Where Are They Now? The Golden Class of 2009.

Chipu’s Polycarp Luaki (L), Ken Andola (making the tackle), Kelvin Gacheru watching on, Mathew Musalia (in the background) in action against Chile at the 2009 JWRT (Photo – World Rugby)

When Scotland takes on Zimbabwe at the Nyayo National Stadium on the 15th of July 2023 in the first match of the World U20 Junior Trophy, it will mark 14 years since a ball was last kicked at a similar tournament in Nairobi, in May 2009, at the RFUEA grounds, the tournament was then referred to as the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy.

Chipu will then take on Samoa in the second match of the day, to become only the third Chipu side to play in the tournament, after the class of 2019 in Brazil and the golden class of 2009, the last ones to host the tournament.

That 2009 edition featured Chile, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, the Cayman Islands, Korea, USA, and the eventual winner Romania. Chipu finished in fourth, after a close 17-19 loss to Chile.

This class went on to become game-changers, anchoring what has been the most successful period in the country’s rugby history, hence the name, the golden class!

On that hot Sunday afternoon at a packed RFUEA grounds on May 3rd, 2009 when Kenya took on Chile, the South Americans held a 14-3 lead at the break with our only points coming from Andola’s boot. An early try by Joseph Abala in the second half converted by Andola, saw us come within 4 points of the Chileans.

The visitors were the next ones on the board to take it to 19-10 off an unconverted try, to set up what was an exhilarating closing 15 or so closing minutes. Chipu had Chile on the ropes and soon Anthony Nyandigisi broke the line to set up a David Dinda try, to bring it within two points of a victory, that unfortunately was never to be as Chile held out for the 19-17 result.

A section of the crowd at the 2009 JWRT, any familiar faces? (Photo – World Rugby)

The match of the 2009 JWRT came on the second match day when Kenya took on the USA. Trailing 14-32, with a little over 20 minutes to play, Chipu turned on the afterburners, literally, with a sublime Collins Omae hat-trick to claim a 33-32 result. You just had to be there…

As we gear up to welcome the next generation of stars, we look back to and catch up with some of the faces in that class of 2009, who have all called time on their rugby careers, except for one (maybe).

The Squad…

These were the 26 players that were called up to don the Kenyan shirt at the 2009 JWRT.

Lilako Curtis (KCB), Dennis Karani (Impala), Eric Kioko (Strathmore), Mathew Musalia(Impala), Jeremy Njoroge (KCB), Oscar Ouma (Nakuru), Ryan Musumba (Strathmore), Mugambi Kithamba (Strathmore), Steve Muniafu (Impala), Kevin Gacheru (Mean Machine), Collins Omae (Kenya Harlequin), Ken Isindu (KCB), Jeff Ojwach (Kenya Harlequin), Joel Omer (Impala), Cedric Odera (Strathmore), George Mutuku (Strathmore), Robert Ouko (Impala), Kenny Andola (Strathmore), Anthony Nyandigisi (Impala), Patrice Agunda (Kenya Harlequin), David Dinda(Impala), Joseph Abala (Strathmore), Felix Ayange (Strathmore), Michael Wanjala (Strathmore), Owen Ocholla (Impala), Oscar Otindo (Strathmore), Polycarp Luaki (Mean Machine).

Mitch Ocholla (Head coach), Paul Murunga (Assistant coach), Dominique Habimana (Forwards coach), Gerald Omondi (Team Physio), Oliver Kituyi (Team Manager).

I managed to catch up with a few of the members of this squad, and here is how they are fairing.

Eric ‘Kiks’ Kioko (Prop) – Captain

The first thing I noticed playing at the JWRT, was the level of professionalism, I had played the Africa U19 tournaments, but this was a whole new level for myself and the team.

The team skipper, from Mangu High School, went on to play for the Strathmore Leos for most of his career, rising to also captain the side through their best stint in the top flight since their promotion, he also had stints at Nondies and Quins before retiring in 2017. He is currently in the transportation business.

Eric Kioko in 09 (Photo – World Rugby)

On his experience playing at the JWRT…

“The first thing I noticed playing at the JWRT, was the level of professionalism, I had played the Africa U19 tournaments, but this was a whole new level for myself and the team. From the preparation, training times, and accommodation, the attention to detail around the whole set-up was impressive. It remains the highlight of my playing career.

