NAIROBI, May 22 (Xinhua) -- The demotion of Kenya 7s from the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series Core Status has prompted strong reactions as aggrieved fans expressed their disappointment on social media following the end of a two-decade tenure in the top tier.
The team, affectionately known as Shujaa, Swahili for hero, was relegated from the World Series after suffering a 12-7 defeat to Canada in the London 7s play-off final at Twickenham on Sunday.
Kenya initially held a lead from a converted try by Nelson Oyoo in a tightly contested match, but Alex Russell's late try and the subsequent penalty advantage meant Canada secured the final spot in the restructured 12-team World Series for the 2023-2024 season. Consequently, Shujaa was eliminated from the competition for the first time since earning Core Status in the 2004-2005 season.
Relegation sparked a flood of frustration on social media platforms from former players, rugby groups, and supporters as the decline of the 2016 Singapore 7s champions reached its low point in London.
"Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) needs to overhaul the structure of its leagues and competitions starting with the next 7s circuit and the 15s competition if we're ever to return to play in the HSBC. Merge the lower tier clubs to form stronger teams and more competitive leagues. Invest in a Kenya7s academy and put them on contract," the Kenya Rugby Players Association posted on their Facebook page after the relegation.
Dennis Mwanja, a member of the original Kenya 7s team to participate in the World Series from 2004-2007, posted on Twitter, "We didn't envision this outcome 19 years ago when we elevated Kenya to core status." Mwanja was among the Kenyan pioneers in the World Series who helped spread 7s rugby from a small cluster of clubs and institutions in Nairobi to schools across the country, cultivating the talent that ultimately established Shujaa as a contender in the global circuit competition.
"Someone tells me I am dreaming; I sympathize with the boys. Life-changing result at the London Sevens," lamented retired Kenya 7s star turned chef, Dennis Ombachi who represented Shujaa at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
"I owe everything to the World Series, you have no idea how many livelihoods depend on the system. Let's all support Kenya 7s against Canada," Ombachi, who also represented Kenya at the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup in Russia, posted before the game.
Record Kenya 7s try scorer, Collins Injera, who recently retired from the sport in January, shared his disappointment on Twitter by posting three heartbreak emojis after the devastating result. "Time to rebuild with proper structures," he added. His older brother and former team captain, Humphrey Kayange, succinctly expressed his feelings with "This cuts deep."
The demotion coincided with the second anniversary of the passing of former head coach, Benjamin Ayimba. Ayimba, who led Kenya to the Singapore 7s title in 2016 and two Rugby World Cup semifinals in 2009 and 2013, died on May 21, 2021.
Despite the prevailing sense of despair, some remain hopeful that the team will regain Core Status if KRU undertakes a comprehensive overhaul of the team and the sport at large in Kenya.
The focus for Kenya 7s now transitions to the Africa qualifiers for the Paris 2024 Olympics and embarking on a promotion campaign in the second-tier Challenge Series. "You gave it all this weekend Kenya Sevens. Beyond the disappointment, hard work awaits to bounce back stronger," Francis Mutuku, Olympics Kenya general secretary, tweeted in support.
Since their shining moment of winning the Singapore 7s, Shujaa has experienced a precipitous decline due to factors attributed to a lack of sponsorship and persistent management disputes within KRU.
The recent election of Sasha Mutai as Union chair came too late to save Shujaa's Core Status, but the newly appointed local rugby chief faces her first significant challenge.