A Back Row Par Excellence – Mike Okombe.
The year is 2012 in the month of March, a star studded KCB rugby side has traveled to the great rift to face Nakuru RFC in a match day 14 fixture.
Nakuru, still in their old dark green and navy blue shirts, would put in a defensive master class as they edged KCB 8-3. Among the names in the light green and white of KCB was the Iron Man Dennis Mwanja, who at this point was among the club’s and probably the league’s, most revered ball carriers.
In our usual post match chats, Mwanja lamented, ‘Kuna kijana amenitwanga the whole day, na manze humuoni akikuja..’ (There is this young man who tackled me through out the game, worst part is I couldn’t see him coming.)
It was a sentiment echoed by almost every player in the KCB squad that day, and would be the tale whenever a team came across him. I can almost say that every player that played against him, has a story to tell.
The young man in question was none other than Michael Shitindo Okombe.
This was my first encounter with the man, who would later take the country by storm, courtesy of his unforgiving style of play. He was then, only one year old at the Nakuru Athletic club having moved from a short stint in Kisumu RFC, having started his club rugby at Western Bulls, this after lifting the schools’ national XVs title with Musingu High School in 2007.
Okombe quickly rose through the ranks to become an integral part of the side, this by itself no small feat. Making it to the first team in Nakuru is no easy task, especially if you are a back row.
The very next year, 2013, he was part of the all dominant Top Fry Nakuru RFC side that famously won the Kenya cup at the Kasarani stadium. It wasn’t long before the national team selectors took note of him and came calling, Okombe earned his first cap of 17, in a 17-16 loss to Uganda at the Kasarani stadium.
He quickly became a house hold name for both club and country, winning the Kenya cup twice and Enterprise cup once. In between there were memorable wins for country, an African title, a historic top 25 ranking to name a few, all that he was integral in. From that time to the time of his demise, we have not seen a more complete back row. I doubt we will, any time soon.
See Okombe was not your every day back row, he was, the back row in chief, a back row per excellence. A pure joy to play with, yet total nightmare to play against. I used to refer to him as ‘mwenye shamba’ for when you step onto a pitch with him, you will be basically playing to his terms.
When the Wanyore nicknamed the NAC, Suguta valley, for the most part, it was down to the exploits of this man. Ruthless with ball in hand as he was without it, I struggle to remember when he once had a bad game. He was part of our dream team in 2014 and 2016. (We never did a 2015 dream team but if we did, he would have definitely featured.)
But for all his on pitch exploits, the gentleman that he was off it, was probably what many who interacted with him will remember the man for. Having watched him on the field of play, your expectation would be of a mean, no none sense man, he was the complete opposite.
An absolute beast on the pitch, but almost like a kid or kitten off it. He was one of the most humble people you would come across, playful, with a sense of humour and hospitality that is typical of a Mnyore, an NAC Mnyore.
Our chats would almost always start with a firm hand shake and a shoulder bump that would mostly send me a few steps back amid our laughter. ‘Hapa hamtuwezi..’ He would usually lament whenever KCB visited the NAC, and for four years, hatukuwai waweza. The one time KCB did weza them, early this year, he was out injured.
His absence was greatly missed at both club and country, with the two struggling to effectively replace him. ‘Weh ngoja, napanga come back matata..’ We were all anticipating that come back, and it was so close, 20 days to be exact. Unfortunately as fate would have it, that come back was never going to be, as the gentle beast was killed on the evening of 4th November 2017.
Okombe will remain one of the best players to walk the land for a very long while, could play across the back row comfortably. A hard worker who exemplified the virtues of a rugby gentleman, an inspiration to many both on and off the field of play.
As his former coach Dominuque Habimana put it, Okombe was not made of meat and bone, he was made of pure heart!
Rest well mwenye shamba, heaven RFC is lucky to have you, hiyo come back matata ipigie huko mbele…till we meet again.