That level of professionalism is something that I have carried throughout my career both on and off the field. It is those levels that I wish everyone involved in rugby aspires to.

At that point in my career, I was honoured, especially in being picked as captain, but the more the years roll on, it continues to sink in just how big of a deal it was.

Playing at JWRT made me fall in love with the sport even more, I didn’t have plans to play much rugby after high school but the experience made me believe more in myself and back myself against anyone.”

On what it meant to lead Kenya at the tournament…

“It was the greatest honour of my rugby career, 2009 was a great year for me personally as I was also picked as the Sports Person of the Year at my university, Strathmore.

To lead that bunch of young men then, was truly a great honour, we were a great bunch of talented youngsters, most of who went on to have massive careers locally and internationally, so it was a surreal experience, especially now as I look back at it.”

Word of encouragement to the 2023 Class…

“If you have any ambitions to keep playing this sport at the highest level, there is no better place to start, these are your agemates, these are the guys you will be competing against throughout your career, and if you can match them, then it will give you a proper platform.

“Work hard in training and your preparations, train at the level you want to play. As you train, seek to better yourself every day, listen to the coaches, be disciplined, take it a day at a time and when you get the honour to wear the shirt, go out there and enjoy. I believe in your abilities, I have watched you at the Barthes Cup and I believe you have what it takes to go far. So go out there and do us proud!”

His Highlight from the 2009 JWRT…

“That comeback win against USA, I can still vividly see Collins Omae running down that wing…”

Kelvin ‘Gash dem’ Gacheru (Lock, Backrow)

The discipline, hard work and sacrifice we had to make is a trait I’ve carried all through my career, always show you can hold your own when you get any opportunity in life.

The marauding Old Cambrian (Nairobi School old boy), is now the founder of Mobi-Water, an award-winning company that develops Smart Water Management software currently used by organizations in 5 countries.

He went on to play for Mean Machine and Nondies, before calling it a day on his rugby career, though romour has it he might be making a comeback at KCB. Oh, he made sure that I remember that he was part of the Kifaru franchise that last won the Super Series.

The last known photo of Kelvin Gachdem Gacheru in a rugby jersey (Photo – Arigi)

On what it meant to play at the 09 JWRT…

“It was an exhilarating experience, we created great memories by being the first team to represent Kenya at that level. Any chance to represent your country in whatever way is always special but this one had something extra.

Going into the JWRT we were smaller compared to most teams, inexperienced and the underdog team, but we showed we could hold our own. The discipline, hard work and sacrifice we had to make is a trait I’ve carried all through my career, always show you can hold your own when you get any opportunity in life.”

Word to the Chipu Class of 2023…
Put your best foot forward, enjoy the moment and above all Trust yourselves. We’re there to support you!

His highlight, just like his captain…was that USA win (I doubt that it will be anything else as you read on)

Oscar Ouma (Back row)

There are no hiding places in such tournaments, they push you to the limit and you get to choose either quit or face the challenge head-on!”

Probably the only ‘active’ player in the squad, Oscar went on to become a sevens household name, Olympian, eventually captaining the side to the first back-to-back cup finals at the world series in 2018. The Kijabe Boys alumni is also a two-time Kenya Cup winner with his home club Nakuru, he has also played for Kandy Rugby in Sri Lanka, Zastava in Russia, the Barbarians, Samurai and Rhinos sides.

The IT professional notes that he is also a successful coffee farmer.

Oscar Ouma (L) looking over Oyugi (Oh you guy, my guy) in the 18 shirt.

On what if meant to play at the 09 JWRT…

“JWRT was my first exposure to high-level rugby, I loved every bit of it because I got to compete against athletes from more experienced nations and with that it came with a lot of lessons.

It was an emotional experience, getting to represent your country on the international stage is what every athlete dreams of, and to get to also challenge yourself at that level was amazing.

My JWRT experience is what made me into the player that I eventually became, I got so many lessons from that tournament. I learned what it took to play at the highest level, that you had to be at your best and that you have to strive to make sacrifices if you’re to become a world-class athlete. There are no hiding places in such tournaments, they push you to the limit and you get to choose either quit or face the challenge head-on!”

Word to the Chipu class of 2023…

“Take the opportunity and embrace it, have fun and get to enjoy the game. Rugby is a special kind of sport it has a lot to give on and off the field. I always say if you have fun playing the game it becomes easy.”

