Kenya Cup champion Janet Okello lands Japanese move

Kenya Lionesses Janet Okello in action against Madagascar at the Sevens Solidarity Camp in Tunisia.[Courtesy]

Kenya Lionesses star Janet ‘Shebesh’ Okello has completed a move to the Japanese side MIE Pearls Women’s Rugby Football Club.

The experienced winger scored two tries as her Mwamba side edged Impala Roans 15-11 to be crowned the inaugural Women’s Kenya Cup champions at the Impala Club on Saturday 19 March 2022.

She becomes the first Kenyan to play professional rugby in Japan, and the second member of the Lionesses to venture abroad in recent months.

This is following immediate former Lionesses skipper Philadelphia Olando who landed a role as Head Coach of the United Arab Emirates national women’s rugby team.

Popularly known as “Shebesh”, the 29-year-old has been part of the Lionesses squads that represented Kenya at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics as well as the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

The winger joins Yokkaichi City-based side on a year-long contract from newly-crowned Kenya Cup champions Mwamba RFC.

Her Irish-Fijian manager Linda Shannon confirmed the development on Monday.

Okello, who is poised to take over the national team captaincy duties from United Arab Emirates (UAE) national women team head coach Philadelphia Olando, told the Standard Sports she cant wait to get to Japan come April 4.

“I feel so proud myself because that's my dream come true. I have achieved ultimate goal, almost all my goals in rugby and that makes me a happy athlete,” said Okello.

Okello revealed her move to Japan started after the Tolyo Olympics.

“It started in Japan just immediately after our games in Olympics when a player agent approached me and told me that she watched all my games and she was interested in connecting me to play professional rugby because I have the qualities.”

“And after that she managed to secure me a club in Japan,” she explained.

Okello’s rugby career was something not on the radar until in 2010 when she was at Butere Girls High School that the games teacher, Mr Malala encouraged her to play. She originally had aspirations around an entirely different sport – athletics.

Born and raised in Nakuru, the 29-year-old said while growing up, her dream was to become a sprinter.

“During her childhood days at Mama Ngina Primary School, I used to take part in 100m and 200m sprints where I would beat my competitors,” said Okello, the first born in a family of six siblings.

Her venture into rugby did not begin until she joined Butere Girls High School in 2009. “I took athletics seriously during my first year.

She pays glowing tribute to the late Lioness captain Aberdeen Shikoyi for helping and encouraged her to take rugby seriously.

“In 2011, I was privileged to participate in the Safaricom Sevens High Schools tournament where I met the late Shikoyi (the then Kenya lioness captain) who advised the national team to take me upon completing Form Four,” she said.

True to Shikoyi’s words, Okello joined the national team straight from school, making her senior debut with the Kenya Lioness at the Dubai Sevens in December 2013.

She went on to sign up for KCB the same year where she went on to be the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) 10-aside top try scorer and top point scorer for 7s and 10s women league from 2013 to 2016.

Okello helped Kenya qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, an achievement she says she treasures.

In 2017, she signed up for Mwamba RFC where she finished as the top try scorer in the KRU’s 10’s and 7’s last year.

As the Kenya Lionesses sailed through to the 2018 Commonwealth Games to Gold Coast, Australia, Janet Okello played the role of the ‘backbone of the team’, while shy but composed at the Robina Stadium.

During the qualifiers, Okello scored a hat-trick against Senegal in their second match and bagged two in the win over Tunisia that sent them to the Gold Coast competition.

Despite her youthfulness, Okello beat World marathon record holder and Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge and teammate Sinaida Aura to the 2017 Sports Journalists Association of Kenya (SJAK) Sports Personality of the Month of September.

Last year, she helped the national women’s rugby sevens team to qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games despite losing 15-14 to perennial rivals South Africa in the final of the Africa Sevens-cum-Olympic qualifiers in Tunisia at the weekend.

She was also voted Magharibi Women’s Rugby Player of the Year.

She says the sport has helped even as young as she is.

“Rugby has taught me leadership skills, how to be a strong, confident and independent woman and a team worker”

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