No longer at ease as tables turn in rugby
For several years, rugby was an elitist sport that mainly thrived on Ngong Road. But things have changed, and the sport has spread to most parts of Kenya.
Achievements by teams such as Nakuru and Western Bulls bolstered that drive. They have enhanced what KCB, Mwamba and Mean Machine started in the 1970s – to move the concentration of the game away from Ngong Road.
Last season, Nakuru became the first team from outside the city to win the prestigious Kenya Cup, and will be looking to defend the title when they come up against Strathmore Leos in the semi-finals in May.
While head coach Dominique Habimana continued with the good work done by Eric Situma last season, most of the credit should be given to his deputy Jotham Owili, who has been with the team in the Kenya Cup since 2009.
“We started a project to make Nakuru the strongest side in the region. Our sponsors played a big role in the strides we’ve made in the last two seasons by providing a conducive atmosphere for the team,” said Owili.
Nakuru have twice challenged the national 15s team to a friendly match, but the opportunity has not presented itself.
The team’s first attempt to play against the Kenya 15s was in 2012. The aim was to prove that Nakuru had good players who hadn’t been selected for the national team, let alone being part of the final Elgon Cup squad.
Nakuru’s regional dominance was proven when they played the Uganda Cup champions Heathens in October last year in a home and away challenge for the East African Super Cup. The game was between the champions of the top tier leagues in Kenya and Uganda.
Nakuru managed a 32-18 aggregate win over their Ugandan counterparts to lift the inaugural title.
“Our sponsors enabled us to get the right equipment, supplements, a van for transport and facilitation for our players,” said Owili.
Before Nakuru, KCB, Mwamba, Mean Machine and the now defunct Barclays Bank were the only sides outside Ngong Road to win the Kenya Cup title.
However, Nakuru is just one of the teams behind the shift of power from Ngong Road. Western Bulls, which started out as an academy in Kakamega, had two impressive seasons in the Kenya Cup.
They appear to be on the same path that saw Nakuru grow into one of the most feared sides in Kenyan rugby.
Aside from having financial support, the two teams are in areas with exceptional rugby talent.
Western Bulls finished eighth during the 2012-2013 Kenya Cup, and seventh in the 2013-2014 league after winning six of their 13 games.
Bulls cut some giants to size in the big boys’ league, for instance Mwamba, Mean Machine, Impala and Nondescripts.
Kabras Sugar, also from Kakamega, were in fine form in the Nationwide League. They won all their 13 fixtures, including beating Catholic University of East Africa (Cuea) in the final at the weekend.
The team was well-funded by sponsors Kabras Sugar, and has a host of experienced players such as former Kenya international Kennedy Isindu who previously played for Nondies, KCB and Homeboyz.
Also in their ranks is Sebastian Shivoka who was Isindu’s teammate at KCB and Homeboyz. They have tentatively earned promotion to the Kenya Cup together with Cuea.
“We have a strategic long-term plan that will see Western Bulls rise to the top of Kenyan rugby in three years,” said one of the club’s founders Paul Okong’o.
In Nairobi, Homeboyz and Strathmore have played their part too. The latter shocked many when they reached the final of last season’s Kenya Cup, but lost 32-3 to Nakuru.
The shift of power cannot only be attributed to the rise of these teams, but a slump of two of the Ngong Road three in the last few years.
Impala finished ninth in the last two seasons, a thing that was unheard of five years ago. The club has been undergoing restructuring, a process that seems to have taken them to their lowest point in over three decades.
Their neighbours and fierce rivals Nondies had also fallen by the wayside for close to 10 years. However, their resurgence in the last few seasons raised hopes as they began their bid of challenging for the league title.
On the other hand, Kenya Harlequins fell victim of internal politics and wrangles last season, which saw the once top team flop in almost all tournaments except the Sevens’ series.
Last season, none of the three Ngong Road sides made the play-offs, as Quins and Nondies missed out on a dramatic last day of fixtures to finish fifth and sixth respectively.
This season, only Quins made it to the play-offs as Nondies finished sixth, and Impala ninth.
KHU’s plan to diversify the sport is on track. Rugby is now played in areas that were not previously its strongholds.
If Nakuru keeps up with the momentum and other teams maintain pressure, then the Ngong Road teams are in trouble.