7 Things We Learned From The 2014 Safari 7s

The 18th edition of Africa’s premier rugby sevens tournament went down at the weekend, in the home of heroes, the Safaricom Stadium.

It was billed as the biggest Safari sevens yet, but fell just short of the mark on my book. While the quality of rugby was one of the best we have seen in the tournament, it failed to attract the numbers that most had anticipated.

The Shujaa side on their way to pick up the Plate title (Photo - GalleryKhateli)

The Shujaa side on their way to pick up the Plate title (Photo – GalleryKhateli)

Early estimates indicate that the turn out on Saturday was close to 35,000 while 20,000 showed up on Sunday. These numbers would be record breaking in many other countries that host the coveted IRB sevens legs, but not here. In fact those numbers surpass the crowds that were witnessed at the sevens world cup recently held in Russia.

I am not a specialist on how to attract crowds, but my amateur two cents on why those numbers fell from last year can be summarised as, rising ticket prices, sevens players boycott and the title sponsor’s recent handling of rugby events.

To matters on that big patch of grass at the centre of the Kasarani stadium that witnessed some great action over the three days, here are a few things I picked up.

1. Matt Turner is still the real deal

As I mentioned earlier, the rugby on display over the two days was some of the best we have seen at the Safari sevens. World series main stays Argentina and Spain impressed as did the Samurai, Australia Iconz, Auckland, Germany and Western Province.

Among these star studded line ups one name stood out among all, Mathew Turner, the South African born England sevens winger dazzled the crowd and defences whenever he touched the ball. Eventually going on to pick up the top try scorer accolade as he led his Welsh Warriors side to the Robin Cahill trophy.

Matt last turned out for England in the 2011/12 season, having scored 92 tries in 38 tournaments, he showed at the weekend that he still is the real deal. At only 26 years he sure must be eyeing a spot back on the squad especially with the Olympics around the corner. Such performances will do those ambitions no harm.

Matt Turner in action against the Morans

Matt Turner in action against the Morans

Argentina’s Alex Muller and Auckland’s Rocky Khan also gave exemplary performances at the weekend.

2. Simba Saba

When the British students pulled out of the tournament with a few days to spare, a third Kenyan side was quickly assembled to fill in the spot.

The Simba Saba contained players that we all knew had the potential to break into the national sevens set up but had not done it. The side was not tangled up in the squabbles that faced the Morans and Shujaa sides before the tournament, for them, it was all about playing the game they enjoyed, and play they did.

Shaking off a 25-17 loss to Samurai in their opening fixture to march into the cup quarter finals having beaten the Golden Lions and Spain. They however fell narrowly to the eventual winners, Welsh Warriors, 19-12 at the cup quarter finals. Before again losing narrowly to the Shujaa 17-14 in the Plate semi finals.

Many had written off the side, what with the quality of the sides on display. But the Simba Samba did turn up, exceeding all expectations. The likes of Adrian Opondo, Samuel Motari and Charles Onyango impressed and will add onto the headache for the technical bench on who to select to the team for the Gold coast leg.

Like many put it, the Simba Saba reminded us of just what Kenya sevens is about. They played their hearts out, played with the flair we had so much missed and had fun while at it. They were by far the pick of the Kenyan sides for me.

3. Sam Onsomu finally comes good.

Most were introduced to the Impala sweeper during last season’s sevens series, with strong performances for his side. This year the diminutive play maker was sidelined by injury and only returned in the last two legs of the series.

When I listed the names that impressed in the Simba side, I excluded his for a reason, he was the pick of not only his side but the Kenyan sides. We have struggled to find the perfect sweeper for the national side for a while now, a player that could shut down the opposition’s attack and create something out of nothing within a blink, with just as much ease.

Sam Onsomu in action (Photo - Arigi)

Sam Onsomu in action (Photo – Arigi)

Sam Onsomu fitted that bill at the weekend, to the letter. He made countless game saving tackles, and created an equal number of pivotal plays through out that weekend. Especially in the side’s win over the Golden Lions, at the close of Day 1. He clearly made his point to the technical bench and on the region’s biggest stage.

4. The ‘Boys’ stood up to be counted

When the Kenya sevens main stays opted out of playing in the tournament, many had given the new crop of players picked to represent the country little chance.

The so called boys did stand up to the challenge, the likes of Jacob Ojee, Leonard Mugaisi, Oliver Mang’eni, Fabian Olando, Augustine Lugonzo, Mike Wanjala, Ahmed Shaban and Billy Isabwa impressed for the Shujaa and Morans.

It was clear that we have a large pool of quality players, that we could field a side like Simba Saba that had only been together for barely a week and stretch the likes of the Welsh Warriors and their ‘big brothers’ Shujaa is great to see.

In the absence of the seasoned sevens players the fringe players that we rarely get to see did stand up to be counted. Perhaps these changes were the best thing to happen to the Kenya sevens?

5. We need to resolve this Stand off NOW!!

The stand off between the 18 national team players and the union should be resolved and fast. It is already clear that none of the 18 will feature in the first leg of the 2014/15 sevens series having failed to secure visas.

Both sides have very valid points, the Union by introducing performance based contracts in an effort to professionalise the sport, which is what we all want. The players asking for medical cover to avoid what many of them and even before them have undergone when injured.

A middle ground should be found fast, as by letting these players go we would be virtually taking several steps back. The union has invested a whole lot in these players in the last couple of years, to let all that go just like that would be reckless. A good number of the 18 are just hitting their prime.

Keeping in mind that we are very close to the first ever sevens games at the Olympics. While I was very excited to see the players perform at the weekend, couldn’t help but wonder how it could have been with our seasoned campaigners in action.

You see, there are things that you can not teach in two years, like experience. The world series is an unforgiving monster and such drastic changes to the side will be devastating. With two years to go to the Olympics, wouldn’t that be a real great risk to take?

We are basically throwing the new side into the deep end, and covering our eyes hoping that they will stay afloat. It might be the best thing that has happened to the Kenya sevens, but the contrary might also be true.

Fabian Olando fends off a German defender

Fabian Olando fends off a German defender

6. The Future of Kenya rugby is indeed bright

I sat to watch the under 19 category and the conclusion of the under 14 and 12 categories on Friday, and was taken a back by the amount of talent on display.

Bare foot kids from the Mombasa Spartans, beating Nakuru in the under 14 boys category. Getting revenge for their younger brothers who lost in the under 12 final to Nakuru.

The under 19 category saw Kyadondo rugby club from Uganda walk away with the main cup title beating the Impala Academy 14-7 on Saturday. Promising signs for our neighbours.

The skills on display in the age grade category were a real sight to behold, the awareness by some of those kids would put most of the seniors to shame. Indeed, the future if properly managed is very bright.

7. The Union needs to take ownership of the Tournament

It felt like Safaricom were the owners of the tournament and the union were just co-opted in the running of things, as a courtesy.

As much as I and indeed we, should appreciate the input of sponsors into the sport and especially Safaricom who have taken the sport to the next level, the union needs to draw a line somewhere. Otherwise we will see our sport die a slow but sure death, while the sponsor gets the mileage they were chasing with the sponsorships they offer.

That being said, it was a great weekend of sevens rugby all round, it could have been better but hey the glass is half full in my book. It was a decent way for Africa’s premier sevens tournament to turn eighteen, here is to many more to the biggest sevens tournament south of the Sahara and north of the River Limpompo.

Can’t wait for next year, but I’ll just have to…

KWISHA…..Nimeruka Nje!!!

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