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Since the year 1909 when the first recorded rugby match was played in Kenya, the game has made massive steps to command a substantial following among local fans. The meteoric rise of our sevens side commonly known as Shujaa to become a core team in the World 7s Series greatly fueled the love for the game in the country with more fans and young players joining the game.
Rugby players like Collins Injera quickly turning into household names as donning the national colours consequently becoming every young player’s dream. The national 15’s side may not have neared the peak of things but they are doing just fine as well.
As a country, we have been members of the Rugby Union with Kenya Rugby Union(KRU) which was formed in 1970 taking over from the Rugby Football Union of East Africa as the body in charge the sport in Kenya.
Recently we saw the resurgence of the Rugby League in Kenya, and while it is not a popular sport in our continent, I strongly believe that if it kicks off well this time it will go a long way in changing the dynamics of the sport in Kenya.
The rugby league is similar to rugby Union only with a few differences. While the union has 15 players on the pitch, we have 13 in the rugby league. How scores or points are awarded slightly differ too. A try in the union gives a team five points while a team in the rugby league will get four points for scoring a try. A penalty will get you three points in the union and fetch you just two in the league. The rugby league is also played on a smaller pitch compared to a match in the Rugby Union.
Several franchises have already sprouted up across the country. A tournament at the beginning of February went down in history books and marked what many hope to be a new beginning for Kenyan rugby. Nairobi based Wolves and Rhinos faced off in the finals of the tournament, as the Wolves devoured on the hardened Rhinos to emerge champions with a 16-0 scoreline. League teams are emerging fast with teams in Nanyuki, Nakuru, Kisumu, Gilgil, Laikipia and the capital playing home to a majority of the franchises and a few sprouting development sides.
Stakeholders believe the league stands a possibility of going full-blown in the next two or three years, a frightening and exciting aspect at the same time. History can trace the game’s roots to Edward Rombo, a man termed as the best rugby player Kenya has ever produced. Rombo who was the first player to go pro, playing for Leeds Rugby League in England played a key role in conceiving Rugby league in the country. This is after returning to the country to set up a law firm; Rombo and Associates and playing for Mwamba between 1999 and 2003. Although the game was not widely accepted it continued to be played in small scale in areas like Nakuru.
What exactly can the re-introduction of Rugby league change? Competition for resources will be on top of the list as the new league will need coaches, players, referees, playing grounds and even sponsors. The game is going through rough times that have seen referees drop their whistles citing the lack of funds to carry out their duties. Last season we witnessed a countrywide strike by referees, impacting the game negatively as teams had to hire unqualified personnel to officiate over matches. A good number of matches in the Nationwide league especially those in far-flung places are played without official referees from the union which signifies a deficiency. Can it get worse for the union?
Even as many players get into the game and programmes are rolled out to introduce age-grade rugby, so is the number of players hanging their boots in their early days to chase other careers since ‘rugby does not pay’ in Kenya. This is the harsh truth with only a small percentage of players plying their trade professionally. Many clubs in the country are cash strapped, some in a nearly constant financial survival mode that makes it hard for them to compete at the highest level.
With the formation of two leagues, we may be looking at a scenario where players will now have options to choose from. Switches between the two leagues are common now, even among coaches. Unions have to come up with ways to keep their players, coaches and even fans. Better contracts and player welfare which are overlooked in some clubs will soon become a necessity. It will come down to one question, who is tabling the best deal?
Could the introduction of Rugby League eat into an already waning supporter base? The Rugby Union has been putting together efforts to fill stadiums, with the 2020 edition of the Safari Sevens set for the RFUEA grounds, a far cry from the hay days when the tournament could be held at Kasarani stadium due to the large numbers it could attract. Teams have little to show in terms of gate charges as only a few teams can attract a sizeable crowd. Now imagine splitting the already depleted fan base with this new form of rugby which is described as more interesting to watch because of the few stops and starts between the game.
Since sporting giants Sportpesa pulled out their sponsorship across all sports in the country, we have not landed any substantial deal to breathe new life to the game. Money has been the centre of nearly every shortcoming in our game. Viewership rights were sold at a paltry figure to some company who could not air the Kenya cup final last season! Reports that the founders of rugby league come with loaded pockets bring a glimmer of hope that things may soon change for the better and the union must change with the times.
Change is inevitable. The Rugby League is still in its weaning stage, but many hope this marks the beginning of a new era where better player welfare and contracts will take centre stage. I am looking forward to a day when players in the country will be able to go pro and use their talents to better their lives and those of their families.