The Rise of Kenya Sevens & Rugby in Africa

kenya 7sWhilst Kenya may be chiefly known for its dominance in middle and long-distance running, under coach Mike Friday the Kenyan national sevens team are making their mark on the international scene.

Since taking over as head coach in May 2012 Friday has overseen the side rise from 12th to 5th in the world rankings and led them to 4th place in the recent sevens World Cup in Russia. I was fortunate enough recently to be able to put my questions about the Kenyan sevens success and the wider rugby landscape currently emerging in Africa.

The first port of call naturally is exactly what has changed within the countries sevens set up that has allowed them to make such a significant leap up the IRB standings. Whilst there is obviously a lot of raw potential in a country so famed for its athletics achievements, rugby as a discipline requires much more than just sheer natural physicality.

“There has always been the athletes and raw potential, but in order to stand a chance of maximising their potential they need education on how best to make the most of this potential”. This raw potential has always been clear as over recent years the Kenyan sevens side have always been able to compete at the top level but at times lacked the skills and discipline to break into the top tiers of the various international tournaments in which they compete.

At first Friday placed a great deal of emphasis on physical conditioning, supplementation and nutrition in order to build on the player’s natural strength and stamina. This helped make the team more competitive whilst he and his coaching team set about un-teaching a number of previously taught bad habits.

The coaching team then worked on developing the player’s fundamental skills and general understanding of the game. This allowed the players to better “recognise different problems and their solutions in both attack and defence, mentally giving the players the confidence and belief they deserve”.  This approach helped bring out a mental resolve in the team which saw players willing to “take their bodies and minds to places they don’t want to go or have never been”.

This raises a key issue in the development of rugby in Africa with a number of teams at both sevens and XV’s showing the raw potential but seriously lacking in the basic skills and fundamental understanding of the game. This often comes about through poorly funded rugby schemes that cannot afford the level of coaching necessary to properly develop the players involved.

Instead the teams are continually taught poor technique and as such never truly reach their full potential. It is the investment in top coaches like Mike Friday that has seen the Kenyan sevens side buck this trend and begin competing in the very top reaches of the biggest international tournaments in the world.

Whilst Kenya have invested in Friday, the teams resources are still extremely limited making their recent success even more incredible given the resources many of the top sevens sides now have at their disposal. Friday obviously has genuine belief in his work with the Kenyan sevens and feels strongly about the side’s chances in the next World Cup after coming so close this time around.

In fact, but for “the horrendous weather conditions and referee calls, which we have now received an apology for” Friday’s team would have been contesting the final this time around. And “if the necessary investment was placed into the programme and discipline and direction of the rugby environment maintained and build on we can be really serious contenders in the world on a consistent basis”.

kenya sevens sThe Kenyan national XV’s team are also enjoying an unparalleled purple patch as they have now risen to an all-time high of 31st in the IRB World Rankings. Whilst the side continue to improve Friday believes they are still some way off being able to compete with the top tier nations and must first undergo a similar development process that he has overseen with the sevens side.

Whilst individual players are continually developing and improving, the emphasis on the set piece and technical aspects in both the scrum and lineout mean that technically Kenya are still a long way behind many of the top rugby nations. In particular the development of “a front 5 who are technically competent and conditioned to compete is at least a 10 year process starting at schools level”.

There is also “the technical understanding of how to control the back pitch as a back 3 which is also deficient at present but is more easily resolvable”. Whilst developing the players tactical understanding may be easily correctable, as Friday discusses, it is the development of players able to deal with the rigours and demand of international class scrummaging with will be key to many African nations ability to compete against the top international teams.

This is very much a bottom up approach as players need to be developed from a very young age to give them the experience, technique and understanding of the game to compete at the top level. Unlike in sevens were the game is much more fluid and less reliant on the set-piece, XV’s needs that team cohesion that can only be built over years of experience and playing together.

Again this comes down to the issue of funding. With the Kenyan sevens team struggling for resource as it is the KRFU must look to either invest heavily in rugby in schools with a long-term plan or continue to support the existing set-ups. It is at this stage the IRB may need to be looking at longer term development of the sport globally and looking to invest in grass-roots rugby in emerging nations such as Kenya.

Another key issue for African national sides is that often their best players are lured away to professional leagues were they are often forced to choose between club and country. A lot of this comes down to funding as most of the African nations cannot compete financially and must therefore continue to look to replace players who have left “making it very difficult to develop and evolve to compete”.

Friday points to the examples of Zimbabwe and Nmabia as nations that have attempted to compete but has been undone by the exit of key players to professional clubs. Friday strongly believes that “establishing a club structure is critical to allow the athletes to develop and be developed”. Once again it is this bottom-up approach which is necessary but many unions are unwilling to sacrifice short-term success for the long-term gain of having a proper rugby infrastructure in place.

