How will long spells off-pitch affect Championship and Nationwide sides?

It’s been a year and 105 days since all the KRU Championship teams played their final matches of the 2019/20 season.

The longer periods off the pitch have been due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has hit the whole World. While three sides, Mean Machine, Northern Suburbs and Egerton Wasps tasted action early this year in the Kenya Cup qualifiers, the rest have gone the whole period without having a single match.

With only the Kenya Cup season schedule released ahead of resumption following the directive by the Ministry of Sports to have only the top tiers for high-risk contact sports kick-off, the lower tier sides may be set for even longer spells off the pitch.

South Coast Pirates players line up ahead of the preseason tie. Photo Courtesy/South Coast

As much as it is a precautionary measure and the operation cost is expected to be high due to night travel bans and the mandatory testing of players before the matches, failure to have the lower leagues running may have an effect on clubs, players and even coaches.

Scrummage spoke to coaches and team managers who gave their views on the effects of lengthy spells off the pitch, how can the clubs return to play and what they are doing to keep their players active.

South Coast Pirates Coach Howard Okwemba fears that the young players are likely to channel their energy in anti-social behaviours with less activity on the pitch. He also stated that with no clear plan for the second and third-tier resumption, sponsors will pull out or hold funds that they have been channelling to the teams.

“The clubs have been inactive for over a year, apart from lack of team exercises and cohesion, the players who are young have more energy and might end up getting into antisocial behaviours among other vices,” Okwemba told the Scrummage.

“With no calendar in place for the championship sides, sponsor’s of self sponsoring teams have pulled out or held back the sponsorships,” he added.

Okwemba suggests that the lower tier teams should all be vaccinated in preparation for resumption. He also proposes that teams can start out by playing at the county or regional level with the top teams per regions/county proceeding to the knockout stage.

“With the arrival of the vaccine, it’s important for all teams to be vaccinated before commencing the matches but in the initial stages, it will be better to zone the counties and get the club’s in specific counties playing each other and thereafter top teams play at the knock out stages,” he revealed, adding that his side is employing personalized programs to keep their players fit.

Mean Machine’s coach Ramseyfield Matekwa also admits that the inactivity will affect teams eyeing sponsorship. He also notes that it is hard for players to stay fit and revealed that some have been forced to quit the game due to uncertainties.

“It’s really a big blow to championship clubs because there is no activity going on. For those who were looking forward to having sponsors, it’s a turn down to them. On the players part, it’s a hard task to maintain physical fitness by themselves. And some have thrown in a towel as they are looking for sustainability elsewhere,” he stated.

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He echoes Okwemba’s sentiments on all the teams being vaccinated. He also advises that teams should be given green light to at least organize friendlies under COVID-19 protocols.

“All clubs have not taken the jabs, so if it can be possible for KRU to work on the jabs issue it will be ok. KRU should officially allow the clubs to go on with training and have friendlies of their own choice under the covid rules.”

The side which missed the Kenya Cup slot following their 21-12 loss to MMUST in Kakamega is utilizing group fitness training, touch and ball work sessions to ensure the players stay fit.

“Our plan has been grouping players and giving them different days of training for fitness. Once in a while do a touch game and ball work sessions.”

“The COVID period has given us a lot of lessons both to clubs and players, it has had positive and negative lessons,” he concluded.

KRU Championship playoffs contest between Mean Machine and Egerton Wasps. Photo Courtesy/Denis Acre-Half.

Mombasa RFC Team Manager, Nicholas Odhach on his part feels Kenya Rugby Union has not been clear on second and third-tier return to play. He also points out that effects of COVID-19 such as loss of jobs has forced a number of their players to leave City hence reducing their numbers.

“KRU hasn’t given a clear directive on return to play for the other tiers therefore we are in limbo. Players have had to move due to job losses caused by Covid therefore we’ll have to rebuild our squad once the league resumes,” he said.

“The Government in conjunction with KRU need to give us a return to play date,” he added.

For Northern Suburbs who featured in the Kenya Cup qualification semi-final, their team manager Brenan Rashid discloses that keeping the team together has been a challenge without competitions. He adds that players and team had set goals which they intended to achieve but they are now in darkness following the uncertainties.

“It has been hard keeping the team together especially now that we are in the dark not knowing when rugby will fully resume,” he noted.

“Before COVID, we used to train knowing we had a certain goal in either 7s or 15s but now we are in the dark we don’t know when we will resume playing.”

“The players also had their personal goals which they wanted to achieve but lack of play has made that impossible.”

The Suburbs have loaned out some players to the Kenya Cup sides to help them stay in active. There is also a group of players in the Kenya Under 20 training squad. The rest train in groups.

“There is a group of players who will play Kenya cup on loan. We have another lot with Kenya u20 currently preparing for Barthes Cup.”

“The others train in pods depending on their location. They have to do collective training at least twice a week. This includes a gym session and a Strength and Conditioning programme. We also have a bonding session where we meet talk and get to catch up”

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