Kenya head coach Paul Odera has created a core set of values that he hopes can help the team qualify for a first Rugby World Cup.
Last month, Odera took the first step on the long road that could lead the Simbas to France when he named a bumper 102-man training squad to continue preparations for their opening RWC 2023 qualifiers in July.
COVID restrictions mean that the players will initially meet virtually, but once the squad has been trimmed to a group of 50 and then 30, there are plans to hold a training camp in Stellenbosch, South Africa in June.
2021 Simbas To Kick Off Rugby World Cup Preparations with Virtual Training Sessions https://t.co/wVWSk4jZAt— Kenya Rugby (@OfficialKRU) May 1, 2021
At the heart of Odera’s work is a mission statement, which has been shared with the players, to “transform our country and rugby through leadership and our identity; inspiring pride and love for the people of Kenya”.
The former Kenya U20 coach has also provided the squad with a set of core values — protection, respect, honesty, perseverance, leadership and warrior-ship — he believes can assist the Simbas in their quest to reach France 2023.
“Making the World Cup in France is something much bigger than just rugby for us,” Odera told World Rugby.
“Because to us it's to bring the country together, to bring all the different races together, to bring all the different tribes, ethnic groups together, to bring those disparate social groups together and for the country to start believing in the men.”
He added: “What's driving me is my passion and that passion is what I'm trying to get into the players, into my coaching staff, into the Kenya Rugby Union as an organisation, is that we are transforming this country through the game of rugby and we're going to get success on the field and we're going to get success off the field.”
Avoiding banana skins
The Simbas are scheduled to host Senegal and Zambia in Nairobi in July in Pool B of the second round of African qualification for RWC 2023.
Kenya have won both of their previous test meetings with Senegal, while their only defeat to Zambia came 41 years ago.
However, the Simbas have not played a competitive test since their Victoria Cup win over Zimbabwe in September, 2019, while the country’s domestic competition was suspended in March due to the pandemic.
And, although two of the three teams will progress to the next round, Odera is still worried that a lack of match practice and conditioning could hurt his side.
“They really are banana skins, both teams,” Odera said. “Because a majority of Zambia's team are in the military, so if they're in the barracks, they've probably been training.
“Senegal at times pick heavily from their Francophone players, so players who play in France, second, third division, I don't know if some are in the first division, but they are an unknown quantity and Europe is opening up now.
“And, we are not training, so, yes, usually these would be teams we'd beat comfortably, but I am very concerned that we are going to be undercooked.
“If we are too undercooked, then it evens out the playing field this time.”
Kenya came closer than they ever have done to realising their Rugby World Cup dream three years ago when the team qualified for the repechage tournament in Marseille as Africa 2.
However, it turned into a sobering experience as the Simbas lost each of their three matches in the south of France to Canada, Hong Kong and Germany.
Odera and Kenya know how hard it is to navigate the repechage, and the coach is therefore keen to secure the team’s return to France as Africa 1 — an ambition he thinks is achievable.
Taking heart from the win his Kenya U20 team recorded over Namibia to qualify for the World Rugby U20 Trophy 2019, Odera believes the Simbas can do similar if they improve their success rate in key areas of the game, including the lineout, kicking and tackling.
“When we beat Namibia in the under-20s, we got from 38 per cent [accuracy] to 43/44 per cent,” Odera said.
“That is how talented our athletes are in Kenya, that even with a 44/45 per cent performance accuracy, we're still able to beat a team like Namibia, who are at between 70-75 per cent.
“So, our chances are very good for us to qualify, if we can get these numbers from 38 per cent to 50 per cent.”
What would it mean to Odera to lead the Simbas to France 2023? “For me it would be an achievement beyond words,” he said.
“The biggest achievement would be that the world has a positive view on Kenya and it’s our rugby that's projecting that positive view.”