The Kenya Sevens team has had one of its best ever starts to the IRB World Sevens Series.
Making it to three out of five Main Cup events in Gold Coast in Australia, Dubai in the UAE, and Wellington in New Zealand, shows how far the country’s rugby has come.
From the days of Michael “Tank” Otieno, Bill Githinji, Benjamin Ayimba, Mitch Ocholla and now Mike Friday, a revamped and gutsy Kenya caught the eyes of the rugby commentators and analysts alike when they reached the cup semi-finals in the opening leg of Gold Coast where they eventually settled for fourth after losing to South Africa 7-41.
Then came the Dubai Sevens. The Kenya Sevens team won the third place play-off, beating France 15-12. The team went up to second place in the World Series, their best ever start to the tournament.
In South Africa, Kenya missed some of its key players owing to studies and work related commitments and the team dropped to sixth place at South Africa Sevens at Nelson Mandela Bay, Port Elizabeth.
At the Wellington Sevens, the work that conditioning coach Chris Brown had done with the team was clearly manifested, as well as the technical and professional coaching by Mike Friday and Felix Ochieng.
The team rallied from behind to win France, and then beat Argentina and Tonga for the Cup final. Conjuring magnificent victories that coupled great defensive skills against South Africa and hosts New Zealand in the quarter-final and semi-final best illustrated how the team had come of age.
Having reached the final for the first time since 2009, in the final against England, the team lost in sudden death 19-24.
With the euphoria from Wellington, the stage was set for the USA Sevens in Las Vegas, where expectations for the maiden trophy were heightened. However, Kenya’s style of play was predictable in the Main Cup, and Canada and South Africa took advantage of their style and had easy wins.
Kenya dropped to Shield, eventually losing to Australia 7-38 in the semi-finals and dropped four places to sixth with 57 points.
All Blacks stayed top with 77 points, the Springboks at second place with 73 followed by Samoa with 71.
Gold Coast Seven winners Fiji are fourth with 66 points with USA Sevens bowl winners France wrapping up the top five with 59 points.
The flops and inconsistencies in South Africa and Las Vegas coming in between superlative showing should be of concern to Coach Friday, going into the last four legs in Hong Kong, Japan, England and Scotland.
Former international and rugby development manager at Kenya Rugby Union, Fred Ollows, says that the team’s strength and conditioning aspects have already been taken care of and nothing can be added to that. However, he says the technical bench led by Friday needs to pay closer attention to the mental condition of the players during and after the tournaments.
“Friday and his deputy Felix Ochieng have instilled the environment of professionalism and technical capacity, but we should go a notch higher by paying closer attention to individual players and explore their mental capability.
“We had lessons from New Zealand in two semi-finals on how to play,” Friday said. “The education on the technical and physical side came out and we also got the mental results, which play a big part in the game.
“Sevens rugby is brutal and small margins matter. We are hurting but Shujaa Pride will come back stronger for this experience,” said Friday.
“Like in all the games in the series you can take nothing for granted since all the teams are quite unpredictable,” the coach said. “We yet again made too many basic errors that cost us possession, and on a narrow pitch possession is everything.”
As a young squad, Friday says they have some reflective learning experiences from Las Vegas.
“We really need to know what is to be done on and off the pitch as a squad to achieve consistency in performance, and if we learn from these painful experiences, then they will be worth all the hurt we feel right now.”