When former international Edward “The Eagle” Rombo returned to the country after his professional trade with Leeds Rugby League side in the United Kingdom ended in 1997, he decided to introduce rugby league in the country.
But the idea met strong headwinds and never got to start up with Rombo chasing a career in law at Kenya School of Law.
More so, Rombo got involved with rugby union as an assistant coach of Kenya Sevens and Mwamba Rugby Club coach besides getting appointed a director at Kenya Rugby Union (KRU).
It’s until 2014 when the Italian national team toured the country for a charity mission in Watamu where there was a revival of sorts.
Kenya would hastily form a team from rugby union players. They were taken through the rules and regulations in rugby league for a week before the duel that they interestingly won 34-24.
“It’s around 2015 we got a group together of people willing to actualise things led by Richard Nyakwaka. We started looking for players and people willing to volunteer their time and expertise in various fields, marketing, technical and finance,” says Rombo.
“We engaged the world governing body, International Rugby League Federation (IRL) for acceptance as a new rugby league member but we had still not been officially registered as a sports organisation in Kenya,” explains adding that without local recognition, IRL couldn't engage them meaningfully so things stopped for some time as they sought registration.
Rombo states that they had begun training sessions at Railways Club but things stalled because of a registration issue.
A formal registration of the Kenya Rugby League as required under the Sports Act was sought but the Sports Registrar Rose Wasike delayed with the application for almost four years and its only after KRL officials threatened to move to court that she communicated declining to register KRL because there was already another federation (Kenya Rugby Union-KRU) running rugby.
“Clearly they didn't bother to check that ours was an organisation for rugby league and that it was a different sport from rugby union,” explains Rombo as they sought legal redress at the Sports Disputes Tribunal.
The dispute was finally resolved and KRL got the node in November last year to see KRL officials move into action.
“We were now able to formally move things, make correspondence, launch our offices and now hopefully we can gain admittance to the IRL and get things moving,” says Rombo, who is now KRL head coach.
Nyakwaka is now the inaugural KRL president while former Kenya Sevens team head coach Benjamin Ayimba is now KRL technical director.
Another former Kenya Sevens deputy coach Charles Cardovillis takes over as director for commercial, and special projects.
Nyakwaka says they are now banking on the mutual cooperation with KRU to grow the two different codes of games.
“We are in talks with KRU on how we can share resources and other areas of mutual benefit like players and technical resources in the field of education, conditioning, fitness and sports medicine,” says Nyakwaka adding that they believe it will make Kenya become a rugby super power with more opportunities for the players.
“I think we can share what is existing now like pitches in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Kakamega, Eldoret and other major towns in the country,” explains Nyakwaka noting that rugby union clubs in the country have over the years embraced rugby league techniques to better their performances.
“Most have sharpened their defensive and tackling skills using rugby league codes because of their effectiveness,” said Nyakwaka explaining that rugby union and rugby league in the country can share players so long as there is a proper set up guiding the process.
Nyakwaka gives an example of former New Zealand Sevens player Sonny Bill Williams, who switched to rugby league to sign for Toronto Wolfpack, the first Canadian professional club, who played in the English league system in November last year in a deal worth Sh 1 billion. (US$ 10 million).
“We have always been in talks with KRL officials but let it be clear that one can’t play the two codes of the game from before,” said KRU chairman Oduor Gangla. “Player registration happens before the start of a season hence one will only register either with rugby league or rugby union.”
Gangla explains that most rugby fields are privately owned hence rugby union has no control over them.
There are some slight rules that define the two codes of the game. There are no lineouts and contested mauls in rugby league unlike in rugby union.
Rugby league is played on a rectangular field measuring 68m wide and 112–122 m long while rugby union pitch measures 100m long and 69m wide.
Rugby union features 15 players with the shorter version having seven players while rugby league is also a full contact sport played by two teams of 13 players each side with the shorter version having nine players.
In rugby union, a try is five points and a conversion two points while in rugby league a try is four points and a conversion two points.
Over the last two decades, there have been many rugby players that have switched codes across the world. Gone are the days when players switched from Union to League for professional game lure. Since rugby union became professional in 1995, many rugby stars are doing the exact opposite, favouring rugby union over league in Europe.
Today, dual-code rugby internationals are becoming more and more common, with players, known as code converts, and securing senior international experience in both rugby league and union.
What has attracted the switch is the lure of salary increase from league to union and the lure of international selection and playing for the country in front of large crowds.
Rombo says that they have engaged South Africa, Spain and Morocco, who are keen on playing Kenya Test Matches in Nairobi this year depending on how Covid-19 will behave.
Nyakwaka says the Test Matches will be part of their preparations for the 2025 Rugby League World Cup.
Nyakwaka noted that it’s not too early to face continental powerhouse South Africa, who last took part at the Rugby League World Cup in 2000, if they really want to achieve their target.
“Of course there are many challenges in getting players as you know we generally have to source players from rugby union and its not been easy though from what we have seen many players don't mind trying out league,” says Rombo. “We shall need money to hire grounds, personnel and so far most of us have been volunteering our time and resources to get things done.”
However, Nyakwaka quips that their target is school-leaving rugby union players who don’t have an opportunity. “Most of those who are about to retire from rugby union have seen an opportunity in this different code alongside those who are not getting attention in rugby union,” Nyakwaka said.
Nyakwaka noted that the inaugural Nairobi 9s held in February this year, with nine clubs taking part, proved a great success. He said that there is hope that with proper planning, the game is set to grow in leaps and bounds.
Once the coronavirus lockdown is eased, Nyakwaka said that they intended to start a league of 10 clubs to be played twice a month at one venue to attract crowds and sponsors.
“Spreading the game across the country will help to develop the interest by creating a “thick” market for everyone. It will also be easier for sponsors and for media coverage with matches being played at a central place,” Nyakwaka noted, adding that they will also introduce a ladies’ league and age grade programme for schools.
Already, there is an online training for referees under New Zealand referee Simon Taylor with a South Africa trainer, who is yet to be known, conducting coaches’ course.
Ayimba will, in the coming month, roll out a programme for clubs besides coming up with a draft for the league. “Rules require at least eight weeks of training before a contact game. If we get players training after one month then we shall be ready for a domestic league even in September,” Nyakwaka said.
He said that so far, the response has been great and the fan base is building up. He further indicated that the league’s popularity will increase in years to come.
“We already have a marketing partner who will handle our commercials and we shall be unveiling the partner soon,” Nyakwaka said.
Some of the clubs that have embraced rugby league locally are Winam in Kisumu, Rift Valley Ruffians, Nkubu in Nakuru, Meru, Kitengela Wolves, Nairobi Rhinos, Nairobi Touch Rugby and Thika Road Club.
Australia has dominated the Rugby League World Cup, winning 12 out of the 16 editions of the event with Britain winning three, including the inaugural 1954 championship hosted by France.
New Zealand won the event in 2008, halting Australia’s run, after winning six consecutive editions. The Aussies triumphed in the last edition of the World Cup that was co-hosted by New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in 2017.
England are scheduled to host the 2021 Rugby League World Cup. Rugby League in Africa dates back to as early as the 1950s when South Africa organised matches against Britain and France.
The sport has seen activity in Burundi, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Morocco, Congo, Ghana and Ethiopia.