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Kenya 7s stars in Russia no different from Springbok, All Blacks, cricketers and Kip Keino who embraced professional circuit

SEEMS they are done talking and  are now walking the walk; to the next station where they can earn some money and put food on the table.

Kenya sevens rugby players who had been battling with authorities to get decent pay — but failed — were exploring other options; a number of prominent ones playing at the European championships in St Petersburg, Russia this weekend when the official Kenya Sevens national team was having a torrid time, finishing last at the latest round of the World Series in Twickenham, London.

Top: Kenya Sevens rugby internationals who featured in the weekend tournament in St Petersburg, Russia, from left; Michael Agevi, Felix Ayange, Billy ‘The Kid’ Odhiambo, Dennis Ombachi, Oscar Ouma and Collins Injera. Above: Dennis “Ghostworker” Ombachi turned out for Zastava RFC who finished third in the event

Top: Kenya Sevens rugby internationals who featured in the weekend tournament in St Petersburg, Russia, from left; Michael Agevi, Felix Ayange, Billy ‘The Kid’ Odhiambo, Dennis Ombachi, Oscar Ouma and Collins Injera. Above: Dennis Ombachi turned out for Zastava RFC who finished third in the event

The Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) is where big nations South Africa and New Zealand once were in regard to the regular version of the sport (XVs rugby). The South African and New Zealand authorities could not adequately enumerate their leading internationals. So, the talent started moving to professional contracts with clubs in Italy, France and later England, Wales and Ireland.

The reaction of the two unions was to, henceforth, first make the basis of national team selection to being “home-based”. In the early periods, many players [almost punitively] missed out of Springbok and All Blacks (national teams) selections because they were based in Europe. Several, then, especially the South Africans took it in stride and in fact earned international caps for Italy and France. Over time, sense prevailed and now overseas-based players can make the Springbok or All Blacks teams.

Five Kenya Sevens internationals turned out for Britain's Samurai in the tournament in St Petersburg

Five Kenya Sevens internationals turned out for Britain’s Samurai in the tournament in St Petersburg

In Kenya, authorities have said they have no money, and to the Kenya Sevens players — a while ago, used to good pay when there was sponsorship rolling in — that the KRU cannot meet their financial demands. “Can’t pay, won’t pay”

So the current Kenya Sevens team comprises younger players out to make their name. Meanwhile, the experienced lot, some of them among the most famous in the HSBC Sevens World Series, including: Collins Injera, Oscar Ouma, Billy “The Kid” Odhiambo and Dennis “Ghostworker” Ombachi, are done with talking and taken matters into their own hands.

Around the sights in Petersburg for Samurai Kenyans, from left; Billy 'The Kid' Odhiambo, Michael Agevi, Oscar Ouma, Felix Ayange, Collins Injera

Sight-seeing around the historic Petersburg for Samurai Kenyans, from left; Billy ‘The Kid’ Odhiambo, Michael Agevi, Oscar Ouma, Felix Ayange, Collins Injera

At the weekend’s European Rugby 7s Champions Trophy, Ombachi, turning out for Russian Zastava Rugby Football Club, helped the team win the bronze medal and commented: “Not what we set out for but we take it and do better next time. Defend the fortress!” not explaining the local club’s rallying call.

At the same championship, the England-based international invitation side, Samurai, was literally running on Kenya ‘fuel’. The Terry Sands-owned team was even managed by a Kenyan to boot — Ali Fahad of Nairobi. Hastily put together and the off-season Kenyan players not having played for a while, Samurai won the Plate Final in St Petersburg with a 20-5 score over “Froggies” of France.

The full Samurai squad and management in St Petersburg

The full Samurai squad and management, above and below, in St Petersburg

Purists of the sport would follow it whenever there was a pull, and much in terms of caliber and name of the players. It was no wonder that the tournament in Russia had attention even as the World Series run in London. And followers would not fail to debate the comparisons and contrasts.

In London Kenya Sevens lost all of five matches except a 21-20 pool decision over Samoa. Kenya stares relegation from the World Series in the face. On 25 points, Japan sit in the last and sole relegation spot. But if they can finish well ahead of Kenya (27) in the last round this weekend in Paris, the axe would fall on Kenya unless Kenya perform above the Japanese or surprisingly well and leap frog over Wales (30 points).

