Innocent Simiyu’s Kenya Sevens rugby team did it again at the weekend, hoisting the country’s flag high up by making the final of the Vancouver Sevens.
The 12-31 loss to Olympic champions Fiji in the final in the wee hours of Monday saw Shujaa consolidate their eighth place in the IRB World Sevens Series log with 64 points, just six behind seventh-placed England.
South Africa lead the standings with 109 points followed by Fiji on 101 with New Zealand and Australia following with 92 and 84 points, respectively.
Argentina (77) and USA (73) occupy the fifth and sixth places with Samoa (41) and France (38) completing the top 10.
This means that Kenya is sixth among the Commonwealth nations on the log, and a definite prospect for a medal at next month’s Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.
Shujaa’s good run in the last two tournaments on the circuit (quarter-finals at the USA Sevens in Las Vegas and final in Vancouver) is the best possible run-up to the Commonwealth Games that run from April 4-15 with the rugby competition penciled for April 13-15 at the 27,500-seater Robina Stadium.
Kenya is in a tricky Pool ‘C’ that has New Zealand, Canada and Zambia where they must top the group to fight for the medals.
In a system different from the IRB circuit matches where the top two teams in each pool advance to the semi-finals, the Gold Coast format will see the group winners in each of the four groups advancing straight to the semi-finals with the second placed teams playing for fifth to eighth positions and those ranked third and fourth eliminated from the competition altogether.
With athletics and boxing having dominated Kenya’s medals at these “Club” games, we now have good prospects of a rugby medal next month.
What will be the game-changer is the transition of the national team from the management of the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) to that of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (Nock), the latter charged with the responsibility of preparing Kenya’s teams for the games.
And this starts with team selection. During it’s debut at the Olympic Games in 2016, Kenya had the potential to medal but inadequacies off the field cost us the podium in Rio de Janeiro.
While the choice of a high altitude location was biologically correct, there were several challenges at the team’s pre-Olympic training camp at the Nandi Bears Club, including the absence of gym equipment, with the KRU forced to ferry the weights from Nairobi.
Accommodation was also insufficient at the club, forcing the women’s team to be accommodated separately, a few kilometres away from the club.
Strength and conditioning coach Geoffrey Kimani – whose presence in the team has made a huge difference in Simiyu’s side – wasn’t accommodated in the pre-Olympics camp, so the players had to make do with their own drills.
Kimani only joined the team on the flight to Rio which was too late to influence the players’ strength and conditioning.
There was need for a team nutritionist, something I hope Nock will get right immediately as the team gets into the final phase of preparations in Karen.
Apart from strength, conditioning and nutrition, physiotherapy is another crucial element in team management.
Again, this was overlooked at the Olympics, leading to the rugby disaster in Rio where Kenya finished 11th out of the 12 competing nations. It was unfortunate that the International Rugby Board (IRB) had to intervene for seasoned team physio Lameck Bogonko, who had good knowledge of the team, to be accredited for Rio.
IRB rules state that only a “Level Two” physio is allowed at major international tournaments sanctioned by the Board which put paid to schemes to have unqualified personnel travel to Rio.
Other sideshows, including the fight over men and cash awards in the women’s team (from a presidential kitty to celebrate the men’s Singapore Sevens won), meant that Kenyan rugby was a total embarrassment in Rio.
Some key recommendations were made by the team investigating the Rio fiasco which should be taken into cognizance as we prepare for Gold Coast, most notably that:
•Coaches and technical officials who have successfully handled the team in the recent past be allowed to continue handling the team to major games as changing the technical bench a few days to the tournament destroys team cohesion;
•Players’ welfare needs to be addressed at team management level to avoid players fighting over prize money;
•The team’s technical bench should be the ones charged with the responsibility of identifying and picking the team, and their recommendations should be considered and taken seriously;
•The head coach should have the final say on team selection;
If such recommendations are implemented to the letter, I don’t see any reason why Kenya cannot strike gold in Gold Coast.
In the 2014 Games in Glasgow, Kenya got out of the group but lost 19-7 to New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
With their current form and physical conditioning, they should go all the way to the podium in Gold Coast, of course if the management gremlins of Rio don’t rear their ugly head in the remaining days to the competition.
Coach Simiyu has silenced the naysayers and is capable of carrying the day in Gold Coast.