While not one to blow his trumpet – he’s more of a trombone lover in any case – Kenya U20 head coach Paul Odera has enjoyed a rich and varied rugby career in his own right as a player, competing for and captaining his country at schoolboy and under-23 level in 15s and on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
But he insists nothing compares to the moment when the Chipu, as Kenya’s U20 side is popularly known, qualified for the World Rugby U20 Trophy with a 21-18 victory over Namibia in Nairobi in April.
“This is the first time we have qualified for the Trophy because the last we played in it (2009) we were hosts. It was a big deal for us because we’d never beaten Namibia at this level, and also with a lot of the challenges we faced (financially and geographically)," he said.
Odera freely admits that his emotions got the better of him when, with the scores tied at 18-18 and with 77 minutes on the clock, man-of-the-match Andrew Matoka stepped up and slotted the match-winning penalty through the posts.
“Nothing that I have achieved as a player can come close to matching that feeling when we won. I was screaming. The adrenaline rush was like nothing else, it was unbelievable,” he told World Rugby, joyously recalling the occasion.
“Typical teenager, he (Matoka) misses from 30 metres and then steps up and knocks one over from 40 metres!”
Odera is in his second spell as head coach of Kenya’s most senior age-grade side, having stepped down in 2006 before being re-appointed in 2015. And the 43-year-old feels there has been steady progress ever since.
“When I took over this side in 2015, Zimbabwe beat us 25-17 in Harare and that year Zimbabwe hosted the World Rugby U20 Trophy. It was clear we were quite far away from where we needed to be, so I said, ‘let’s go back and improve.’
“Credit needs to go to the Kenya Rugby Union because they have allowed me to stay in the position for four years and that’s given us continuity.
“In 2016 Zimbabwe beat us by one point and then, in 2017, we beat Zimbabwe and got into the (Rugby Africa U20) final where we met Namibia who beat us 66-24. We were given a sound hiding.
“But we went back to the drawing board again, to look at what we needed to do, and last year they beat us 37-18 in Windhoek, but we were leading 12-10 at half-time.
“We had closed the gap, but we were still wondering if we’d actually closed the gap enough.
“This year we were at home and Kenya at home are a very different team. I know that’s the case with most teams but playing here, in Nairobi, at altitude, on ground that is quite unforgiving, it is quite hard for visiting teams.”
When top seeds and defending champions Namibia led 13-man Kenya 18-13, it looked like the game was up but this Chipu side, Odera says, never knows when it is beaten.
“If there’s one thing these young men aren’t short of, it is confidence. Mentally they are very strong. They don’t have a go at each other, even when someone tries something and it goes horribly wrong, it doesn’t dampen the spirit of the team.
“We’d done our homework on Namibia. They hadn’t changed how they played so it was up to us to change our approach and, for me, the biggest thing was how we managed to massively reduce the number of missed tackles.”
High in confidence
By his own admission, Kenya will arrive in São José dos Campos “under-cooked” after a planned 10-day training camp with the Blue Bulls in South Africa fell through.
Uruguay, Japan and Brazil makes for a difficult pool draw, too, but the former openside says his young charges will travel with hope in their hearts, not fear.
“Being underdogs is a good tag to have because, at the end of the day, what have we got to lose?
“The win over Namibia was significant because they’ve finished fourth in the Trophy for the last two years, so beating them this year has given us the confidence to think that maybe we’re not that far off the other teams.
“Whether that confidence will be dented after the first 10 minutes of the first game, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Kenya defeated the USA and the Cayman Islands and had two narrow losses against Namibia and Chile in their only previous U20 Trophy campaign, on home soil in 2009, to finish fourth.
Anything close to a repeat of that performance and the trip to South America will be deemed a major success. Results, however, are not the be-all and end-all for Odera.
“They could lose every game at the Trophy, that is not a problem, that is not my concern, my concern is making sure by the time we leave Brazil people respect us for the brand of rugby we play.”
Stars in the making
One of the legacies of the 2009 campaign was the emergence of stars like former Kenya sevens captain Oscar Ouma. And Odera predicts that an equally bright future beckons for his U20 Trophy squad.
“We’ve got a prop called Andrew Siminyu, who is in the Sharks Academy in South Africa, he is a big boy, quick and strong. Scrum-half Samuel Asati reminds me of George Gregan in that he is very nuggety and can tackle anything up to 150kg. At centre, there's Michele Brighetti, who’s just finished at Sedbergh (School) and John Okoth, a very quiet fellow who has come a long way and is still growing; there is a nice balance about him. Jeff Mutuku has been with us for three years now, he joined us quite young. He is heading to the United States and has got the quickest feet I have seen of a full-back/winger in a very long time.
“If they go there (to Brazil) and play well and there are people watching, who knows where the game of rugby may take them.”
In the meantime, with Odera and his trombone in tow, they’ll be marching on together.
"I am really looking forward to the tour with these young men who have the world in front of them. One of the best things about going to a place you’ve never been to before is discovering new things. I’ll be trying to find a local amateur orchestra because I play the trombone, but I’m told there are 12 million people in Sao Paulo so getting hold of the right people might be a problem!”
Photos: KRU / Arigi Obiero