His highlight…yes, that comeback win vs USA!

Collins Omae (Winger)

My experience at the JWRT was amazing and exceptional, it was my first time representing the country in an international tournament.

The definite break-out star from the 09 JWRT, Omae has since switched his boots for running spikes, and is now a pro athlete majoring in the 400 meters distance. His rugby career saw him play for Kenya Harlequins (he mentions Charles Cardovillis who gave him the secrets on how to play his position early on), then Mwamba before making the switch to track.

Collins Omae

On what if meant to play at the 09 JWRT…

“My experience at the JWRT was amazing and exceptional, it was my first time representing the country in an international tournament. It was even more special that we were at home.

Playing at the JWRT meant a lot to me, it showed me that hard work, discipline and determination pay off. It is these lessons that have guided me even past my rugby days onto the track.”

Word to the Chipu class of 2023…

“I would like to tell them to believe in their God-given abilities, work hard, be disciplined, be coachable, always give their absolute best, work as a team, be humble and always do it for the glory of God!”

And yes his highlight from the tournament…his hat trick against the USA!

Ken Andola (Fly Half)

That I could be selected then meant a lot, to know that hard work pays. I remember I would walk from Kawangware to Lenana school to practise my kicking and running up their stairs for extras.

The Old Cambrian, went on to play for Strathmore, winning the Africa Gold Cup with the Simbas, before bagging two Kenya Cup titles with KCB, he eventually moved on to coaching and was part of the 2019 Chipu technical bench that played at a similar level, in Brazil – the only Chipu side to qualify directly to play at this level. He is currently the deputy head teacher at St Christopher’s International School. (We hope si mtiaji…hehehe)

Kenny Andola in action against USA at the 09 JWRT (Photo – Daily Nation)

On what it meant to play at the 09 JWRT…

“It was an absolutely great experience playing for Kenya, it was my first time, on a global stage and competition. It was good exposure in terms of preparation. Our coaches Mojo and Pau worked hard to give us a chance to play well.

It was also my first insight into coaching, which I grew an interest in early. It was great to work with the team, and most of us made it to the senior team, which shows the commitment the boys had.

That I could be selected then meant a lot, to know that hard work pays. I remember I would walk from Kawangware to Lenana school to practise my kicking and running up their stairs for extras.

I know some of the boys who were also working hard elsewhere. To be able to represent the country and hearing the national anthem play is something that I always wanted from there henceforth. 09 JWRT was the stamp I needed to chase for higher honours. It was the progression we needed from junior rugby to senior rugby.”

Word to the Chipu class of 2023…

“Please enjoy the pressure. That’s the beauty of life and rugby. What you learn now will be very useful in the future. Whatever you do, make you, your family, and Kenya proud. All the very best!”

Polycarp ‘Poly’ Luaki (Backrow)

There is no sport made by man that can teach the lessons you learn from rugby!

The former Wazimba (the Mang’u High School rugby team), went on to play for Nondies, Homeboyz, KCB and Kabras, picking up Kenya Cup titles at the den. In between he played for Kenya A against Uganda. He is now a HR practitioner, and as he puts it, “Hakuna lineouts kwa ofisi, it is a wonderful career where I get to support people’s career paths.”

Polycarp Luaki

On what it meant to play at the 09 JWRT…

“It was one of the highlights of my sporting career. It opened our eyes to the possibilities of life. That was a mirror for me, back then. Looking back, the occasion was a great one. It would have been great if the Union had leveraged the platform and that team.

Word to the Chipu class of 2023…

“Ujana moshi. Enjoy every moment of your rugby career. There is no sport made by man that can teach the lessons you learn from rugby. Three lessons I’ve taken and apply to all I do, Discipline, Commitment and Attitude. These 3 will take you and keep you where money can’t.

There is a simple mantra in life – Pay now and Play later or Play now and pay later. Have something out of the game, because like after 80 mins, rugby ends and life continues. Have a career. Work on it as you work on the game, pay now, you’ll play later!”

Yes, his highlight of the tournament include that win over USA, in his words, ” Walikuwa wanatupiga bwana, and they were genuinely U20, mwili ndo haikua jokes. Also the loss to Chile was a reminder of the gap between us and world-class sides.”

