D.S. ‘Lofty’ Reynolds was the most capped East African player of his time in the 1950s and 60s.
The burly Nakuru Athletic Club second row, who represented East Africa against the British Lions, Wales and South Africa, had the honour of having a trophy and competition named in his honour - the Lofty Cup.
“He was as tough and rough as they come,” remembers Les Tucker, who played together with Lofty at Nakuru AC and for East Africa. He had to be. It’s not everyday that a competition is named after a player.
The Lofty Cup didn’t keep its name for long.
In 1969, Nondescript won the competition and the following year, it was renamed the Kenya Cup by the newly-formed Kenya Rugby Football Union (KRFU).
Constituted in 1970, the KRFU brought together the three Kenyan sub unions of the Rugby Football Union of East Africa - West Kenya RFU, Central Province RFU and Coast RFU.
At that time, there were four main club competitions, the Enterprise Cup, a knockout competition started in 1923, the Nairobi District Championship, a league started two years later in 1925, the Eric Shirley Shield, a second division competition started in 1962, and the Kenya Cup.
Sports associations are known to make seemingly strange rules about who should play the game.
The KRFU was no different. In 1974, a new rule was introduced to the Kenya Cup.
Stronger Nairobi clubs were compelled to split into two equal sides to create a level playing field for the competition. Impala RFC split into the Gazelles and the Boks, Kenya Harlequin into the Vandals and the Ruffians while Nondescript created the Tigers and the Lions The rest of the teams, Thika, Kenya Army and Dar RFC maintained one side.
There was a big divide in opinion. One group favoured the player balance while another felt it diluted playing standards.
An article in the Daily Nation was sceptical of the decision .
“End of a Golden Era for Rugby?” said Daily Nation’s headline.
“(Teams) will have the additional problem in the Kenya Cup of fielding two equipollent sides and have a further problem of finding 30 players without calling on the aged, infirm and as yet unborn.”
Two issues lurked behind the split teams rule.
The first was the 1967 Immigration Act which required foreigners to acquire work permits.
After independence, the Kenyan government had given foreigners a two-year window to apply for citizenship.
Of the 180,000 Asians and 42,000 Europeans, only a total of 20,000 applied for citizenship, with the rest opting to take British citizenship.
They subsequently left the country in large numbers in late 1960s and early 1970s.
By 1974, clubs outside Nairobi scarcely had the numbers to play and started merging to survive.
Kitale RFC and Nakuru AC merged into Kituru, while teams like Eldoret RFC could not sustain the numbers to give quality competition.
Another issue was Impala RFC’s form at the time. They had blitzed all opposition during the period from 1970 to 1974, winning the Enterprise Cup, NDC and Kenya Cup back-to-back.
“We won everything there was to win”, remembers scrumhalf Kevin Lillis, who captained Impala during that time. It would seem that the trophies needed to be spread around.
It was against the split teams backdrop that Mean Machine RFC burst onto the scene and won the Kenya Cup in their first attempt in 1977.
Boasting several quality players and accompanied by bus loads of rowdy cheering fans, Mean Machine beat Nondies Tigers at Lenana School in the semis and Impala Boks in the final.
“Although the behaviour of Mean Machine fans cannot be condoned, they brought an element of aggression into the sport, which is vitally essential for the survival of any sport which has to thrive on crowd support. A few heated words without punches, please. Mohammed Ali is a legendary example.” wrote Philip Ndoo, in his weekly column in the Daily Nation.
“In retrospect, watching Machine beat Nondies changed the attitude of the players in Lenana”, recalls Max Muniafu, then a student at Lenana School where Mean Machine played their home matches.
The varsity side had a great influence on the school, indeed.
Later that year, Lenana won the Eric Shirley Shield, the second division club competition.
As a reward, Mean Machine were given the University of Nairobi parade ground field as their home ground, relegating university’s football team which was then using the ground to the athletics field.
Cliff Mukulu attended the formation meetings of Mwamba RFC at Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on Kenyatta Avenue.
