In a country that is plagued by poor sports administration, Mwangi Muthee, and the Kenya Rugby Football Union stands out as the all federation chairman worth lauding. Rugby in Kenya is thriving when compared to other sports, it is expanding rapidly, it is awash in sponsorship and sevens rugby is the only team sport where Kenya can be found on the map of the world. That is not to say that Muthee deserves all the credit for this success. But he deserves much of the credit. He is the best sports administrator in Kenya full stop. The list of sports administrators in Kenya includes the various Chairmen and Secretary generals of various federations as well as the leaders of rugby and football clubs such as AFC leopards, Gor Mahia, Mwamba, Impala and so forth. The list also includes government officials such as the sports minister and the commissioner of sports. None of these officials can claim to hold a candle to Mr. Muthee. And none of the other sports organizations have done as decent a job as KRFU has done.
Below are some of the areas where KRFU has excelled when compared to other organizations.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Mr. Muthee and KRFU is that they areseen as relatively clean by corporate sponsors. This perception means corporate suits see KRFU as an organization they are willing to do business with. This is one of the factors that has enabled Kenya national rugby teams to garner sponsorship that is well in excess of what the national football team gets. This is amazing considering that fact that football is the passion of the masses and is at least 5 times more popular than rugby.
In 2013, Kenya Airways renewed their sponsorship of the Kenya sevens team with a package to the tune of Kshs 400 million(Approx.US $4,597,702). This is four times the amount of sponsorship that Harambee stars gets from East Africa Breweries.
Also in 2013, Safaricom unveiled a sponsorship package for the Kenya sevens circuit to the tune of Ksh 140 million. The Kenya rugby sevens circuit has a much smaller following than the Kenya premier league. There are also far fewer matches. Yet the sponsorship that the Kenya sevens circuit is almost at par with what the Kenya Premier league gets.
In 2014, Tusker announced a sponsorship package for the Kenya XV rugby side to the tune of Ksh 75 million to cover expenses for participation in the Vodacom cup in South Africa. The annual Bamburi Super series is also awash in sponsorship with each of the franchises sporting a jersey sponsor.
The fact that rugby garners this kind of sponsorship is a function of the fact that KRFU is generally seen as the cleanest of Kenya’s sports organizations as well as the willingness and ability of rugby officials to convince the corporates to invest in Kenya rugby.
One of the promises Muthee made when he was campaigning for the chairmanship was that he would uplift the standards of the Kenya XV team which had been ignored for many years and was living in the shadow of the sevens team. Under Muthee, the standards of the Kenya XV side have indeed risen. Kenya are the current Africa champions having convincingly beaten Uganda and Zimbabwe at the African championships. The gap between Kenya and Namibia is closing and as such, Kenya actually stands a realistic chance of qualifying for the 2015 rugby world cup. To that end, Muthee and his group have succeeded in Kenya to participate in the Vodacom cup in South Africa. When it was first announced that Kenya would play in the Vodacom cup, some dismissed it as yet another empty promise. Kenyans after all are used to empty promises from sports officials.
But Mr. Muthee and KRFU came through on their promise. Kenya XV players are currently participating in the Vodacom cup and gaining invaluable experience that will put them in prime position to challenge for a place at the 2015 rugby world cup.
For a Kenyan official in any capacity to actually come through on promises made during campaigns is rare.
It cannot be gainsaid that the success of any country in any sport depends largely on youth development. The KRFU is the only association in Kenya that has any semblance of youth structures. In football for example, Kenya rarely participates in youth tournaments and when they do, the team is hurriedly and haphazardly assembled 3 days before the match and ends up loosing even to teams like war torn Somalia.
The Kenya rugby U19 team, popularly known as Chipu has a modicum of stability and in 2013 , they beat traditional giants Zimbabwe on their way to the Confederation of African Rugby’s U-19 Division 1A championships. There is also a U19 side for sevens to act as a feeder to the senior team.
