The London leg of the IRB series was the final leg for the 2011-2012 series. It ended ignominously for Kenya as they failed to win a single game. This tournament typified Kenya’s performance throughout the IRB sevens series: The performance was a mixture of extremes. Their were moments of brilliance interspersed with the most basic errors. Its a sad commentary considering that fans expected that the ushering in of professionalism thanks to a massive Kenya Airways sponsorship was expected to enhance Kenya’s performance now that the sevens team is the best paid sports team in Kenya.
What stands out the most in Kenya’s play especially in the last 3 legs is their inability to execute one on one tackles. The ease with which opposing playing sliced through Kenyan tackles was like water through a sieve. Opposing teams faced many feeble tackles which allowed them to slice through.
Granted tackling has always been a weak spot for Kenya. But by 2009, the team had vastly improved in this area. That group of players was highly experienced and grizzled after several seasons in the IRB series. This years team has many rookies and is in many ways reminiscent of the sorry Kenyan teams that used to loose 70-0 to Fiji back when Kenya was first dipping its feet into the global sevens game circa 1998. Also in 2009, Kenya had a coach in Benjamin Ayimba who in his playing days was known for his commitment to tackling. He was therefore not going to condone lack of defensive effort.
Speaking of culture, most Kenyan players are a product of a rugby culture which at secondary school level emphasizes what a player can do with ball in hand. A player with sidesteps is glorified. But his or her ability to tackle is rarely appreciated or emphasized. Few if any coaches perform one on one tackling drills. Harldy any coaches teach the proper tackling technique. Players who miss tackles are not benched. And you wonder why Kenya players are poor tacklers ?
There was no speed out wide
As far as this writer can remember, Kenya has always had true fliers who would show opposing teams a clean pair of heels with their whiplash speed. In the 90s there was Pablo Murunga, Sydney Obonyo and others. In the early millenium there was Oscar Osir and Lucas Onyango. And recently Collins Injera and Sydney Ashioya who in his prime, pre-injury, not only was fleet of foot but had the acceleration of Ferrari. With this speed, whenever the ball was swung wide, the wingers had the confidence to take on opponents knowing that if they got even one step ahead of their marker, it was a sure try. Kenya fans had become accustomed to seeing long distance tries dialed routinely. And of course Ashioya’s kick and chase tries were undefendable, not to mention his try saving tackles.
The 2012 edition had no true flyers as Collins Injera missed most of the season. So when the ball was swung wide, the wingers did not have the confidence to take on their markers. So the move was bogged down.
Fitness was an Issue
During the Hong Kong leg especially, lack of fitness was evident was some Kenya players looked clearly out of breath. Others did not give the requisite effort. It has been reported that the Kenya fitness coach quit because his recommendations on who was fit enough to travel were not taken into account.
KRFU managed to convince sponsors Kenya Airways that turning the team professional would instantly bring better results. This writer has always disagreed with this premise. Very few countries have full time professional players. Argentina for one has always thrived with part time players. Why ? they focus on player development at youth level.
Kenya players may be making professional salaries but they are still amateaurs. Most are still students or have full time jobs. Professionals by definition are people who play rugby for a living and as such can spend 4-6 hours a day sharpening their skills and enhancing their fitness. So in essence, Kenya players are being paid professional salaries, while maintaining amateaur status. No wonder they had fitness issues. No wonder their basic skills were below par. How much time can they really spend working on their weaknesses and sharpening their skills if they have other obligations ?
Rather than spend money on professionalism, KRFU should invest more money to develop rugby players at youth level via rugby bursaries and proper coaching at youth level. This is the biggest achilles heel in Kenya rugby. Having a professional sevens team might not be practical as most of these players have other obligations besides rugby. Again that KQ money might be better spent in youth player development.
Another area where Kenya has always been lacking is their contact skills at breakdowns. Kenya players are often knocked backwards by more aggressive teams and often cleared at breakdowns. It stems from the rugby culture in Kenya which prizes ball carriers with silken sidesteps but neglects to develop the contact skills aka mongrel behavior that is essential when playing at this level. Kenya needs a system that develops a players ability to take and deliver hits in the contact area. One reason why teams are confident to run against Kenya is because they dont expect to be knocked backwards.
There were improvements and Some Positives
When the season started, the first two legs were characterized by a stagnant offence that consisted of swinging the ball wide in a predictable fashion. This was easy to defend because all the opposition had to do was drift their defence in the direction the ball was going. The first two legs were thus disastrous for Kenya. As the season progressed, Kenya introduced some variety in their play with a series of diagonal (scissor) runs that disoriented the opposing defences and created tries. This is a strength for Kenya that they should sharpen. Kenya players are at their best when running with ball in hand.
The 2012 IRB season revealed some new players who could be useful in future IRB sevens series. Players like Willy Ambaka whose rampaging runs wreaked havoc in opposing defences.
To prepare for the 2013 world cup, Kenya will need to engage a technical consultant who can iron out the issues in the team. Kenya needs exptatriate help. This task is beyond any local coach.
Secondly, metrics that are used to reward players ought to be revised. The number of tackles completed should be at the top of the list used to measure player performance. Also the number of turnovers created. A players ability to maintain fitness should also be part of the contract. Let Kenya team give KQ their money’s worth or risk loosing it.
Long term however, Kenya needs to finally take youth development seriously in order to cultivate test calibre players. As has been stated above, Argentina has for many years eschewed professionalism and instead spent all the IRB funding they get in youth development. The result is that Argentina was able to cultivate test calibre players who eventually became professionals in top leagues all over the world. Kenya continue to be delusional that professionalism is the panacea for all problems. It is not. Paying low calibre players professional salaries will not generate better results. This column has said so for years and the results of 2012 prove us right. Player development at youth level is the key. Kenya players are as talented as anyone. But talent that has not mastered the basic skills will not get Kenya anywhere. How youth development can be done in Kenya has been covered in a previous article. Please read it here.