By Maik Kwambo
Now that the curtains have fallen on the season opening Impala Floodlit tournament, attention shifts to the 2010 Kenya Cup league season. It's time for that annual visit to the crystal ball.
It is important to note that between 2005 and 2009, the Kenya Cup has been played on a home and away basis, with the team that gathers the most points at the end of it all being declared the winner.
This year's Kenya Cup reverts to its pre-2005 format with all teams facing each other once, no return legs. In the words of Resolution Impala RFC head coach Bill Githinji, "this year's league will be short and sharp. The teams that snooze will lose. "
The semi final equation:
This year, all eight participating teams have a very realistic chance of making it to the knock out stage of the league.
Defending champions Resolution Impala RFC head a group of three sides that should make it to the semi finals at the close of business on Saturday 27th March 2010. The other two sides that should make it through to the semis are Kenya Commercial Bank RFC and Kenya Harlequin FC.
Why these three?
Resolution Impala RFC
They are the defending league champions, that is reason enough for them to qualify for the 2010 Kenya Cup semis. However, it is not the only reason. The Gazelles have beefed up their squad, acquiring combative forwards Dennis Abenga, Lawrence Buyachi and Lawrence Terer as well as centre Kelvin Omiyo all from Nakuru RFC.
Their 2009 Kenya Cup winning squad remains largely intact and the new signings, having had adequate time to gel thanks to the 2009 Supremacy Cup as well as the 2010 Impala Floodies, are expected to add punch to the Impala game. Centre Kevin Gisore, recently called up to Michael "Tank"Otieno's Kenya fifteens squad has been playing good ball and if he remains consistent, will be key in Impala's quest to retain their league title.
The side was able to grind out victories in two difficult games against seasoned opponents in Mean Machine and KCB at the Floodies and will be expected to do more of the same over seven grueling and competitive pre-semi final weekends. I expect to see them in the semi finals.
Kenya Commercial Bank RFC
The Lions missed out on the 2009 Kenya Cup title, finishing second overall on 49 points, a point behind winners Impala RFC. They are going through a transition of sorts, part of the squad that won three successive league titles between 2005 and 2007 no longer feature for the side. However, the Lions still remain a force to reckon with.
The fresh faces are eager to create their own history by claiming the league title. Ken Isindu and Curtis Lilako, who played for Kenya's under 20s at the 2009 IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy in Nairobi as well as former Kakamega High School captain Fabian Olando, have broken into the KCB first team squad. Bryan Omondi, Benja Ojema, Phil Wamae and Ronnie Mwenesi have risen through the ranks at KCB too. These guys definitely want winners' medals. Their hunger, coupled with the experience of veterans Anthony Ochino, Edwin Alubaka, Franklin "Stooge" Amiani, Peter Mutai, Anthony Ogot and company makes the Lions contenders for a semi final berth.
They acquitted themselves well during the Floodies, giving as good as they got during that 13-17 defeat to Impala in the title match. Head Coach Michael "Tank" Otieno looked at the positives from that result and will be upbeat ahead of the 2010 league campaign. Kenya Sevens stalwart Dennis Mwanja is currently playing some great fifteens rugby, living up to his "Ironman "nickname. He was voted Most Valuable Player at the Floodies…can he carry this form into the Kenya Cup?
If he does…he will have brought that cutting edge to the traditionally dominant KCB forwards who were key in securing those three successive league titles.
I expect KCB to make the semi finals because there is a semblance of stability prevailing at the Lion's Den in 2010. The upheavals of 2009 that saw changes in the technical bench are long gone. They also have the pedigree, having been in the Kenya Cup top three since 2002. This year should be no exception.
Kenya Harlequin FC
Having ended a five year wait for the title with that Kenya Cup victory in 2008, Quins would finish third at the end of the 2009 campaign. They would make up for their Kenya Cup disappointment by winning the grand old prize of Kenyan rugby, the Enterprise Cup.
Along with Impala and KCB, Quins have consistently been among the top three sides in the league for a long period of time. This means that they have the pedigree; they know what it takes to stay at the top.
Quins did not take part in the season opening Floodies but they kept themselves busy, playing friendly matches against Strathmore Leos and Mwamba RFC. Word on the street is that Quins will have a rough time as their preferred front row is unavailable. James and Joseph Kang'ethe are in Australia while Daniel Kiptoo is currently in Scotland.
However, the game is not about individuals…it is a team sport. Head coach Edward "Ogre" Kinyany should be able to make up for these alleged deficiencies. Dennis Muhanji, William Ambaka and Patrice Agunda are just some of the young guns that Kinyany' and his technical bench have blooded into the Quins first team set up. These young guns had a great season in 2009… Muhanji and Ambaka earning call ups to the 2010 Kenya fifteens squad. Quins have the personnel…the likes of George Odipo, Peter Abuoga, Vincent Ongera, Joel Ng'ang'a,Leon Adongo to name but a few are still very much around. They have the big game mentality; they have experience and a very technically astute coach in Kinyany. With all this in their arsenal, they should be in the semi finals.
