Ageing players, tactical naivety…the sad tale of Shujaa’s decline
Analysis by Alex Kinyua
When Kenya Sevens team Shujaa won the Singapore Sevens leg in the IRB Series in 2016, it was a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief to the players, coaches as well as rugby fans who had waited for 17 years to witness Kenya win a leg in the prestigious World Rugby Sevens Series.
Many believed that that was a first of the many to come as most of the players in that winning team in 2016, were at their prime.
Collins Injera scored an incredible 50 yard drop kick penalty to take Kenya to the final having tied 12-12 with Argentina in the dying seconds of the semis. He went on to serve a master class performance in the final by scoring two tries and helping Kenya demolish Fiji – the best team in the series at that time – 30-7 and was named the player of the match(final game).
Seven members of that winning team in Singapore were under the age of 24, and six of them were playing in their first series, a scenario that excited rugby fans in Kenya knowing the future could only be better and brighter.
Fast forward 4 years later, the team is a shadow of its former self.
Clueless head coach, gutless assistant and recycled deadwood form part of the reason why Shujaa are on the decline.
Injera who had masterminded Kenya’s maiden leg win is far from his best and Captain Andrew Amonde looks unable to glue the team and create a winning spirit as that of 2016.
In fact watching Amonde – the monster with power and reflexes – one is left to wonder what became of his engine. His pace has deserted him and he is no longer the dreaded figure that would instill fear down the spine of the opponents.
The retirement of stalwart Humphrey Khayange has also weakened the team. Khayange is now pursuing other interests in sports – working as a member of the National Olympics Committee of Kenya (NOCK).
Benjamin Ayimba, the giant tactician with a mean look who propelled Kenya to super stardom status after that win in Singapore was dismissed from his role in acrimonious circumstances and this didn’t auger well with the players and the fans.
Much has changed since then and last season – 2018/2019 – Shujaa were embroiled in a dogfight to avoid relegation. Innocent ‘Namcos’ Simiyu was sacked after taking full responsibility of a sponsorship row between the Kenya Rugby Union and Brand Kenya, where his infuriated charges, protesting a pay dispute blanked out the sponsors’ logo during the Paris Sevens leg.
With everything gone awry, former coach Ayimba pulled no punches in a candid assessment of the team’s recent struggles that has seen them slip to position 12 in the IRB series standings.
“Our problem is that the Kenya Rugby Union doesn’t want to face the truth. The team has lacked direction. There is no foreign coach who is going to take Kenya to the next level. The union is ignoring local coaches and that’s why they dismissed ‘Namcos’,” Ayimba sid in reference to the brutal sacking of Simiyu.
Part of the Young Turks in that leg-winning team in Singapore was Alvin “Buffa” Otieno, and Ayimba wondered why the heavy tackling forward has been under-utilized even after impressing in Cape Town Sevens leg and making the World Rugby Sevens dream team.
“When you breed your own and not choose them then it’s ridiculous. For instance what’s the point of carrying Oscar Ouma, Sammy Oliech, Jeffrey Oluoch and sit down ‘Buffa’? That means you don’t want to win.”
Ayimba didn’t spare Shujaa head coach Paul Feeney and his assistant coach Kevin Wambua either, terming the two as ‘passive and disinterested’ in helping Kenya do well.
“Feeney is a very poor coach who keeps on telling us how well New Zealand plays. New Zealand are our competitors and we shouldn’t play like them. His assistant Wambua is more concerned about keeping his job than doing the job. He is quiet, things aren’t happening and he isn’t doing nothing but going behind the coach’s back to say how he doesn’t know what he is doing.”
Ayimba who led Kenya to two world cups – in Argentina 2001 and Hong Kong 2005 – in his heydays noted that the presence of Injera, Amonde and Ouma in the team has intimidated Wambua whose best credential, he argues, was to win the East African School games title while in high school.
“Wambua could have made a difference but he has been overpowered by the senior players. There is no direction and they do as they please. Injera and Amonde are in charge of the team and you see they ordered Ouma to be recalled in the squad days after he recovered from injury,”Ayimba claimed.
Kabras Sugar RFC head coach was less damning in his assessment, saying too many errors are costing the team.
“Paul (Feeney) has a plan on how he wants the team to play but it will take time to implement that. The team needs to be quicker in execution and not give other teams momentum. Reduce the errors, and just do the basics of rugby because on many occasions the basics win you a match,” observed Du Plessis.
To revitalize Shujaa, Ayimba has called on the coach to trust the young players and give them the chance to show their mettle. He says that’s the path to follow if Kenya is to avoid another relegation dogfight.
“We have exposed the likes of(Johnson) Olindi for two years and they helped us in our relegation fight last year. Why not choose them and let them fight? Injera and Amonde’s time in that team is over. Let’s trust youth more and we will build on a team for the future.”
With the shaky show so far, Feeney has a mountain to climb between now and May when the series returns to London if Shujaa is to reclaim their former glory.
Besides being Citizen Digital sports writer with a bias for rugby and motorsport, Kinyua also anchors sports news and hosts a weekly sport programme on our sister Radio station Muuga FM