HONG KONG (Reuters) - On his first trip to Nairobi last year after being named Kenya’s new rugby sevens coach, Mike Friday entered the training facility and immediately had second thoughts.
“When I walked through the door, I remember thinking ‘what have I done?'” Friday recalls.
The practice field was a mixture of dirt and parched, yellow grass. His few resources were a bag of cones, balls and a conditioning coach.
The players arrived, “half on time, half not,” according to Friday, a former England sevens skipper.
Kenya’s rugby sevens team, suffering from years of inconsistency, a slim wallet, and an annual turnover of coaches, needed someone to turn the programme around. Friday has been that someone.
Last month, Kenya defeated New Zealand, the world’s premier rugby union nation, in the semi-finals of a Seven World Series tournament in the nation’s capital Wellington before losing in extra time to England in the final.
Through a combination of tough love, obsessive conditioning, and a back-to-basics approach, Kenya are enjoying their best season ever on the international circuit. The young squad are competing in the sixth tournament of the year this weekend in the Hong Kong Sevens, the world’s most renowned sevens tournament.
What makes Kenya’s success extraordinary is that an amateur team playing international sevens, the abbreviated version of the 15-a-side rugby union game which will make its Olympic debut at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, are competing against professional rivals.
Kenya are currently ranked sixth of the 15 teams in the international sevens standings. Several of the teams above and below Kenya are made up entirely of fulltime, professional players on contract.
The total budget for Kenya’s sevens team is roughly $200,000 (131,285 pounds), which goes on 10 tournaments from Dubai to London to Mumbai, hotels, airplanes, equipment.
“We didn’t expect to make any semi-final,” Friday said in Hong Kong, speaking after the team’s opening 17-14 win over the United States. “The aim was to get into Cup competition.” The team have made two semi-finals and a final this year.
Despite the wins, managing a small budget and local politics remains a challenge to the team. Leading player Collins Injera, one of the all-time leading scorers in the sport, was dropped from the team’s Hong Kong leg, the result of a dispute with his local rugby club. Such a disappointment was typical of the team’s history of two strides forward, two strides back.
Keeping Injera off the roster in Hong Kong was consistent with Friday’s focus on accountability and discipline, something he stressed on his first day on the job when he said that anyone that did not want to buy into his programme should leave.
Most days, Sidney Ashioya, 27, wakes up before sunrise, works out for 90 minutes, and then travels to work as an IT manager at a Nairobi NGO (non-government organization).
After work he heads to wherever the team is training, and joins them for another two to three hours. Like his teammates, Ashioya may spend more than six hours of his day travelling and training. Many of his team mates have had to choose between sport and work.
“We’ve shifted from participating in tournaments, to competing in tournaments,” says Ashioya, a nine-year veteran of the team. He has lived the ups and downs of Kenya’s sevens programme, adding that he’s now on his sixth coach.
The bulk of the team is between the age of 19 and 24, with several players starting the sport through their high school programs. Ashioya first played as a 15-year-old, a stark contrast to players in Australia and New Zealand who start as soon as they can walk.
Only six players in the 30-man team dedicate all their time to the sport and they are all from Kenya.
Biko Adema, 25, works as a registry agent at an embassy in Nairobi. His commute to work and rugby involves hours of time daily on the city’s rickety public transport system. He credits part of the success of the season with the intense strength and conditioning regime.
“We started from scratch. A number of training sessions we just did the same things, over and over,” Adema said.
The tight budget and limited resources is not just something the coach worries about, but is on the minds of the players too.
“We have limited financial resources. With the amount of training we’ve done, and the success we’ve had, obviously we hope our sponsorship improves,” Adema added.
Editing by John Mehaffey