“Many players from Mean Machine didn’t want to go back to the clubs they were from originally. At that time, the game was declining and we saw it turning around because of the formation of the new clubs,” remembers Mukhulu.
Dave Mshila was playing at Nondies when he learnt about Mwamba.
“When I read about Mwamba’s formation in 1978 and the call for players to attend training, I made up my mind to join them,” he says.
When he attended his first training session he knew he had come home.
He was not alone.
Many players went to Mwamba.
So many that player supply was shut off to other Nairobi clubs.
From a situation where the game was a ‘closed circuit’, in which players from elite ‘European Africanised’ schools went to a handful of existing clubs, here was an opportunity for everyone.
Open door policy, no reference required.
Come play rugby.
The Railway Club ground, where the Railway RFC had been unable to sustain numbers and shut down, was now overflowing with indigenous players.
A third team, Mwamba Pebbles, catered for the excess numbers, playing friendlies on Wednesdays.
The Mwamba wave affected the Kenya Cup as teams felt the dearth of quality players. In 1979, as a result, the split teams rule was revoked at a KRFU clubs meeting.
Fielding two balanced teams was unsustainable.
Around the same time, the Nairobi District Championship was shelved, giving the Kenya Cup more prominence, and a status equivalent to that of the Enterprise Cup.
The NDC competition was played on a league basis by Nairobi teams, and its trophy, a flag initially donated by the defunct Muthaiga RFC, was won for the last time by Nondescript in 1977.
Entry to the Kenya Cup doesn’t come easy.
Promotion is earned from the Eric Shirley Shield, the second division league.
And if a team is relegated, it has to perform well in the ESS to get back on top.
In 1995, only five teams took part in the Kenya Cup: Nondescript, Mombasa Sports Club, Kenya Harlequin, Stanchart and Mean Machine.
Barclays RFC had earlier withdrawn from playing rugby, while the regulars - Kenya Commercial Bank , Nakuru, Mwamba and Impala were battling their way out of the Eric Shirley Shield.
Only Mean Machine, and Strathmore University have overcome the cyclical struggle that university teams encounter in the Kenya Cup.
USIU-A and Kenyatta University’s Blak Blad have not been able to sustain a long Kenya Cup campaign.
Players usually peak in five years and just when they are peaking, their academic time at the university ends.
“It was difficult to sustain a consistent team performance, with the high turnover of players that we had,” says George Gachui who captained the USIU-A side of 1996-99.
Teams from out of Nairobi have added disadvantages.
Every away game entails a long trip that is time consuming and expensive.
Player retention is a major challenge.
Affluent Nairobi clubs have been guilty of poaching players by offering them a better livelihood in the city.
“The nature of things is that everything is centred around Nairobi,” says Paul Okongo of Kisumu RFC.
All the centres of learning and job opportunities are in Nairobi, making it difficult for our players to resist an offer.”
But no club has dominated the Kenya Cup like Nondescript RFC. In a 24-year period from 1975 to 1998, Nondies, as they are popularly known, lifted the Kenya Cup 15 times.
Nondies’ decline in performance coincides with their departure from their traditional home ground, Parklands Sports Club around 1997, and eventual relocation to the Agriculture Society of Kenya Show ground.
“Nondies players always had good basic skills, won their set-piece play and kicked for territory”, says club chairman Thomas Opiyo.
“They did their basics well, and denied the opposition possession of the ball. We want to grow the Kenya Cup to 14 teams to give teams around the country an opportunity to play at the highest level.
The future is about recruiting and retaining players from a wide region, tapping talent from every corner”, says Jack Okoth, secretary of the KRU.
Only seven teams have their name on the Kenya Cup: Impala, Nondescripts, Mean Machine, Mwamba, Barclays Bank, Kenya Harlequin and Kenya Commercial Bank.
The eighth team will be added to the list when Nakuru RFC meet Strathmore Leos in the 2012/13 Kenya Cup finals today.