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What next for limping Shujaa after poor season in series?

Last updated 1 year ago | By Clement Wekulo

Fiji's Josua Vakurunabili (L) goes to tackle by Kenya's Jeff Oluoch (R) during the rugby union sevens pool match between Fiji and Kenya on the first day of the London 2019 World Rugby Sevens Series event at Twickenham Stadium in west London on May 25, 2019. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)

KRU chairman Gangla extends olive branch to striking senior players ahead of 2020 Olympics qualifiers.

Surviving relegation from the World Sevens Series by a whisker is not something Kenya anticipated prior to the 2018-19 campaign.

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In what was Paul Murunga’s first season in charge after taking over the Shujaa reins from Innocent Simiyu late last year, Kenya finished 13th with 37 points, 10 more than Japan who were relegated.

The tally was a massive drop from what the team achieved during the 2017-18 season when they amassed 104 points, the side’s best performance since they were incorporated in the World Sevens Series.

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From the onset, everything looked to be going wrong for the East Africans as their pre-season preparations were marred by protracted wrangles between the senior players and the Kenya Rugby Union(KRU).

In addition, the team’s Strength and Conditioning trainer Geoffrey Kimani threw in the towel before he was snapped up by the Uganda national Sevens team. “Kim”, as he is fondly referred to, would later be replaced by KCB’s Mike Shamiah.

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The experienced players of the team were opposed to KRU’s decision to slash their wages and they decided to boycott training as well as the first six legs of the 2018-19 season. Following a series of negotiations, a host of them agreed to return for the team’s tour of Asia and Europe while others remained adamant.

For ex-Shujaa head coach Benjamin Ayimba, the national Sevens team was undone by what he termed poor preparations as well as the absence of some of their key players, especially during the initial stages of the season.

“You can’t go to a competition if you are ill-prepared because good results are always worked for. The team didn’t have a good pre-season and that was evident throughout the Series,” Ayimba told Standard Sports.

Ayimba, who led Kenya to a historic Singapore Sevens title three years ago, further  urged the KRU to ensure that there was a full-strength squad before the 2019 Africa Sevens which doubles up as a qualifier to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Perhaps the unavailability of the seasoned lot was a blessing in disguise for the team as enterprising youngsters in Johnstone Olindi, Daniel Taabu and Vincent Onyala burst into the global limelight after impressing with the game time they were afforded.

The trio, all in their debut season with Shujaa, scored 381 points between them and one might be mistaken to think that they have been part of the Kenya Sevens set up for a longer period.

“Making my debut for the national team was definitely one of my best moments since I began playing the sport. It is always every player’s desire to don national team colours and I thank the technical bench for giving me that opportunity,” Olindi said.

The Homeboyz RFC fly-half, who  featured in all of Shujaa’s assignments of the season save for the Las Vegas tournament attributed their lackluster performance to inconsistency in the playing personnel.

“We are now focused on the upcoming  Africa Sevens and we shall try and win the tournament because we know there is a reward of qualifying for next year’s Olympics in Japan,” Olindi said.

“One important lesson I learnt is that there is no easy match in the Series and every team you face is always up to the task.You will be in for a rude shock if you underrate any opponent,” added Olindi.

Apart from the three, coach Murunga also introduced the quartet of Oscar Denis, Brian Wahinya, Charles Omondi and Mark Wandeto to the World Sevens Series.

In general, the 2018-19 perfomance by Shujaa was below-par, at least by their high standards as they finished last in four outings, results that saw them pick a paltry one point in each of the tournaments  held in Dubai, Sydney, Vancouver and London.

According to former Kenya international scrum-half Gibson Weru, Shujaa had a high turn-over in the playing unit and thus the team’s cohesion was negatively affected.

“The team paraded very talented youngsters but it is very difficult to perfom at such a high level without any form of experience. The good thing is that some of the senior players returned and managed to steady the ship towards the end of the season ,” Weru said.

“The boys lacked patience with ball in hand. They were too eager to attack when the opportunities were not there. Our defence and restarts need a lot of sharpening because its one area that really let us down,” said Weru.

With all that now water under the bridge, KRU chairman Oduor Gangla together with his team have their work clearly cut out ahead of Shujaa’s next assignment which is the 2019 Africa Sevens that will act as a qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Gangla, who has barely spent 3 months at the helm of the country’s rugby governing body following his election in March, is tasked with ensuring that the senior players who are still adamant return to the team as they chase a second appearance in the Olympic Games.

Some of the players who did not feature for the team during the 2018-19 season are speedster Collins Injera, his Mwamba RFC counterpart Billy Odhiambo, Oscar Ouma, William Ambaka, Samuel Oliech and Kabras Sugar’s Brian Tanga.

While not ruling out a return to the negotiating table, the KRU boss said the ball is in the players’ court  with the union having already tabled an offer.

“We (KRU) gave them an offer and they turned it down. Our rationale is very clear and we gave the best amount we could afford.The contract is voluntary and you can’t force it on the players,” Gangla said.

“We have extended an olive branch to everyone. We are not going to say that, “No you are not welcome”. Everyone who is capable and willing to play for the country is welcome because this team is for everyone,” concluded Gangla.

The African Olympic qualifier will be staged in Johannesburg in November and with South Africa having booked their ticket to Japan via the World Sevens Series route, Kenya will fancy their chances when they battle against 13 other nations for the single slot reserved for the continent.

Murunga’s charges should, however, expect stiff competition from defending African champions Zimbabwe who almost denied them a place at the 2016 Olympic Games.