The Vodacom Cup – South Africa’s developmental competition for the provincial teams not involved in SuperRugby – has entered the semi-final stage with overseas visitors Kenya no longer in contention but the tournament did offer the African country the chance to further grow their 15-a-side team.
The Kenyans played as the Tusker Simba XV and although they only won a single match – their opening encounter against the Eastern Province Kings – the fact that they did not finish last in their section provided some comfort.
Kenya were invited by the South African Rugby Union, as part of their mandate to help improve and develop the game in Africa, to take the place of Argentinian side Pampas XV and the east Africans were only too happy to take part, giving a crucial boost to their preparations for the final African World Cup qualifier to be played in Madagascar from June 26.
Namibia have been the African qualifiers for all seven Rugby World Cups and so the rest of the continent are trying to close the gap with them. Zimbabwe and Madagascar are the other countries still in the running for 2015 in England.
Encouragingly for Kenya, the Tusker Simba XV performed no worse than Namibia’s Welwitschias did when they played in the Vodacom Cup in 2010/11 and lost 13 of their 15 matches, winning once and drawing the other game.
And the Tusker Simba XV also suffered some misfortune, losing two of their matches – against Border and Boland – in the final minute.
“It was a great experience and, as we try and qualify for the World Cup, the best thing is to play more games. Last year we won the Africa Cup in Madagascar, but that was only with some games before that. The only way to change that was playing in the Vodacom Cup, and it has been a huge success,” Kenya coach Jerome Paarwater said.
A lack of conditioning was one of the concessions the Tusker Simba XV had to make against almost entirely professional opposition, but the size and attacking promise the Kenyans showed was enough to suggest the 15-a-side team could follow their sevens counterparts up the world rankings.
“Size is certainly not a problem with the Kenyan players, but there is a lack of facilities in Kenya for them to work on their conditioning, which you need to be competitive against professional players for a full 80 minutes.
“But we’re getting them a bit stronger and bigger and the skills levels are improving, so those are positives,” Paarwater, the former Western Province loose forward, said.
“The sevens background of the players means they’re not afraid to attack, it comes naturally to them. It helps that our two wings [Leonard Mugaisi and Dennis Osinde] are both pacy and strong, both around 108/109kg.”
The scrummaging – built around huge identical twins Joseph and James Kang’ethe – was also solid, although they did attract some yellow cards, Paarwater explaining that “The twin props are very aggressive and I think that scared the referees a bit”.
While Kenya’s urban areas are relatively wealthy and modern, 75% of the population work in the agricultural sector and food security is an issue – 38% of the population live in poverty. So there are socio-economic issues that hold rugby back too.
While the International Rugby Board insist that the Kenya Rugby Union find their own sponsors, they are involved in growing the game amongst the youth. Programs like Get Into Rugby ensure that kids that would normally just be herding cows get a chance to experience the beautiful oval-ball game.
“The IRB are heavily involved with development and the U19 team, which is great because Kenya rugby has to step up their junior structures, that is the future. The IRB fund development programs and they’ve given our Sevens team lots of help too.
“It’s good that the Kenya Rugby Union have had to find their own sponsors, it means they don’t just ask for handouts,” Paarwater said.
The Western Province Rugby Union in South Africa, from whom Paarwater has been seconded, have also been a great help, also providing medical supplies.
There’s nothing ham-fisted about the way rugby is being grown in Kenya, as the remarkable success of their Sevens side shows, and they are becoming a growing force in African 15s as well.
“They’re quite jacked up and really serious about rugby in Kenya, including women’s rugby. They’re always trying to improve,” Paarwater said.
And it certainly looks like they are succeeding.