimba, Peter Leo (Match official), Harold Amukhama (Former KCB Player) and Edwin Bristow (EA select, Kenya XVs & Nondies) among others, may their souls rest in eternal peace.

Finally as we look forward to 2022, I’d like to call upon us all to support our clubs, with fans now back in stadia, lets show up, tag a friend, ten of them if you can, pay the gate charge, grab a drink, ensure you follow the set protocols and enjoy some rugby, our clubs need us!

That was 2021, please share your highlights in the comments section, if we don’t meet at a rugby club near you, see you in 2022, where I’ll hopefully remember to write more often!

KWISHA… Nimeruka Nje!!!

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Poghie

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