Kenya sevens is the pride of Kenya
The Kenya rugby sevens team is not only the best national team in Kenya. It is indeed the best national team in black Africa in any sport. Think about it for a second. They have reached the semi-finals of the rugby sevens world cup twice in succession. This is unparalleled in the rest of black or arabic Africa. The likes of Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria and Egypt may dominate in Africa but they typically do not do better than the quarter-finals at the world cup. Angola may dominate African basketball but at global level they never go beyond the preliminaries. The Kenya sevens team is indeed the pride of Africa.
So dominant is the Kenya sevens team that at the 2013 Africa rugby sevens championships, Kenya fielded a second tier side and still won the tournament, beating Zimbabwe and Tunisia in the process.
Kenya was not always a sevens power. Even as recently as the 1990s, Tunisia soundly thrashed their Kenyan counterparts by a score of 52-7 during the qualifiers for the 1997 sevens world cup. And up until 10 years ago, Kenya could never beat Zimbabwe at sevens. The kind of improvement seen in Kenya rugby sevens can only happen when there is a semblance of good organization at national level and when their are people holding the Union accountable, namely the fans, the clubs and of course the IRB.
This improvement is in stark contrast to a sport like volleyball where Kenya seems to be stuck in the same gear since the 1980s. Kenya women’s volleyball has dominated at continental level since the 1980s but always flops at global level. In fact Kenya often leaves the world volleyball championships having not won a single set. In basketball, Kenya was far better in the 1980s. At least in those days, they occasionally qualified to play in the Africa cup. Now the last time the Kenya mens basketball team played in the Africa cup was in 1993.
Rugby has grown dramatically
As recently as the early 1990s, rugby was a sport played exclusively in a few secondary schools. Most were in Nairobi. There were very few schools outside Nairobi that played the sport. And even in Nairobi the sport was played in about a dozen schools. Twenty years later the sport has spread to almost all corners of the country. In Nairobi, schools in Eastlands which traditionally did not play the sport are not only playing but also excelling at it. A classic case in point is Ofafa Jericho secondary school. In the early 1990s, they were famous only for football and in fact won the national schools football championships while parading players like Musa Otieno who went on to captain Harambee starts. Now 20 years later, Ofafa Jericho are so good at rugby that they won Impala floodlit tournament for schools.
This bodes well for the sport. When more players are exposed to a sport, there is a wider player base to choose from which means the quality of player at the national team level rises. In fact almost all the best sevens players in Kenya today are from schools which did not play rugby in the 1980s. Had rugby not spread to these schools, we would have been denied the opportuinity of watching players like Kayange, Injera, Oscar Ouma, Ambaka, Amonde and others.
Rugby is also played in several primary schools and is now starting to spread amongst girls schools. This also bodes well for the national team. The earlier a player is exposed to a sport, the better he will be. Fundamental skills are best learned at a younger age and polished as the player progresses. In early 1980s for example, rugby was so rare that some players only started playing when they joined the University of Nairobi or Kenyatta University.
The credit for spreading rugby is partially due to volunteer rugby “Evangelists” like Eric Situma and Sarah Otieno who took it upon themselves to spread the game to non-traditional areas. But KRFU has also taken steps to spread the sport. Even more important than improving player quality, spreading the sport creates a larger fan base which in turn attracts sponsors.
The way rugby has spread is in stark contrast to sports like basketball and volleyball. These are two sports that would benefit immensely if they were to be introduced at primary school level. Yet the respective federations have not taken any serious attempts to introduce the sport at primary school level. Most Kenya basketball players start playing at age 15 when they join secondary school. It comes as no surprise therefore when Kenya comprehensively looses to the likes of Rwanda at basketball.
Kenya Rugby is not there yet
The goal of this article is not to claim that the KRFU are perfect.In fact KRFU is not perfect. Far from it. There are certain areas where Kenyans hope for improvement. For example, there needs to be much better youth development strcutures if Kenya is to start consistently beating teams like Namibia. The last time the two teams met, Namibia won decisively in Windhoek. It is hoped that KRFU continue to strive for improvement and the Kenya rugby fraternity will continue to hold the Union accountable.
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