Sevens a stepping stone for Kenya
The Kenya Football Rugby Union is hoping the unprecedented interest in Sevens will have a positive effect on the 15-a-side game.
It's an early morning start for the Kenyan Sevens team who have converged at the Paul Tergat sports gymnasium, inside one of Nairobi's most exclusive schools, Brookhouse, for an intensive combat training session.
The fitness and conditioning session, mirroring the boot camp perfected by the top rugby-playing countries, ranges from passing and handling drills to tug-of-war and the use of inflatable wedges, designed to test players' pectoral powers.
It is not surprising that over 30 youngsters have turned up, eager to make up the team for the second and third legs of the Sevens World series, in Dubai and South Africa in late November and early December.
Kenya has made huge strides in Sevens, including reaching the semifinal of the World Cup in Dubai three years ago, and many younger players are now keen to get into the game which promises a lot of opportunities for them.
Many young Kenyan players have been inspired to play in the Sevens side, and the possibility of taking part in the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro when the Sevens game returns as an official Olympic sport.
The sport's governing body, Kenya Football Rugby Union (KFRU) is hoping the unprecedented interest in Sevens will have a positive effect on the 15-a-side game, which has long struggled to find a sure footing in the country.
Things began to change in the late 1960's with the introduction to Kenya of seven-a-side competition.
"Kenyans have always been athletes - they like to run and the Sevens gives them space to run all over whereas in the 15-a-side game, space is very restrictive," said veteran Nondies club player Irving McLean.
"When the Sevens had just come in, it was a different game. It is an agile game. You need to be playing it at 18 or 19-years old. Sadly Sevens rugby does not develop the full potential and skill that a rugby nation needs," he added.
"I would like to see Kenya do better in the 15-a-side game. The country has big men who can be good forwards and running backs. But most of them would rather play Sevens. It is not a good scenario," McLean said.
Like McLean, many observers believe the administration has not done enough to expand the game's base beyond Nairobi and has not laid down any structures for the development of the sport to encourage the youngsters from the grassroots.
"There has been no supportive technical structures in terms of qualified coaches at the grassroots level that will see some players develop skills at an early age. For us the 15-a-side game was the foundation," said former national player Herbert Mwachiro, now a part-time commentator for a local radio station.
The KRFU chairman Mwangi Muthee accepted there was a lot to be done but said it required more resources to ensure every Kenyan youngster could benefit from the sport.
"The 15-a-side game is very tactical. It requires a lot of resources to develop," said Muthee.
"Kenya has a long tradition in rugby through its long ties with the British. We may not be where we would have expected to be, in the top three in Africa, but we need to revive that interest with our youth and make rugby kick in again."
But Muthee sees success in the Sevens sphere as providing a major boost which could make Kenya competitive in the fifteens.
"If the Sevens is the arm, then the 15-a-side game is the leg. Both are interdependent of each other. But I believe the foundation of all rugby is the 15-a-side game" he added.
New Kenyan Sevens coach Mike Friday alludes to Muthee's views saying there is there is very little difference between the shorter form of the game and the fifteens.
"I don't believe this myth that there are Sevens specialists and fifteens specialists. If you are a good player, you are a good player and can play at both disciplines," said the former England Sevens coach.
"The fundamental difference between the formats is conditioning, so provided a player excels at the basics of the sport and understands how to attack and defend the space, they can adapt at either," he added.
But Friday warned that developing the Kenyan 15-a-side game to compete at the highest level will take a long time.
"The traditional rugby is extremely technical and requires a lot of resources to develop unlike the Sevens where even countries like Kenya, which were considered as the minnows can rise and compete at the highest level," said Friday.
In their attempt to bridge the gap, the KRFU has reached an agreement with South African outfit Western Province to provide technical expertise, which will also allow Kenyan players to train and gain experience in the powerful South African league.