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Why 2016 Shujaa team will remain inked in Kenyans hearts for years

Last updated 2 months ago | By Washington Onyango

Kenya's team celebrate with the trophy after defeating Fiji in the cup final at the Singapore Sevens rugby tournament on April 17, 2016. / AFP PHOTO

Despite off field battles of non payments, they managed to win the Singapore Sevens title.

Kenya is known worldwide for being a dominant force in athletics with its runners dominating at global events.

However, for the past decade, rugby has garnered a massive following with the national sevens team putting Kenya on the world map on a number of occasions.

Commonly referred to as Shujaa, the national outfit has competed in the World Rugby Sevens Series every year since the competition's inception in 1999–2000.

Alongside that, they have also made notable appearances at the Rugby World Cup Sevens and the Commonwealth Games.

They are currently one of the 15 "core teams" of the World Series, with a guaranteed place in all 10 events each season.

After making their maiden appearance in the World Sevens Series in Dubai in 1999, Kenya became a core member of the IRB Sevens circuit in 2004.

The Shujaa team went through a steep learning curve on the international scene despite boasting of stars in Oscar Osir, Edward Rombo, Dennis Mwanja, Ted Omondi and Benjamin Ayimba.

It was not until Ayimba’s appointment as coach in 2009 that Kenya shed off its tag as the whipping boy of the circuit.

In his first season as coach, Kenya reached the semi-finals seven times out of nine and the final once and established herself as a regional and continental force.

Collins Injera became the World Series top try scorer while Humphrey Kayange was nominated as IRB Sevens player of the year in 2009 as the Ayimba-led team reached the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup Sevens at the end of the 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.

In 2013, came English man Mike Friday. Friday was coach for only a season, but what a season it was. The team finished fifth in the standings, the best position Kenya has ever managed with 99 points.

Willy Ambaka was voted into the season dream team, and, at the World Cup, at the end of the season, the team replicated its performances from three years earlier, reaching the semi-finals.

However, Friday left the team at the end of the season. A new coach, South African Paul Treu, was hired, leading Shujaa in the 2014/15 season,

 
16/4/16 Kenya's Andrew Amonde in action during the pool stage Action Images via Reuters
 

The next season would see the return of Ayimba for a second time, a reign that would culminate to be Kenya’s greatest team of all time.

Even though the 2009 and 2013 teams made huge strides in the international scenes, the 2016 team stands out because they actually won a world title, the HSBC Singapore Sevens Main Cup final after thrashing Fiji 30-7.

Kenya achieved what many could not see coming especially with the team embroiled in off pitch battles over non payment of players and signing of contracts.

Led by captain Andrew Amonde (prop), Humphrey Kayange (prop) and Oscar Ayodi (hooker), Shujaa stood tall at the back with Injera (winger), Sammy Oliech (flyhalf), Augustine Lugonzo (scrum half)) and Willy Ambaka (centre) initiating attack after attack.

Starting of the series, Kenya saw off Russia 21-7 in the opening Pool C match before drawing against Scotland 12-12 before losing to South Africa 12-0 to finish second with six points.

Kenya's Samuel Oliech (L) runs with ball during the cup final against Fiji at the Singapore Sevens rugby tournament on April 17, 2016. / AFP PHOTO
 

Shujaa then thumped France 28-7 in the Main Cup quarter-finals before knocking out Argentina 15-12 in the semis to stroll into the finals with Fiji.

In the finals, Oscar Ayodi broke through in the first minute to hand Kenya the lead before Injera’s two tries and Oliech’s touch down extended Shujaa’s lead to 20-0 by half time.

At the restart, Fiji pulled one try back before substitute Nelson Oyoo’s pair of wheels propelled him through the Fijian defence to bag Kenya’s fifth try and Frank Wanyama sealed the win with a corner post try one minute from time.

Shujaa were received with pomp and colour after their achievements, a feat that the nation is yet to repeat with the closest they been coming in the 2017/18 season where they lost to Fiji in the Vancouver and Hong Kong finals.

Injera, 33, said unity and belief helped them win the tournament which he says was all about team work and not individual performances.

“I would say it's a team that everyone from the coaching staff to the players played their part well...if you don't know, off the field we had our issues from not being paid a salary for a few months, to not having signed a contract etc.

“But how the Team Manager and coaching staff handled them was impeccable, they were very open and honest to the team. The senior players in the team led by the captain also played a very big role in terms of leadership and communicating the team issues and were part of the solutions.

Captain Amonde said: “It all came down to every individual believing in each other and fighting for each other, and trusting that everyone would do their part without fail and in return that will contribute to the team achieving the set goals while having fun.”

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