The fall and fall of Kenya Sevens Rugby Team
Tuesday May 23 2023
It’s April 19, 2016, at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Kenya Sevens captain Andrew Amonde is disembarking from Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by Qatar Airways, Singapore Sevens trophy in hand as an enthusiastic Humphrey Kayange and his younger brother Collins Injera, and William Ambaka wave the national flag.
The team’s coach, the late Benjamin Ayimba, emerges as the sizable crowd that had gone to meet the team at the airport breaks into a celebration.
Kenya Sevens, which had twice reached the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup Sevens, had two days earlier upset Fiji 30-7 in the final of the Singapore Sevens to capture its first World Rugby Sevens Series victory.
Fast forward to Sunday, seven years since Kenya’s heroics in the series, fans and the team are engulfed in collective pain and anguish. Kenya Sevens has been relegated from the World Rugby Sevens Series for the first time in 23 years.
The team must go through the Africa qualifiers, and later the 2024 World Rugby Sevens Challenger series to stand a chance of earning promotion to the 2024/2025 Series.
After dismantling Canada 24-19 in the four-team play-off in Twickenham Stadium in London at the weekend, Kenya lost 12-7 to Canada in Sunday’s final match, and crest-fallen Kenyan players broke into tears.
Kenya Sevens will now miss the World Rugby Sevens Series with no chance of invitation to some events after World Rugby came up with a 12-team format for the 2023/2024 Series.
Kenya Sevens earned its first invitation to the World Rugby Sevens Series in the 2000/2001 season and became a core team in 2004/2005 season.
They team must now go through the Africa qualifiers, and the 2024 World Rugby Sevens Challenger series to earn promotion to the 2024/2025 World Rugby Series.
Read (from the Archives): Brave Kenya take silver in Canada Sevens - PHOTOS
The relegation comes with repercussions. There will be no funding for Kenya from World Rugby as this is only reserved for core teams.
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A number of things have led to Kenya’s relegation from the series, ranging from Kenya Rugby Union’s (KRU) board wrangles, lack of sustainable development structures for national teams and local leagues, lack of financial stability and frequent strikes by national team players over salaries and allowances.
The high turnover of national team coaches, who have been unable to come up with national team academies, lack of smooth transition of players in the team, the collapse of Safari Sevens, and apathy towards the local sevens circuit are the other factors.
KRU’s boardroom wrangles over control of sponsorship money and conflict of interest saw chairman Mwangi Muthee resign on December 17, 2014, after four years at the helm.
Muthee, who had questioned the integrity of some board members, alleged conflict of interest in the supplying of kits to Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) and questionable procurement of airline tickets worth millions of shillings outside the established KRU channels.
His resignation came in the wake of exit of KRU directors Godwin Karuga and Maurice Masiga, and Kenya Sevens coach Paul Treu.
Despite the boardroom wrangles, Kenya Sevens reached the semi-final of the Sevens Rugby World Cup in 2013 and finished fifth overall in the World Rugby Series in 2012/13, which remains their best ever finish under former coach Mike Friday.
Read: Kenya top in Africa as curtains fall on Tokyo Olympics
When Muthee took charge of the team in 2011 after beating incumbent Richard Omwela in elections, he fired Ayimba and replaced him with his deputy Mitch Ocholla after core players in the team threatened to leave over his management style.
Muthee would later replace Ocholla with Briton Mike Friday, who later resigned after one season with Paul Treu taking charge at the end of 2013. Friday left after taking Kenya Sevens to their second ever semi-final at the Rugby World Cup in 2013 as well as Wellington Sevens final.
Muthee had managed to bring on board Kenya Airways in 2011 as Kenya Seven team sponsors for two seasons to a tune of Ksh290 million ($2.1 million) upon the exit of Virgin Airlines, who had been with the team since 2007.
As Omwela took charge again in 2015 upon election, Safaricom withdrew its sponsorship for Safari Sevens following allegations of corruption and fraud at the KRU board in June as Kenya Sevens players went on strike in July over pay and allowances.
Omwela disbanded the team headed by Vuyo Zanqwa in August 2015, replacing his with Felix Ochieng as head coach even as Safaricom rescinded their decision five months later to sponsor Safari Sevens.
Omwela would reappoint Ayimba as head coach with Paul “Pau” Murunga as his deputy for the 2015/2016 season as he guided the team to the historic victory.
Ayimba was again at loggerheads with the union after a state house visit that saw players get tokens from former president Uhuru Kenyatta with money being wired to their own accounts.
Ayimba would be accused of “selling” the 2016 Rio Olympics place to some players besides getting money from players for having facilitated the state house token, allegations that Ayimba denied.
KRU declined to renew his contract after the Rio Olympics games but instead replaced him with Innocent Simiyu before the end of 2016.
That happened as SportPesa ventured into rugby when they sealed a five-year deal of Ksh607 million ($4.4 million) with KRU towards the sponsorship of all the national teams in 2016.
However, the deal would collapse in 2019 when SportPesa pulled out of sports sponsorships in Kenya after a prolonged tax dispute with local authorities. SportPesa returned only in December last year.
Simiyu’s contract ended in 2018 despite taking Kenya Sevens to the 2018 World Rugby Sevens Series finals in Canada and Hong Kong. Simiyu opted to “die” for his players after they covered the sponsors’ logo ‘Brand Kenya’ during the 2018 Paris Sevens.
Murunga would replace Simiyu for a tumultuous 2018/2019 season that Kenya almost got relegated, finishing 12th, two places above relegation.
In March 2019, Omwela exited as Oduor Gangla was elected chairman as he fired Murunga to appoint Paul Feeney from New Zealand took over only to quit in April 2020.
Simiyu would be reappointed but was later replaced by Dimian McGrath from Britain in May 2022, who still serves up to date.
The high turnover of coaches with 10 coaches serving in over a decade definitely caused instability with none of them getting to relapse his dream of setting up an academy for the national team.
Lack of proper transition and culture are the main problems of Kenya Sevens team, legendary former Kenya 7s speedster Collins Injera says.
Injera, who retired from international rugby in January with still some years to play for Kenya due to frustration in the national team owing to lack of allowances and salaries. Others are William Ambaka and Darwin Mukidza, who retired in March.
Some of Kenya’s top players have slumped into oblivion for instance Eden Agero, Oscar Ouma, Oscar Ayodi.