This is where the developing sevens game is key for many of the developing nations. “I think a number of African nations can build effective sevens programmes to compete in the next 3 – 5 years, Nigeria could be formidable”. This is resulting in national unions financing the national sevens team, although this may come at the expense of properly developing the countries XV’s programmes.

Whilst the national teams may still be a work in progress, there are a number of African players Friday believes are worth keeping an eye out for. “Willie Ambaka has made the breakthrough and has, as a result of this season signed for Lyon as a professional. He has the capability to play Top 14 in France as he develops and settles in”.

In addition “Dan Adongo has already made headway in New Zealand and more recently with the Southern King, and there are rumours he may chance his arm in NFL. A couple of other Kenyan players who we should keep an eye on are Oscar Ouma, Billy Odihiambo and I assure there will be others”.

kenya sevensWhilst for the time being the Kenya sevens side look to continue to progress up the IRB World Rankings, Friday believes that the KRU need to evolve off the pitch commercially and as an organisation to cope with the commercial requirements of trying to compete in the IRB 7’s Series and in XVs.

“Development pathways for players to maximise their potential and a structured complimentary club game are crucial to ensure the players are allowed to achieve their potential and the clubs are allowed to flourish and grow”. In addition the national sevens programme need to be able to benefit from appropriate resources and maintain a disciplined environment that continues to reward and inspire players and thereby remain competitive on the international circuit.

Whilst in Africa there is already the high profile Safari &’s and the African Cup at both 7’s and XV’s there is pressure on the organisers and international boards to better exploit their commercial potential. “As with all these types of events corporate and commercial investment is required to allow these events to grow”.

The real need though in Friday’s opinion is for “a tier 2 African Cup to allow all African Nations the opportunity to participate. However, this will require subsidy and investment to encourage nations.” Once again the key barrier to rugby’s progression in Africa once again comes down to finance.

As for the club game, in Kenya “club rugby is amateur league, on a par with National 1 & 2 in England. This issue is it is centralised around Nairobi yet most of the players are originally from West Kenya and Nyanza so the challenge is to decentralise the league as that will probably grow thee player base and make it a truly national league.”

Once again though the issue comes down to investment as the clubs in those regions require a catalyst to compete with the more established and affluent clubs based in the capital. Friday believes this is a key issue across much of Africa as rugby is based around the centralised education structure as it is deemed more a sport played by the Private and Independent schools.

For Friday there are 3 key priorities the IRB must focus on in order to help grow the game in Africa.Participation is key as rugby can help in more than a sporting context. It can assist in life skills and provide stability, discipline and enjoyment if delivered in the right way and as such is very important and empowering.

  1. Participation is key as rugby can help in more than a sporting context. It can assist in life skills and provide stability, discipline and enjoyment if delivered in the right way and as such is very important and empowering.
  2. They need to ensure that the correct rugby education programmes are in place, i.e. coaching coaches to deliver proper techniques.
  3. Provide investment and expertise in setting up infrastructures and pathways, and making sure they are operationally efficient.

He believes that if they get the three priorities above right there is a real chance for African players to make their mark on the more established leagues around the world. “An illustration that is can be done is the transformation of Willie Ambake this season when he has had the necessary support and guidance.”

On the more general topic of sevens Friday believes the new World Club 7’s is another positive step in the game. He believes it will benefit national coached as it proves them an opportunity to look at fringe players in a different environment and will give players opportunity for exposure. It also has mass appeal for crows “if marketed in true 7’s party manner”.

He also mentions the benefits for his players of invitational teams such as the Samurai 7’s as it allows the players the “opportunity to experience the world and learn life skills through touring, and social skills mixing with players from different cultures and backgrounds under the common theme of rugby.”

“The role of invitational teams is great for all players and broadens their rugby experiences through sharing different training ways and ideas. This last year I have used it with some of the Kenyan boys and it has certainly helped them both on and off the rugby pitch”.

Finally we discuss sevens once again appearing in the Olympics Friday believes “this is massive, not only for 7’s but rugby globally, and will allow the game to grow immeasurably if done correctly”. He does have some reservations though, “as it stands the best 12 teams in the world will not be there which will devalue the tournament”.

“The qualification credibility through the top 4 IRB series is open to credibility issues due to the Great Britain debate, and that at present England, Wales & Scotland all participate but must nominate one to try and qualify in that series year. Double agendas and how this affects other continents qualification criteria is a major concern for all. We have an opportunity to get this right and it is important that the tournament is a rugby success first to allow the global impact to take hold”.

A massive thank you to Mike Friday for taking the time out to speak to me about African rugby and the sevens game globally. He is clearly extremely passionate and knowledgeable about his role as head coach of the Kenyan sevens team, and of the sport as a whole. All the best to Mike and his team as they once again launch an assault on the IRB series later this year…

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