Curtis ‘Curtlow’ Lilako (Prop)

Take this chance with all the fight that you have, once you are in tournament mode, put everything else aside and get the work in.

The Musingu Alumni, who was the youngest player in the 26-man final squad, went on to earn 38 caps for the Simbas, captaining the side, and winning the Africa Gold Cup. The one club man captained KCB to the club’s first-ever four-peat Kenya Cup run, before calling it a day on his playing career earlier this year, turning his attention to his Fraud analyst career at KCB Bank.

Curtis Lilako

On what it meant to play at the 09 JWRT…

“It was one of the top highlights of my career. Fresh out of high school, with just a few U20 games at the club and getting an opportunity to represent the country at junior level opened up my rugby career fully. Getting to play with different teams with different styles of play taught me a few things that I implemented in my style of play.

Playing the JWRT earned me respect at my club and gave me a direct ticket to train and play with the seniors. Not many players got to play in the Kenya Cup at 19 years and especially for clubs like KCB. Getting to battle it out with the more experienced players moulded various aspects of my playing and eventual leadership style.”

Word to the Chipu class of 2023…

“Representing the country at junior level is the opening chapter of a long journey ahead. The JWRT features top-quality sides from all around the world. It is an opportunity to showcase your talent worldwide. It is an avenue to be scouted as well. Take this chance with all the fight that you have, once you are in tournament mode, put everything else aside and get the work in. This is an opportunity you will never regret!”

His Highlight…a bit more deep, “Just having that opportunity to play. An opportunity that many young boys had worked hard and longed to have. That was my highlight.”

Paul ‘Pau’ Murunga (Assistant Coach)

Playing at home and representing your country at any given stage is a big honour, you have to play with pride

In 09, Pau was fresh from leading his KCB side to a Kenya Cup three-peat, the JWRT was one of his first coaching assignments. He has since become the godfather of this and the generations that followed, moving on to become head coach of Chipu, leading them to many firsts including a Barthes cup final, several Elgon cups and a youth Olympics appearance in 2014 for the sevens side.

His coaching accolades in the senior side read like a book, having been part of the Simbas set-up that played in the first Vodacom Cup, but most notably he was assistant to Benja when we won that title in Singapore. He is currently the Quins head coach.

On his experience coaching Chipu at the 09 JWRT…

“These were my early days as a coach, I had started coaching with KRU age Grade in 2005 and 2006, with the Late Erick Situma. In 2007 and 2008 I coached Lenana High School to the National games then Mitch called me to assist him with the U19 team and thereafter JWRT.

It was an honour to assist him, this started my journey as a national team and club coach, even as I was still actively playing at club and Simbas.”

Paul Murunga

What did coaching at the JWRT mean to you then and now and what impact did it have on your career?

“Coaching Chipu at JWRT was a great stepping stone to a higher level of coaching and was an avenue for my career progression, having coached Age Grade rugby and High school a few years before.
It sparked my interest in talent identification and believing in young talent which has been part of my coaching identity to date.”

How difficult/easy was it to settle for the squad you picked, how was the process?

“Having coached Lenana High School to the Nationals, it was easy to select players of that age and from different schools that participated in the School games. Alongside Mitch we picked most of the players that we had identified from different schools, he also has a great eye for young talent.”

Word to the Chipu class of 2023…

“Playing at home and representing your country at any given stage is a big honour, you have to play with pride. The JWT is the second highest level at this age after the JWC, take this opportunity and make history!”

His highlight, yes you guessed it, “Beating USA considering their size and exposure. It was definitely a big win for us. Playing in the semi-finals of JWRT then in the bronze final against Chile, was a great achievement.”

Finally…

Apart from the playing part, the opportunity to host a tournament of this calibre transforms the operation standards of a union across all facets, it did in 2009, I hope it does this time too.

Finally, all the best to the class of 2023, may you all have a great tournament, enjoy yourselves, we are all right behind you. May this be the start of glittering careers ahead and the start of another golden generation, one that will take us to the Rugby World Cup, back to winning ways at the World Sevens series and transform our rugby fortunes all around!

KWISHA…Nimeruka Nje!!!

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Poghie

A rugby fan having fun!

2 thoughts on “Where Are They Now? The Golden Class of 2009.

  1. Great reading! Thanks for the insights. What a way to inspire the next lot of our players. Let’s go Chipu!!

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