Time to rebuild rugby after exit from top league

Shujaa's Bush Mwale scores a try during Singapore Sevens. [Courtesy, World Rugby]

For 23 years, Kenyans have enjoyed top world-class rugby and gone shoulder to shoulder with the game’s crème de la crème.

Indeed, since Shujaa Sevens were invited to the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series for the first time, they proved a force to reckon with.

World-class sides like England, Australia, South Africa and Fiji respected the Kenyan teams from the time they entered the top league during the 2004/2005 season.

This year, however, the Kenyan team has been relegated from the lucrative tier. They now have to fight their way back to the league.

Kenya fell to Canada in their last game of the series last week, bringing to an end a golden era that birthed superstars like the late coach Benjamin Anyimba, who took Shujaa Sevens to glory winning the Singapore series at one time. It is unfortunate that by the time Anyimba passed on, Kenyan rugby was already on a slippery path.

The game also took to the world stage Kenyan star such as Collins Injera, Oscar Ouma, Biko Adema, Humphrey Kayange, Andrew Amonde, Willy Ambaka and the likes.

They traversed global stadiums, making the Kenyan flag popular and drawing in fans and admirers. Kenya’s sporting prowess was recognised the world over as tourism benefited from name recognition.

The government, Ministry of Sports, the Kenya Rugby Union and sports federations basked in the glory brought by Shujaa Sevens' exploits in many of the world's capital cities. However, the dedicated rugby players who gave their all on the pitch were suffering silently. There was hardly enough money to pay their salaries and allowances on time.

The sponsors who came on board after noticing Shujaa Sevens' potential could only afford so much even as the government dithered on full sponsorship. The rugby union leadership and the Sports ministry buried their heads in the sand instead of embracing the challenges and looking for more sponsors.

The game suffered even as fans who had started thronging stadiums both locally and abroad became skeptical.

The fans demanded better funding for the team and prompt payment of allowances for players. The rugby union leaders kept promising better organisation and remuneration for players, but each year the situation got worse.

Therefore, last week’s relegation should not come as a surprise to the government and the union. They knew the prolonged neglect of the Shujaa Sevens and the personal sacrifice the individual players made to sustain the team in the top league.

For 23 years, new talents emerged and joined the team, but there was no funding or quality sponsorship to write home about. Now that the axe has fallen, it is time for rugby stakeholders to regroup, revamp the team and look for solid sponsors. This is the time to rebuild and lead from the front.