Dennis Ombachi (left) Zastava RFC await medals' ceremony

Dennis Ombachi (left) and Zastava RFC await medals’ ceremony

Meanwhile, when the debate continues on the (financial) fortunes of KRU and its national teams — including also the national senior and junior XVs and the women’s sides — players are bound to explore personal development or mere daily (college, career and family) survival.

They will not be the first. Athletes (track and field), rugby and cricket players, for instance have charted the way of their careers away from the slow grinding machinery of “the establishment”.

Living Kenya sporting icon, Kipchoge Keino after gold medals, world records performances in the then amateur athletics days, was the major pull in the world when Australian Kerry Parker decided to turn the track and field professional circa 1973. After gold and silver at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany, Keino’s was slowing down enough to be eclipsed in the 1500m by Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi at the 1973 All African Games in Lagos, Nigeria.

Sportsmen going into the unconventional is not new. Kenya's legendary Kipchoge Keino, here leading compatriot Ben Jipcho to a 1-2 in the 3,000m steeplechase in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, was in 1973 one of the leading lights in a hitherto unknown professional running era initiated by Australian media mogul Kerry Parker

Sportsmen going into the unconventional is not new. Kenya’s legendary Kipchoge Keino, here leading compatriot Ben Jipcho to a 1-2 in the 3,000m steeplechase in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, was in 1973 one of the leading lights in a hitherto unknown professional running era initiated by Australian media mogul Kerry Parker

Seeing writing on the wall that his career was in twilight, the great Keino grabbed Packer’s launch of professionalism with open arms. In a fleetingly short period he ran all over the world pocketing any amount put on the table. He roped in compatriot Ben Jipcho and among others world stalwarts, made some money, the ‘seed’ of investment to a later comfortable retirement for the two.

Top cricketers of the world had to listen to the money-driven makers of non-establishment competitions in India. At first conservative cricket boards such the England and Wales one frowned at it, forbidding British players joining as West Indies, Australian, South African and Sri Lankan stars poured in. Now, the money-driven IPL (Indian Premier League) is the livelihood and billionaire-making tool of the top stars.

It was not a good run at all for Kenya Sevens after this opening loss to Fiji at World Series in London on the weekend

It was not a good run at all for Kenya Sevens after this opening loss to Fiji at World Series in London on the weekend

Of all people, famous All Blacks players are moving to Europe earlier in their careers like in previously normal – when one was more or less ‘over the hill’. In fact, they are talking that for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, previously retired All Blacks great Danny Carter (Racing Club, France and Kobelco Steelers, Japan) and Ma’a Nonu (Toulon, France), both 37, may make a return, representing New Zealand in Japan in September.

It was interesting to note that those those the people of St Petersburg thanked for attending the tournament and according it some world attention included sevens rugby legend Waisele Serevi, the ‘real’ pioneer of sevens rugby competition. The Fijian, after end of his amateur playing days became the hugest ‘evangilists’ of the short-game, promoting it all over the world and latterly to the bagfulls-of-moneys professional era.

Kenya Sevens players on Friday before playing in London on the weekend

Kenya Sevens players on Friday before playing in London on the weekend

At the tournament in St Petersburg, the legendary Fijian Waisele Serevi (centre) and Samurai owner Terry Sands (right) and team coach Dave

At the tournament in St Petersburg, the legendary Fijian Waisele Serevi (centre) and Samurai owner Terry Sands (right) and team coach Nick Wakley

Sands, the Briton who runs the sport kit and apparel firm, Samurai, and has a substantial presence in Kenya may just be one of options to turn to by stranded Kenya rugby players. Commercially viable sevens rugby tournaments straddle a “worlds circuit” outside those tournament’s “controlled” by Unions. A lot of players, even from Kenya will, of necessity, be headed that way. And it will not be just those on the ‘burnt-out’ age bracket. And like the unions in South Africa, New Zealand et al, it will not be any surprise that for major competitions for national teams, the likes of KRU will still be turning to the likes of those who were in St Petersburg this weekend instead of London.

Dennis Ombachi and, below, his medal for a third place finish in St Petersburg

Dennis Ombachi and, below, his medal for a third place finish in St Petersburg

The Kenyans in the Samurai squad in Kenya were: Oscar Ouma (Nakuru), Michael Agevi (Mwamba), Felix Ayange (Harlequins), Billy ‘The Kid’ Odhiambo (Mwamba), Collins Injera (Mwamba); manager – Ali Fahad (Mwamba). For Zastava RFC – Dennis Ombachi (Nondescripts)

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