With Kenya’s famed track and field team still unsure whether it will be allowed to compete at the Rio Olympics,an unlikely new medal prospect has emerged for the African Nation-their sevens rugby outfit.
Hardly a world power in the 15-a-side game, Kenya has suddenly popped up as a genuine medal contender in sevens, which will be played in Rio as rugby returns to the Olympics after a 92-year hiatus.
Currently ranked seventh in the world, ahead of traditional heavyweights including England and France, Kenya served notice of their intentions for Rio by winning the Singapore leg of the sevens world series, beating Fiji in Sunday’s final.
It was Kenya’s first tournament win in a world series event after they had made two previous finals, in Australia in 2009 and New Zealand in 2013, and it could not have come at a better time with the Olympics just four months away and the country’s athletics team under a doping cloud.
“For our players, this win will give them huge amounts of self-belief,” Kenyan coach Benjamin Ayimba said. “We’ve always had the potential, but knowing now that we can beat the best will give us even more confidence for success in future tournaments. This will make us an even better and more dangerous team to play against.”
As Kenya’s players celebrated their win with a gospel song and impromptu jig at Singapore’s National Stadium, their victory lit up rugby’s social media sites, with even Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta tweeting his congratulations to the underdog team.
Their emergence is well-timed for Kenya, with the country’s track and field team facing the possibility of being banned from Rio unless it passes a new anti-doping law following a string of positive tests.
– ‘A very big step’ –
Kenya has only ever won medals in two different sports at the Olympics: athletics and boxing. Of the 25 gold medals Kenya has won, 24 have been in track and field. But the rugby sevens team is hoping to change that.
“We hope it inspires the kids to play rugby and it just gives them a lot more heroes to look up to so, for us, it’s a major milestone,” Ayimba said.
“The target for Rio is always to win.”
Kenya already has some budding heroes in its ranks, none more so than Collins Injera, the 29-year-old speedster who ranks second on the all-time sevens try-scoring lists.
Injera kicked a 40-metre penalty after the siren to clinch a 15-12 win over Argentina in the semi-finals, then scored two of his team’s six tries in the 30-7 rout of Fiji in the final.
Like most of the top Kenyan rugby players, Injera grew up running and playing soccer before switching to rugby in his early teens. The son of a professor, he made his international debut a decade ago and has been scoring tries at a regular frequency, though he is more widely known for what he once did after one of his touchdowns.
At the London Sevens last year, Injera celebrated his 200th try by pulling a marker pen from his socks and scrawling his name on a television camera, as tennis players often do. Unaware that the cameras need a protective covering, he unwittingly ruined a lens valued at about 60,000 pounds (US$86,000).
His try-scoring celebrations have been more subdued since then and even as he closes in on the all-time record, his only thoughts are on winning in Rio, where Kenya have already qualified for both the men’s and women’s tournaments.
“Kenyan rugby has come a long way, it’s such an amazing thing,” Injera said.
“Everyone is working towards the Olympics so or us, (winning in Singapore) was a very big step.
“Rugby is really developing in Kenya. We’re putting new systems into the junior levels to help build up the game and now that we’ve won a final, more people will start following us.”