Recently I had a chat with Michael ‘Tank’ Otieno, rugby coach and former Kenya international. I did not ask him his age but from inference he is on the other side of half a century mark. I had to pass by his house on a Friday morning because he had told me he will be indoors. I found a disappointed man; there was a power blackout and he had blocked off his day to watch some rugby tournament in the comfort of his house. That is the passion and dedication that is still evident in a calm discipline one gets in rugby.
Rugby is a product of a mischievous act of a football player in Rugby School in Warwickshire – England around 1830. William Webb Ellis grabbed the ball and ran with it across the pitch with his teammates in hot pursuit, so rugby was born as a form of football. The Rugby World Cup is called William Webb Ellis Cup in honour of the founder of the game. Football as we know it today also has its roots in public schools in England where it was codified.
The Football Association was formed in England in 1961, which differentiated it from other forms of football like rugby. The rules developed slowly until 1871 when English clubs met to form Rugby Football Union. Rugby Football Unions the world over began to drop the football tag a little over two decades ago.
As the two sports disciplines developed, football became a working class sport while rugby evolved into an elite sport. The International Rugby Board (IRB) was formed in 1889 but soon after working class clubs in England started paying players a stipend for missing work on Saturday which led to the ‘Great Schism’ that led to Northern England clubs forming Rugby Football League and the rest remaining in Rugby Football Union. Their rules of the game and laws governing it differed.
The game was introduced in Kenya by the British and for a long time it was the white man’s game. It then went to the schools attended by their children; Duke of York and Prince of Wales now Lenana School and Nairobi School (I hope I got it right). It spread to other national schools where ‘Tank’ picked it up at Alliance High School before perfecting his art at Kenyatta University’s Blak Blad and Mwamba RFC.
‘Tank’ and a host of other Blak Blad former players formed Damu Pevu, a team of players who went down to upcountry schools to spread rugby. The end result is that schools like Vihiga High School can today produce two players for the National Seven’s Team. He is not slowing down; currently he coaches St. Christopher School and goes to Blak Blad on a part time basis. The local evolution went from the strong British culture in Nondiescripts RFC and Harlequins RFC to local middle class clubs like Impala and Mwamba. Then Nakuru RFC came up and today we have clubs like Kisii RFC, Homa Bay RFC, Western Bulls, Bungoma Sharks and Kabras Sugar RFC.
He played for Alliance High School football team as a form one earning the nick name ‘Tank’ from a Ugandan football player, Stanley ‘Tank’ Mubiru. Gor Mahia also called him for trials but he opted to play Rugby because apparently one could combine it with career and studies unlike football. That formed the basis of my question to him; why rugby players seem successful in life after playing unlike their football counterparts. He was uncomfortable with the word successful, opting to go with ‘comfortable’ instead.
According to ‘Tank’, rugby has a social element that appeals to the youth. After a game of rugby there are social activities which help players grow within the set up. The brotherhood bond among rugby players develops into camaraderie, which is unique to rugby. He says most of his close friends have a link to rugby in some way. This could be the reason why former football players are kept out of top leadership while rugby goes for their own in leadership.
In rugby set up every player is encouraged to take their studies and careers seriously. He acknowledges our part time rugby players cannot consistently match the major rugby nations where players play rugby professionally. On the other hand he attributes the growth of rugby in Kenya to the fact that financially stable players can overcome the challenges of lack of corporate sponsorship and poor management and perform.
Unlike the norm with rugby players, ‘Tank’ does not understand how people drink alcohol through a weekend. He attributes this to rugby which to outsiders looks like a den of alcohol and everything related to it. Football players need to set off on the right footing where they will sacrifice and commit to developing themselves even as they play the game.
“The sports environment in Kenya is harsh.” The good results you see are reaped in an environment without facilities, infrastructure, medical cover, high performance set up and basics like good nutrition. He speaks of how in their days they put the country first and gave their all despite the circumstances. Things have improved slightly, but challenges persist.
Rugby needs a total commitment to full physical and mental fitness. In football one can pass with a few lapses in as much as it is a contact sport, rugby has more contact. This is because if one is not up to it in rugby the risk of life threatening injury is real while in football fracture is the most severe injury one can get. Rugby requires more smarts than football and cricket combined especially where you have to go forward while passing the ball backwards. This might be the reason the social economic gap between the players in rugby and football is wide.
Another factor that puts rugby apart from football is recovery. Humphrey Khayange took time off rugby to pursue further studies in the UK. He had a short period of underperformance but soon recovered to play at the top once more. This is unheard of in local football where if someone slips down the order at the top for a season, recovery is termed as a miracle.
Ever since Dr. JJ Masiga, Dr. William Obwaka and Dan Shikanda left the local football scene, many good football players chose academic and career growth over professional football. This has changed in the recent past as a new crop of players with a combination of football talent and academic prowess are coming up. Michael Olunga, Paul Kiongera, Geoffrey Kataka and Benard Mang’oli are examples of players combining top flight football with university education.
For Kenyan football to grow and achieve what rugby has been able to achieve there has to be changes in and out of the pitch. Leaders must think of how to change the culture that supports the game. This is how players will be able to give back to the game long after they stop playing like ‘Tank’ is doing. Nothing just happens.