Shujaa relegation from the World Rugby Sevens Series a chance to re-lay foundations for 2024 and beyond

RUGBY Shujaa relegation from the World Rugby Sevens Series a chance to re-lay foundations for 2024 and beyond

Mark Kinyanjui 11:00 - 28.12.2023

Shujaa’s recovery process already looks promising having qualified for the Olympics in September and winning Safari Sevens in November. Can they win back promotion to the World Series in 2024?

May 21, 2023 was a dark day for Kenyan rugby. It was a day when Kenya ended it’s 19-year core status at the highest level of World Sevens Rugby after years of mismanagement finally caught up with them.

In the build up to that dark day, Shujaa, then coached by Damian McGrath, had been running on empty for the first two legs of the season as the side had to make do without a shirt sponsor, as players did not have any real source of income.

Although SportPesa came in handy in December 2022, the resources were not enough to motivate the boys into doing well, which prompted Willy Ambaka to wave a tearful goodbye to professional rugby after years of venting his frustrations online on the way the team was being managed.

“It's been a long journey for me, I feel that the body is already burning up but at the same time it has been a memorable 13 years and I'm happy with everything.

We have a good bunch of boys that are here but all in all I just want to thank God and appreciate what World Rugby has done,” said Ambaka in an interview with World Rugby.

Alongside Billy Odhiambo who also recently retired in November, Ambaka was the last man standing from the golden generation of players that managed to finish fifth in the 2012/13 season under Mike Friday.

That season, Kenya was getting well beaten in almost every leg, and it was attributed down to the fact that Shujaa summoned a relatively young and inexperienced side for the 2022-23 campaign. 

While some of the players gave a good account of themselves, most notably Alvin ‘Buffa’ Otieno and Kevin Wekesa, they ultimately fell short when it mattered most.

Kenya ended with 40 points by the 10th leg in Toulouse, having failed to make it to the cup quarter-final in any of the legs. 

Seven points was the highest they recorded in a leg, doing it in Hamilton, Vancouver and Singapore, while they could only manage one point in Hong Kong (twice) and Los Angeles.

Shujaa headed to London knowing only a win would see them retain their top flight status which has stood since the 2004-05 season with Canada, Uruguay and Tonga their opponents in the round-robin relegation playoff where the winner will be the 12th team in the Series next season.

They started with a 24-19 win over the Canada followed by a 38-26 victory against Tonga on Saturday and despite falling 14-10 to Uruguay on Sunday, they still had a chance to clinch their slot had they beaten the Canadians. They failed to do it, losing their lofty status.

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In reality, this had been coming given in the last five years, they have only managed a top 10 finish once, in 2017-18, when they finished eight.

 The following season, they were 13th, then 12th and after the Covid-19-interrupted 2020-21 campaign, they managed another 12th place last season followed by 13th in 2022-23.

Shujaa have been flirting with relegation and when a change of rules that cut the teams in the top flight from next season to 12 was effected, they found themselves in hot soup.

This prompted the new Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) board headed by Alexander ‘Sasha’ Mutai to shake up things. They appointed a new technical bench headed by Kevin Wambua, Louis Kisia and former captain Andrew Amonde coming in as strength and conditioning coach (SNC).

They were tasked with getting Kenya to qualify for the Olympics by winning the Africa Sevens Title, which they successfully did in Harare in September as they stormed to victory, having brushed every team on their way, including South Africa in the final.

Although they kept some experienced players in the set up, such as Vincent Onyala and Tony Omondi, who were named co-captains, they refreshed the squad with a core of new players that led the team to victory.

Daystar Falcons’ Patrick Odongo was one of the newbies that made a name for himself at the tournament.

He was named most valuable player despite the fact he played whilst moaning about the death of his mother, who unfortunately passed away in the days leading up to the tournament.

Their victory earned them 3 million Kenyan Shillings, as well as a plot of land at Kasarani to come up with a high performance center.

There was also a relatively comfortable Safari Sevens win in November using the same core of players, who will be expected to play a key part in trying to do well at the Challenger Series next year, which will act as a stepping stone to try and win it again next year.

They were also to take part in the Dubai Invitational Tournament in December to continue helping the side prepare for their first challenger tournament in the same city next month (January 14th), but owing to “logistical challenges” , attributed to the Sports Ministry’s decision to withdraw funding from competing in non-priority games.

Shujaa will be however hoping they can carry on their momentum from the Olympic Qualifiers and the Safari Sevens onto the challenger series to stand a chance of winning back promotion, as well as to do well at the forthcoming Paris Olympics.