Apartheid era in South Africa made him develop thick skin, and he went on to play for the country’s revered rugby team, Springboks, attracting both friends and enemies not only in the team but also among indigenous Africans.
All that time, Kenya 15s rugby coach Jerome Paarwater had never become so emotional as to shed tears the whole of his rugby career as a player and later as a coach. Not for being picked in the starting line-up for a match or being dropped from the team.
But that stubborn part of the former Springboks scrum-half finally gave way to tears on July 6, 2014 at Mahamasina Municipal Stadium in Antananarivo, Madagascar, rivulets of tears streamed down his cheeks uncontrollably after Kenya 15s rugby team, needing only a point to reach 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, lost to Zimbabwe in the team’s last match of the qualifiers to miss out on the global showpiece.
Paarwater, 50, wept openly and retreated to a car park from where one of his players Joshua Chisanga, and team physio Chris Makacha fetched him for the presentation ceremony.
Paarwater, who also coached South Africa’s provincial rugby team Western Province, had become so attached to Kenya 15s rugby team it hurt him to see the team fall at the last hurdle. Kenya 15s rugby team, popularly known as Kenya Simbas, had shocked many in their campaign for a place in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and only needed a point to make their maiden appearance at world’s largest rugby festival.
Going into the qualifier match that also doubled up as Rugby Africa Cup match, giants Namibia were perhaps Kenya’s toughest opponents. However, the team stunned Namibia 29-22, and beat Madagascar 34-0 to move to within a touching distance from the 2015 World Cup. Regardless of the result of the match, Kenya Simbas needed just a point against Zimbabwe to bring their points tally to 11 and qualify for the World Cup for the first time.
But Simbas lost to Zimbabwe Sables 28-10, extinguishing any lingering dreams of a maiden Rugby World Cup appearance. In the end, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya tied on 10 points each.
Namibia beat Zimbabwe and Madagascar 24-20 and 89-10 respectively to sail through on superior aggregate.
“It was really a sad day for the Kenya, the players and the team management, having worked so hard. Nobody gave us a chance of reaching that stage but suddenly expectations were heightened when we beat Namibia,” says Paarwater. “I just broke down in tears. It was the first time in my rugby career (that I broke down).”
Paarwater reckons although it’s every player’s dream to play at the biggest stage, his players faltered because they were not quite ready for the big stage.
“Despite that, it was the most disappointing thing for me as a coach because you also aspire to be on a big stage. Who knows? The players’ lives could have changed had they gone to the World Cup,” says Paarwater.
“Maybe we were not yet ready to play at the World Cup. I think we could have embarrassed the country, soaking in a century points (at the 2015 World Cup) since Kenya could have met New Zealand’s All Blacks in their first match. It could have been a disaster,” Paarwater says with a telling laughter.
Paarwater says it took his team a while to come to terms with what had happened. “We only got together after four months to pick up the pieces. It was a good thing for everybody to clear their minds and get back to start afresh. I told them we had achieved a lot despite missing out on a place at the World Cup since Kenya’s ranking improved.”
But the quest for a place at the 2015 World Cup may have started for Paarwater and his charges in 2013 when his team reclaimed the Rugby Africa Cup title they had won for the first and last time in 2011 after beating Namibia and Zimbabwe in Madagascar.
“The players started to believe in bigger things. They started to believe that they could actually qualify for the 2015 World Cup. People thought we were crazy and they never gave us a chance,” Paarwater recalls. “But the belief the players had was overwhelming and with experience, I knew what to do and we came so close.”
Paarwater reckons that when he took over Kenya Simbas, there were no structures and the team’s conditioning was at its lowest. The players couldn’t run fast enough yet the impression Paarwater had when he came to Kenya was that the country had good runners. “I joked with them that they gave me a wrong perception of Kenya. I told them ‘you guys can’t run!’,” Paarwater says with a light chuckle.