Who will be the fourth semi finalist?
From five we choose one…who?
Any one of the remaining five teams can claim that fourth Kenya Cup semi final slot. That is how tight things appear…at least for now.
Will it be Nakuru RFC?
Fourth place in the 2009 Kenya Cup was not a bad result for the Wanyore who led the league at some point. They may have lost four key players in the close season but have this knack for churning out new, exciting talent as witnessed during the 2009 National Sevens Circuit when the likes of Calvin Otieno and Oscar Ouma stepped up to the plate. Can they transfer their magic to the fifteens game?
A fit again Danny Glover and Simon Wariuki as well as Graham Kombo, Oscar Ouma and Nick Lang'o will be obligated to stand up and be counted for Nakuru. Their leadership, talent and experience will be needed. Gibson Weru should also make a difference for Nakuru when he returns from national duty with the Kenya Sevens.
Nakuru RFC finished fourth overall at the just concluded Floodies and with the benefit of playing three competitive matches at this tournament, they have a clear idea of what to expect when the league kicks off on Saturday.
They play four of their seven fixtures at the Nakuru Athletic Club which is their home base.This could work to their advantage as the Wanyore have been a tough nut to crack when playing in front of their very vocal home fans. If they capitalize on their home ground advantage and garner as many points as they can, they could still be playing Kenya Cup rugby after March 27th.
Maybe Mwamba RFC?
Kulabu finished fifth last term. Despite a lukewarm display at the Floodlits where they capitulated under the weight of a 42-3 score line from KCB, don't put it past them nicking a semi final berth. Remember, seven games are the determinant factor.
With the 2010 Kenya Cup essentially a knock out tournament, Mwamba will be in familiar territory. They have had a good run in the Enterprise Cup and Impala Floodies in recent years, losing that 2008 Enterprise Cup final to Nakuru while claiming the 2008 Floodies title, both knock out tournaments. Knowing that every game literally counts, the black shirts will come out guns blazing. With a whole load of self belief and the return of their Kenya Sevens contingent, Mwamba can make it to the semi finals.
Nondescripts RUFC perhaps?
Multiple champions Nondies last won the Kenya Cup in 1997. Since then their performances plunged to new lows. 2009 was a good season for the Red Lion, sixth place notwithstanding. They hit a rich vein of form during the Kenya Cup second leg, running the current top order close, and registering a first ever win at the Lion's Den when they beat KCB 13-5.
They have retained the squad that did duty in 2009. Old hands in the team, Alan Hicks, Charles Kanyi, Hila Itela and Bobby Oyugi played good ball as did their young players. Paul Odera no longer sits on the Nondies technical bench, having left due to pressing personal commitments. His replacement, a man with great exposure to the game, having played for the Northampton Saints in England will be tasked with getting Nondies to the semis. With self belief and good organization, they could be amongst the final four on Saturday 10th April.
Mean Machine RFC?
Their great battles for Kenya Cup and Enterprise Cup supremacy with Nondies in the late 1980's and early 1990's elicit fond memories. The varsity side has lately been restricted to mid table positions. Finishing seventh in 2009 is something Eschuma Absolut will be keen to avoid. Their last piece of silverware was the 2006 Floodies title. All that aside, they come into the 2010 Kenya Cup knowing they can at least make it to the semi finals. They bowed out of the Floodlits, going down 21-27 to Impala in a dramatic semi final clash.
Fidel Sinei, Wilson K'Opondo, Ian Were, Felix Wanjala and co will have to be on top of their game over the next seven weekends if Machine intend to be amongst the final four. Anything is possible. A semi final berth is possible.
Or Strathmore Leos?
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the Leos Kenya Cup debut in 2008 when they were on the receiving end of a 67-7 thumping from KCB. The side has grown in confidence and technique, registering a few upset results along the way. Despite finishing eighth in the 2009 Kenya Cup, Mitch Ocholla's charges have also become very competitive, bagging the 2009 National Sevens Circuit overall title.
Can the Leos' translate their sevens success onto the fifteens arena? It would be interesting to see how they take on the 2010 Kenya Cup season.
Speaking ahead of the season, Ocholla said he is keen to shore up the gray areas that were a cause for concern in previous seasons, particularly the side's defense.
They have witnessed minimal player turnover since joining the top league in 2008. This means that the squad is growing together. Kenny Andola and Felix Ayange have earned call ups to the Kenya fifteens squad. It is time for them to show what they are really made of.
This hunger, this determination, fused together with the youthfulness of the squad makes Strathmore Leos a potential candidate for the semi finals.
With this equation..3+5=4...It looks like it will be an interesting Kenya Cup season.