A look into the Kenya rugby U20 team's performance in 2023 that left a lot to be desired despite high hopes that they would win the two tournaments the country hosted
It was an interesting year for Curtis Olago’s Kenya 15s U20 side, popularly known as Chipu.
The country hosted both the U20 Barthes Trophy, where the best teams in Africa compete against each other, as well as the World Rugby U20 Trophy, the competition that serves as a qualifying path for the World Rugby U20 Championship.
The side was unable to emerge victorious in any of the two competitions, famously being drubbed by Zimbabwe in both competitions.
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Let’s first delve into the U20 Barthes Trophy, which took place in April at the Nyayo National Stadium.
Zimbabwe put on a clinical performance to defeat the hosts and crowd-favourites Kenya 28-7.
Zimbabwe had shown intent to defend their title from the word go with thrashings Ivory Coast and Tunisia, 55-0 and 60-6 respectively.
On their part, Kenya beat neighbours Uganda 44-20 and Namibia 24-13 to get to the final.
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Both teams came into this game having booked a ticket to the Junior World Trophy set to be played in July in Nairobi. Bragging rights were, however, on the line and Zimbabwe wanted it more.
Although the team is meant to act as a pipeline for emerging stars that could play a key part for senior sides in both the sevens and 15s setup in future, Olago initially intended to go for the kill, having taken charge in 2021.
He did, however, hint that his side were at a disadvantage, considering they had not taken part in any invitational tournaments, unlike Zimbabwe, who had taken part in three warm up matches to step up their preparations for their eventual Nairobi dominance.
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Mokoro only made his Kenya Cup debut against Homeboyz last week, but already looks a masterpiece after a dominating display against Mwamba last Saturday.
“If we were to compare ourselves with Namibia, and Zimbabwe, those are people who started training earlier in September, October and November," said Olago.
“Zimbabwe have gone to like three other tournaments in Canada. But we are ready to take them on, I mean we cannot share our way of playing the game of rugby. We are going to do what we know and what we enjoy."
Chipu would have little time to feel sorry for themselves, as just within three months, they were taking part in a second competition on home soil.
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The KCB scrumhalf received his first call-up to the Kenya Sevens set up in September before going on to play a key role in the side securing Olympic qualification.
The World U20 Trophy had not been hosted in Kenya since 2019, a competition they finished in fourth place. Surely, playing it at home would give them an advantage in the quest to seek promotion to the championship? Or so they thought.
Kenya finished sixth in an eight-team tournament after being walloped 64-10 by Zimbabwe.
They had lost 34-18 to Samoa in the first round of Pool B, 48-18 in the second game to eventual champions Spain, but did at least get a win against Hong Kong 22-16.
Olago’s tone had changed by this tournament, claiming it was primarily about the growth of the team and players individually, and about the results before their second clash against Zimbabwe.
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“The way we faced Zimbabwe last time, we have to see an improvement in terms of the structure of the game, from the attack to the defence. It is not about the result. It is about growth," he said.
“I will take a lot of positives from our tournament. This side has only played two games, against Samoa and Spain.
“We never had any build-up matches and for them to pick it up the way they did (against Spain in the first half), but for them to pick it up like that is tremendous.
"There is so much improvement and progression from the side."
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As Kenya continue to build a side that will qualify for the 2027 World Rugby World Cup, there is hope that some of the players who played for Chipu in both tournaments will be instrumental for Simbas moving forward.
The Kenya Simbas setup at the moment consists seven players who were part of the Chipu side that laid their hands on the title in 2019.
They included Samuel Asati, Timothy Omela, Beldad Ogeta, Ian Masheti and Andrew Simiyu. The team has also been littered with great talent in the past like Martin Owilah, Mike Okombe, Edwin Makori, and Geoffrey Okwach who have all shown great potential.