Shujaa's road back to World Rugby Sevens Series remains bumpy

Shujaa's Kevin Wekesa charges through the USA defense during Singapore Sevens at Singapore National Stadium on in Kallang, Singapore.[Courtesy-World Rugby]

The National sevens team, Shujaa, experienced its fair share of ups and downs last season.

Their story last year is a remarkable tale of resilience and revival in the world of rugby.

Over the years, the team has experienced both the lows of defeat and the highs of success, showcasing the spirit of Kenyan rugby on the global stage.

The Fall

For years, they had been a force to be reckoned with on the international stage, consistently competing in the prestigious World Rugby Sevens Series.

Shujaa has been a mainstay in the World Rugby Sevens Series since the competition’s inception in 1999-2000, with their best season coming in 2012-13 when they finished fifth​​.

The team’s historic highlight was winning the Singapore Sevens in 2016, defeating Fiji in the final​​.

However, 2023 marked a significant downturn for the team, as they finished 13th in the series​​, culminating in a decisive match where they were relegated from the core competition by Canada in the playoffs.

For the first time in 23 years, Kenya were bundled out of the global competition, leaving many critics doubting their abilities and potential.

The heartbreaking loss sent Kenyan players, technical bench and the new federation officials back to the drawing board.

The Rise

The turnaround for Shujaa began with the Rugby Africa Sevens tournament in 2023.

It was a pivotal moment for Kenyan rugby. Not only was it a chance to claim continental glory, but it also held the key to a coveted ticket to the Paris Olympics set for this year in France. The stakes couldn’t have been higher.

But Shujaa was not about to give up without a fight.

Under the leadership of their new head coach, Kevin ‘Bling’ Wambua, and with the infusion of fresh blood in the form of six debutants, hope was rekindled in the hearts of Kenyan rugby fans.

The debutants, Samuel Asati and Festus Shiasi of KCB, Beldad Ogeta from Menengai Oilers, Patrick Odongo representing Daystar Falcons, Nygel Amaitsa of Strathmore Leos, and William Mwanji of Kabras Sugar, were eager to prove their worth on the international stage.

The Rugby Africa Sevens tournament began, and from the outset, it was clear that Shujaa meant business.

The debutants, far from wilting under the pressure, produced a memorable performance that left fans and critics alike in awe.

Their raw talent and unbridled passion for the game shone through, and they quickly integrated themselves into the squad, earning the respect of their more seasoned teammates.

Kenya wiped out opponents from the preliminary group stages as Amaitsa, Odongo and scrum-half Asati dominated play alongside Ogeta and Shiasi. The same dominance was witnessed in the knockout stages too.

But it wasn’t just the new faces that propelled Shujaa to success. The entire team, led by captain Vincent Onyala, displayed a unity and determination that was truly inspiring. Each player gave their all, leaving everything on the field with every match they played.

The icing on the cake came in the form of a breathtaking final showdown. Shujaa was pitted against none other than the rugby powerhouse, South Africa.

The odds were stacked against them, but Shujaa had no intention of playing the role of underdogs. In a fiercely contested match, they emerged triumphant with a scoreline of 17-12, sending shockwaves throughout the rugby world.

The star of the tournament was undoubtedly Patrick Odongo, one of the six debutants. His blistering speed and uncanny ability to find gaps in the opposition’s defence made him a standout player.

Odongo’s heroics saw him score a total of seven tries, matching the feat of the team’s captain, Vincent Onyala. Their partnership on the field was nothing short of magical and played a pivotal role in Kenya’s victory.

Odongo’s passion and intent to get Kenya back on top was even more inspiring after the union revealed that he had resolved to remain with the team even after his mother passed away on September 9, a few days before the tournament.

“We dedicate our victory at the Rugby Africa 7s and subsequent qualification to the Paris 2024 Olympics to the late Sophia Atieno Ogak, who passed away on Saturday 9 September 2023,” Kenya Rugby Union said in a statement.

With the Rugby Africa Sevens title secured, Kenya had not only silenced their critics but had also punched their ticket to the Paris Olympics in 2024.

They became the ninth men’s team to confirm their participation in the prestigious event, joining the likes of France, New Zealand, Argentina, Fiji, Australia, Uruguay, Ireland, and the USA.

The final three Olympic spots would be decided through the Oceania and Asia qualification tournaments and the Olympic Repechage tournament.

But the triumph didn’t stop there. Kenya’s success in the Rugby Africa Sevens also earned them a spot in the World Rugby Challenger Series.

This series served as a qualification pathway for earning promotion back to the coveted World Rugby Sevens Series for the 2024-2025 season. Shujaa was determined to use this opportunity to regain their status among the world’s elite sevens teams.

Additionally, Shujaa retained the 2023 Safari Sevens title with a convincing 19-0 win over Samurai 7s. Coach Wambua’s team started strongly with Odongo scoring the opening try, and they maintained their dominance throughout the match​​​​​​.

Kenya Shujaa's Captain Vincent Onyala fight it out with Samurai Baraccudas players during the 2023 Safari 7s tournament at RFUEA ground on Sunday, Nov 19, 2023. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

The Road Ahead

Looking forward to 2024, Shujaa has several key objectives to achieve.

First, they must focus on performing well at the Paris Olympics, capitalising on their qualification and showcasing their ability on the global stage.

The path to redemption for Shujaa is clear but challenging. They are set to compete in the 2024 World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series, a crucial battleground where their fate for the 2025 season will be determined. This series, spanning three continents, will test their resilience, strategy, and skill.

To achieve their goal, Shujaa must focus on consistency in performance across all rounds of the Challenger Series. Each game, each point, will count towards their cumulative series points, which are crucial for advancing to the high-stakes playoff in Madrid.

This showdown, the SVNS Grand Final, is where the top four teams from the Challenger Series will face teams ranked ninth to twelfth from the HSBC SVNS 2024.

Shujaa must not only draw upon their rich rugby heritage and recent triumphs like the Africa Sevens title and the Safari Sevens victory but also demonstrate a higher level of strategic play and mental toughness.

They will need to leverage the leadership of their captain, Vincent Onyala, and the tactical acumen of coach Kevin Wambua. The team’s unity, adaptability to different opponents and conditions, and ability to perform under pressure will be pivotal.

Winning in Madrid isn’t just about securing a spot in HSBC SVNS 2025; it’s about restoring national pride and reaffirming Kenya’s place in the global rugby sevens landscape.

By Stephen Rutto 33 mins ago
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