It is a conflicting statement to take home, that Mwamba Rugby Club’s rising star Mike Okello had never touched a rugby ball, until the last days of his high school years.
His display in the game, however, depicts a player who has had a long run in the game, and whose foundation can only be traced back to the early days of his high school stint, but that is not the case.
As he shared his rugby journey with The Scrummage, the St. Joseph High School, Mumias alumni revealed he was a lethal goalkeeper back in high school, with an unmatched skill between the sticks. The transition to playing rugby occurred at the latter stage of his high school stay, and in the most awkward of ways.
“My high school co-curriculum activity was football. It was what many recognized me with. I was a goalkeeper for the school’s football team and had cemented my place in that position. The transition to rugby occurred after being approached by the rugby school team captain to help fill a void left by an injured player while in form four. Stepping up, little did I know that it was the onset of an amazing career,” he revealed to The Scrummage.
The quick move saw Okello transforming from being a goalkeeper to stepping in the rugby field as a Winger, which was his first position. For Okello, the only challenge that came out of the transition was adjusting to the new culture.
“Playing as a Winger in my first rugby game, the only poised challenge was adjusting to the new culture and the style of the game. Since I am a quick learner, the challenge was hardly noticed as I got myself accustomed to the rugby rules in no time,” he said.
His “serious taste of rugby”, came immediately after high school when he joined Mount Kenya University (MKU), Nairobi, featuring for the MKU Stingerz.
Okello’s stellar performances while at Stingerz, was matched by the numerous accolades won by the side, including the 2016 Nakuru 10s Division 2 title, runners up finish in the same event in 2017, just to name a few. He attracted the attention of Kulabu’s coaching staff, before making the all-important switch in 2018.
“Mwamba and MKU shared the same pitch for training. It was therefore easy to be spotted, with the then Mwamba coaching staff taking a key interest in my progress at Stingerz. Later they approached me, and after an agreement on terms, I joined them,” he revealed.
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His debut with Kulabu came in their Kenya Cup clash against Mombasa, where he bagged a try, off his first touch of the ball.
“I had just got in as a substitute. I remember scoring off my first touch of the ball. It was such a joyous moment for me,” he narrated.
His stay at Kulabu since then has seen Okello flower from the buds, to become one of the outstanding players under the guidance of Kevin Wambua, and he attributes all the success to hard work.
“I attribute my success here (at Mwamba), to three things; discipline, time management and hard work. I always work under the principle of always being coachable, not only by the coaches but also by senior players. Having a positive mind and always being ready to accept changes. This coupled with our coach’s knowledge has what propelled me to these heights,” he said.
In his stay with Kulabu, Okello has had the privilege of playing alongside one of Kenya’s rugby greats, Collins Injera and Horace Owiti. He savours the privilege as one of his best in his rugby career. However, donning the nation’s jersey during the 2019 Safari Sevens assignment peaks all the rest. He describes the coveted experience as an “honour”, and one for the books.
“Being named Most Valuable Player at the 2019 Prinsloo 7s, and later being picked in the national team has by far, been the greatest moment of my rugby career. I was making amends for my 2018 national 7s circuit absence, after being sidelined with an injury with just a day to the start of the tournament. I was happy that my worst moment, preceded my greatest moment,” he said.
“I never expected my first national team appearance to be that hard. Everything in the camp is done double the input at the club level. But it was these hurdles that shaped the experience to be the best moment of my rugby career,” he added.
In order to pull all these strings, it was of considerable importance for Okello to maintain his discipline while idolizing some of the great rugby legends. He mentioned it is these team of players he chose to look up to, that helped shaped his rugby career.
“A lot of good players have added and transformed me to be a better player. Humphrey Kayange has been there for me since the beginning. His wise words of encouragement have helped pushed me to be a good player. His brother Collins Injera also makes the list. He has helped increase my rugby skills. Finally, Willy Ambaka, playing alongside him in the national team was fantastic. I practice with him and I have gained a lot,” he explained.
Surrounded by such a rich rugby environment, from his coach (Kevin) Wambua, to (Humphrey) Kayange and (Collins) Injera, Okello revealed his short and long term shots, as far as his rugby career is concerned, has been centred towards cementing his place in the national team.
“For now, the biggest task in my career is ensuring I stay in the national team. I want to make more tour call-ups and expand my experience. Also, I am looking forward to going professional, even trading my skills abroad,” he explained.
“Besides rugby, I think I could have become a prolific footballer, probably trading my skills even internationally,” he said.
Mike Okello Rugby Profile
Name: Mike Okello
Former Club: MKU
Achievements: Safari 7s podium finish, Prinsloo 7s MVP, Kabeberi 7s winner