Starmers: Kenya light path to fields of Gold
By Nigel Starmer-Smith
Regular Sevens columnist Nigel Starmer-Smith imagines a new rugby world, where Sevens is an Olympic sport and there are far more nations at the game's top table.
Now, here's a thought .. Just imagine the scenes of celebration, joy and communal euphoria as a whole nation watches live on television its 12-man squad from Fiji, or maybe Samoa, mount the rostrum in the Olympic Stadium to receive their Olympic gold medals for the Rugby Sevens, in 2016.
Only one athlete from the South Sea islands of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa has ever won an Olympic medal of any hue - and I trust Paea Wolfgramm's name is held in the highest regard in Tonga for his silver medal-winning feats at the 1996 Games in the Super heavyweight boxing category - but with rugby included in the Olympic family a first gold medal could easily become a reality.
Come to think of it, a gold medal would even be a rarity of modern times for either of New Zealand or South Africa, who would certainly be among the strongest contenders for the title.
The kiwis' Olympic golden days belong to yesteryear - that amazing cluster of triumphs by Murray Halberg and Peter Snell of the 60s, and of John Walker, the rowing eight and the men's hockey squad of the 70s.
For South Africans, stepping onto the rostrum has been an even rarer occurrence, with Elana Meyer in 1992, their first medallist since South Africa was banned from the Olympic competition in 1960.
A new world
Today the number of countries vying for medals in Rugby Sevens would be long, but by 2016 the likelihood is that you would be considering many others too - the likes of Portugal, USA, Tonga and, of course, Kenya have already put their hands up but in another seven years, and with government funding, the likes of Russia and China could also storm into the reckoning. Rest assured, the outcome would be gloriously uncertain.
So too in the women's event. The learning curve for the emerging nations has been even steeper, and yet as avidly ascended. More than 80 nations entered the qualifying rounds for the first Women's Rugby World Cup Sevens in March. Russia, Brazil, Thailand, USA, Spain, Uganda and the Netherlands were all there but even Kazakhstan, one of the strongest women's rugby nations, failed to qualify.
One of the many appealing aspects of present day Sevens rugby is that, unlike 15s, the world order is changing rapidly in this very different, exciting spectator sport. In many years and at many levels, I have never seen a Sevens tournament that was not a riveting spectacle. And that's largely down to the fact that no nation can rest on its laurels.
The country which, to me, epitomises this changing scene, and which has shown that a long history, vast playing membership, plentiful facilities and resources are not a pre-requisite for success, is Kenya.
Kenya: Nothing is impossible
Ten years ago, at the start of the IRB Sevens World Series, Kenya were on the fringe of the game - enthusiastic but in no way competitive against the top teams New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa and Australia.
The Kenyans had failed to qualify for the earlier World Cup Sevens finals in 1993 and 1997 and in their first season as an occasional participant were never really in contention. Worse than that, they lost every game in their first four tournaments - 17 games in a row between October 1999 and November 2001.
But then they finally broke the mould and won their first silverware in the Shield in Dubai and, since then, have scaled new heights, reaching Cup quarter finals, then semi finals and latterly a first Cup final against South Africa in Adelaide.
This has all had a lot to do with the natural athletic talent within the country - tall, powerful athletes with pace and agile skills and an instinctive delight in running with the ball in hand - but a steely determination and considerable amount of forward planning has also got the country to where it is today.
Kenya first dabbled in Sevens in the 70s with unofficial forays to Dubai but it was a one-off entry to the Hong Kong Sevens in 1986 that set the ball rolling, before they introduced their own tournament, the Safari Sevens, which they won for the first time in 1997.
"Kenya's rise is, in essence, the story of the growth of Sevens Rugby"
Along the way, they took every opportunity to develop their own national squad, appearing as far afield as Selkirk and Singapore, the Middlesex Sevens and Amsterdam and the first Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998.
In 1999 the country introduced its own National Sevens circuit, which has grown ever since, and was then appointed to host Africa's World Cup qualifying in 2000 for the third Sevens showpiece in Mar del Plata, Argentina, for which they finally qualified.
Big milestones followed: victory over Samoa; a half-time lead over England in the Commonwealth Games of 2002 in Manchester; first wins over Wales and then Australia.
At the heart of this advance were key figures too, with vision and increasing understanding of the tactical nuances of the game. Team manager Mark Andere and coaches Bill Githingi and Edward Rombo oversaw this rise and brought along a hugely talented crop of players, the likes of Oscar Osir Osula and Benjamin Ayimba, who are now manager and coach respectively.
Their improving performance won them 'core team' status for the 2003/04 World Series and since then they have played in every international tournament that has been contested. In more recent times, the Union has managed to secure a certain number of semi-professional contracts, allowing more players to dedicate more of their time to the sport for a couple of years, and the results have again paid dividends, taking them to, or near, the top of the game.
As popular and wonderfully supported as any around the world, as exciting as any to watch, Kenya's rise is, in essence, the story of the growth of Sevens Rugby.
An Olympic medal would complete the fairytale - not just for Kenya, but for a whole world of rugby players.