“I also had to instil discipline and sense of self belief in the team regarding what we wanted to achieve and where we wanted to go to,” says Paarwater, who related well with the struggles and challenges the Simbas players were going through after his experiences in apartheid South Africa.
As a player, Paarwater faced discrimination from both the national team that was predominantly white, and black South Africans who didn’t approve of his association with white people. “The struggle made me try to achieve something. I’m sure no other coach would have stayed here even for a week with no structures in place.”
He also faced the challenge of getting to know the team well, as he was forced to only relate with the players by faces. “I got to know them well with time,” says Paarwater, adding that the team’s campaign in the 2014 Vodacom Cup was key to their success that almost took them to the 2015 World Cup.
“That could not have been possible without the support of several sponsors like Migaa, Kenya Airways and East African Breweries,” says Paarwater. With quality matches such as against teams at the ongoing Hong Kong Cup of Nations, the coach believes his team is capable of posting improved results in the 2019 World Cup qualifiers next year.
“The future looks bright. However, it’s about money and sponsorship and that is why we need more sponsors on board to support SportPesa’s initiatives,” says Paarwater, adding that being a fatherly figure, players opened up to him and he got to understand their needs well, creating a good learning atmosphere.
Paarwater is indebted to team manager Wangila Simiyu, his deputies Dominique “Papa” Habimana and Charles “TC” Ngovi as well as strength and conditioning coach Richard Ochieng for their undying support.
“You can never ask for more from a person like Wangila. He is so dedicated to his work. We have faced challenges but we have done our best for the country,” says the coach, adding that having the same management for five years has brought consistency that is rare.
Paarwater insists that nothing has really changed in the team’s resolve since 2015 after his players came close to qualifying for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
He believes Kenya definitely have a good chance of making it to 2019 Japan but only if the players take their chances.
“The first hurdle is the African qualifiers where we have the best opportunity, and then the repechange,” says Paarwater, who has vowed to take his charges to the World Cup.
“We shall do whatever it takes but most importantly, we shall need sponsors. I am glad that SportPesa are on board and I hope others come through. This is a big thing and we need money and all the resources.” Paarwater says his team needs to do well in the Hong Kong Cup of Nations before next year’s Africa Cup matches that will also double up as 2019 Rugby World Cup qualifiers.
Paarwater is cognisant of the fact that most of his team’s opponents are professionals yet his players have to juggle between work and playing rugby. He is optimistic that ongoing talks with the union to have players on contracts are encouraging. “Some young guys at the union want to improve the game and it’s pleasing. When former Springboks lock Andries Bekker visited Kenya in 2011, he took back a message of hope to Western Province, that Kenya Rugby Union needed help to set up rugby structures. I was approached to come and help out because of my playing and coaching experience,” says Paarwater, who was welcomed to Kenya by Mwangi Muthee (then KRU chairman) and his deputy Philip Jalango.
Paarwater stayed in Kenya for a short while before returning to South Africa but Muthee followed him to Cape Town to plead with him to return and help KRU implement the programmes he had put in place.
“I was surprised when Muthee introduced me as the head coach in Kenya since I foresaw trouble with Western Province where I was a full time coach. But with the help of WP, we settled that, and I have been coming to Kenya when I’m needed most,” says Paarwater.
For Paarwater, it’s difficult to single out players who have stood out in the team since 2012.
“If props don’t scrum well, you don’t give quality ball to the backs. If the line-outs do not work, you can’t give out quality. It’s a team sport, you need everybody,” says Paarwater.
However, the coach singles out Chisanga as a hardworking player who has risen through the ranks to be one of the finest backrows to even play for English Premier League side Newcastle Falcons.
“My current captain Wilson K’Opondo is a player who has given everything while Moses Amusala and David Ambunya have been there through the journey alongside Darwin Mukidza,” says Paarwater. He reckons that it takes up to four years to build a team. “These are players who can play anywhere. I have all the players I want. The whole plan is for players in the team to have this culture,” says Paarwater.