Shock. Pain. Disbelief. Anguish. For rugby enthusiasts, there can be no enough adjectives to describe how they feel.
For the past two decades, Kenya Sevens have been winning hearts around the globe for their explosive physical and speed type of play at the World Rugby Sevens Series.
They were so good that they earned the nickname ‘Shujaa’, a Swahili word meaning courage, confidence, bravery, or heroism.
That’s no more. On Sunday, the long pending dark cloud that was hovering at the heads of the national team finally came down as Shujaa defied their name after being relegated from the World Series.
Despite carrying a lot of optimism and expectations, their dreams, goals and push ended in tears once again after another poor show was added to the long list of Shujaa’s misses and anguish of their 2022-2023 calendar.
Many rugby fans expected Kenya to compete for titles alongside the world’s best Argentina, Fiji, South Africa and Australia in Cape Town.
Lately, however, Shujaa had been reduced to whipping boys.
Simple basic rugby playing rules and indiscipline have been hindering Shujaa’s performances rather than injuries, form or style of play.
Kenya Sevens have been playing quite well with world class ball movement, pace and build up set plays, but poor decision making and mistakes were their main undoing.
On Sunday, Kenya lost 12-7 in the relegation playoff final to Canada at Twickenham Stadium, London,
The defeat brought tears and heartbreak to Kenyans who have now lost their status as a core team on international rugby’s elite sevens series for the first time in two decades.
The four-team relegation playoff — part of the HSBC London 7s, the 11th and final stop of the men’s season — was a product of the World Series reducing the number of men’s teams to 12 from 16 next season to align with the women’s competition and the Olympic field.
Japan, the 15th-place team in the standings, was relegated after last weekend’s tournament in Toulouse, France.
That left Uruguay (12), Kenya (13), Canada (14) and Tonga, winner of the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series, in the round-robin relegation playoff.
Despite kicking off the playoffs with an impressive 24-19 and 38-26 wins over Canada and Tonga respectively, Shujaa had to sneak in to the finals after a 14-10 defeat to Uruguay.
In the final, the Damina McGrath charges needed to win to become the 12th core team of the World Series next season.
This is the first time Kenya is being relegated since they became a core side in the Series during 2004/2005 season.
Canada becomes the 12th core team on the 2024 World Rugby Sevens Series, while Kenya, Uruguay and Tonga will enter their respective Regional Sevens Championships in order to qualify for the 2024 World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series.
After the relegation, Shujaa have a lot to lose including funding from World Rugby for tours.
They’ll have to reach Africa Sevens final in 2023 or come third if South Africa win it, then go to the two-weekend challenger tournament featuring 12 teams from around the World in April 2024, for them to be promoted back.
KRU will have to source for sponsorship to keep the players active and participate in tournaments across the world.
The defeat left a deep cut in Kenya’s rugby. But the question is, where did it all go wrong for Shujaa?
Interestingly, Kenya’s problems did not start this year, but it has been a ticking time bomb after the country came close to relegation during the 2018/2019 Series when the country finished 13th with 37 points, two places above relegation.
Instead of taking survival as a warning to prepare for the future, change seems to be a painful pill for the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) to take.
Shujaa’s relegation woes started at the beginning of the 2022-2023 season.
Last year in November, Kenya Sevens resorted to begging for funds from Kenyans ahead of the second leg of the series played in Dubai
Considered as one of the country’s assets on the global stage, the Shujaa players came out to reveal how a lack of finances was threatening to kill the game.
According to senior players William Ambaka and Billy Odhiambo, Shujaa had not been paid their dues for months, making their lives unbearable both on and off the field.
The earlier financial challenges saw Kenya fail to go past the quarter-final stage of any tournament after poor results in the series.
Kenya had collected only one point at Hong Kong twice and Los Angeles Sevens, with the highest being seven points at Hamilton, Vancouver and Singapore.
Kenya became a core member of the IRB Sevens circuit in 2004.
Unlike the national football, cricket and athletics bodies, Kenya Rugby Football Union (nowadays known as Kenya Rugby Union) did not receive support from the International Rugby Board, impeding investment in a countrywide developmental program, and relied on the school network for their players.
In Shujaa’s first season as a core member of the circuit, the star player was Oscar Osir who was a swashbuckling winger with pace.
Osir together with the late Benjamin Ayimba, Dennis ‘Ironman’ Mwanja, Ted Omondi among others— led Kenya into their first season as a core team.
Shujaa went through a steep learning curve on the international scene. It was not until Ayimba’s appointment as coach in 2009 that Kenya shed off its tag as the whipping boys of the circuit.
In his first season as coach, Kenya reached the semi-finals seven times out of nine and the final once. Collins Injera became the World Series top try scorer while his brother, Humphrey Kayange was nominated as IRB Sevens player of the year in 2009.
The Ayimba-led team reached the semi-finals of the Sevens World Cup at the end of that season.
Ayimba’s next two seasons were not as impressive as the first, and neither was his replacement, Mitch Ocholla’s sole season in 2011-2012.
Under pressure, KRU took their search for the next Shujaa coach abroad. In came English man Mike Friday, who lead the team for only one season. The side finished 5th in the standings.
The next season saw the return of Benjamin Ayimba at the helm, a reign that culminated in Kenya’s first ever main cup win, at the Singapore Sevens in April, 2016.