By James Njenga “Biggie”
It is the hope of every young person to one day don the national team colors and represent their nation. I know this because not so long ago, I had the same dream. A 16-year-old me always dreamt of pulling that red and green jersey on, belting out the tunes of the national anthem with such great passion, like I see them do on tv, and just enjoying my rugby on the grand stage.
To actualize it, we attended Kenya U19 trials at the KCB grounds in Ruaraka immediately after high school. Most of us did not make it but the fact that we got to be around such an environment changed our mindset.
See, there is something about training and playing with and against the best players in the country. You do not get to be in and around such players if you are not cut from the same cloth. To make it to the team you have to beat the best and that just elevates your mentality to another level.
The following year, I made the Nakuru RFC team that won the Titans Cup against KCB. To make that Nakuru team you had to be no slouch. In the pecking order, I was behind Kenya Simbas Internationals in form of Isaiah Nyariki and Giles Littlewood.
The team was also littered with great talent, the likes of Martin Owilah, Mike Okombe, Edwins Makori, etc. I can confidently say that being around the Chipu environment made me want to be the best and compete with the best.
Fast forward to 2019 and I got to attend my very first Barthes Trophy tournament at the KCB Grounds, Ruaraka. Paul Odera was five years deep into the Kenya U20 gig and even though he had a torrid time trying to upset continental giants Namibia in previous editions of the competition, 2019 was special. Something was cooking.
Upon his appointment, Odera and his technical bench launched an ambitious plan. A plan to win the elusive continental trophy that for a long time had been at the behest of the Namibians and while at it, get Kenya back to the Junior World Trophy a decade after their last involvement in the competition. By the time Kenya was hosting this tournament, Odera, and his team had mastered the murky waters of continental competitions.
Step one — Early preparation. Kenya’s achilles heel in previous competitions had been poor or late preparation. Teams were assembled late giving the team little to no time to gel. To correct this, Odera named his training squad early and even had some time to play a couple of preparation games including one against KCB, the reigning Kenya Cup champions then.
The composition of the team was also one of the things that Odera paid special attention to. In order to win, Odera went for pedigree. Players who had been tested and proven to be competitors at the highest levels.
They selected a team that was hungry to win, hungry to defy the odds and prove themselves in front of the home crowd. A team that had experience playing in the Kenya Cup as well as other top competitions in the world.
Most of these players have gone ahead to play for the senior side, the Kenya Simbas. The likes of Samuel Asati, Beldad Ogeta, Dominic Coulson, Andrew Siminyu, Emmanuel Silungi, Geoffrey Okwatch, Andrew Matoka Matoka, Samuel Were, etc. have gone ahead to become household names.
Not that Odera and his boys had it any easier in their triumph that year even though the competition offered by Tunisia in their opening fixture was a little bit disappointing. Chipu thrashed the North Africans 73–0 to book a date with Namibia in the final. On their part, Namibia had to get past Senegal, a task they were well prepared for as they dispatched the West Africans 45–12.
A few players were not available for Kenya in the first game due to the usual issues. One of them was Michele Brighetti. A dynamic player that could slot in anywhere across the backs. We all (rightly so) praise Matoka Matoka for his heroics with that final penalty under pressure, but I also believe Brighetti deserves his flowers too. He brought stability to a back line that was a little shaky even in the complete mauling of Tunisia.
Tries by Brian Amaitsa, Beldad Ogeta, and Bonface Ochieng’ coupled with two penalties by Matoka Matoka were enough, just barely, to see Kenya win the elusive continental title and go ahead to represent Kenya at the Junior World Trophy. Nothing can adequately describe the mood at the Den after Precious Pazani blew the final whistle. Nothing!
The importance of that win for Kenya cannot be overstated. The team went ahead to give a good account of themselves at the Junior World Trophy in Brazil just barely losing 48–34 to highly fancied Japan. (Kenya’s Tries: Geofrey Okwach 2, Ian Masheti, Ibrahiim Ayoo, and Timothy Omela; Conversions: Dominic Coulson 3; Penalty: Dominic Coulson.)
Last year, Kenya Simbas had a Rugby World Cup qualifying campaign, first through the African qualifiers and then through the repechage tournament. Most of those players selected had passed through the Barthes Trophy. In fact, seven out of the 31 players named for the Rugby World Cup repechage tournament were members of the 2019 team. These are Andrew Peter Siminyu, Samuel Asati, Timothy Omela, John Okoth, Geoffrey Okwach, Beldad Ogeta, and Ian Masheti.
It is 2023 and Kenya will be hosting the tournament, again. We are about to witness another emergence of close to 30 young and talented players. When utilized fully, there is no limit as to where these kids we get from the tournament can take us. Their potential is limitless. How immaculate could it be if the team that will take us to Australia 2027 would be made up of a bulk of players that have taken part in this tournament?
This is a tournament that represents hope. Hope for a nation that eats, sleeps, and bleeds rugby.
– James Njenga “Biggier” is a former Nakuru RFC forward