It has been argued that fifteens rugby in Kenya is suffering because we have concentrated on the sevens version without thinking through the progression to the fifteens code. Are we right to constantly invest so much time and energy into the more viable sevens rugby or should we now regroup and turn our attention to the fifteens?
Seven’s is a variant of the game of rugby in which only seven players play per side as opposed to the full fifteen. While a normal fifteens match lasts at least eighty minutes, normal rugby sevens matches last fourteen minutes, except the final which lasts twenty minutes. This allows sevens rugby tournaments to be completed in a day or a weekend. Scoring occurs with much greater regularity in sevens, since the defenders are more spaced out than in the fifteens. The game thus demands high levels of skill, speed and fitness. Sevens is a game of continuous action; there are fewer rucks, fewer mauls and fewer scrums and this arguably translates to more rugby over a short span of time. Sevens is uniquely suited to hone all basic rugby skills of an individual athlete. It has been argued that sevens is capable of producing a tremendous international competition throughout a far wider range of nations than fifteens.
It is these attributes that make the sevens version of the game popular. One does not really need to understand the intricacies of the sport to enjoy the game. With a major sponsor on board, the sevens version of the game is able to market itself through international appearances. The Safari Sevens also gives the sevens game mileage. The Kenya sevens team are of course the darlings of the local crowd cheering them on at home as they play against a host of teams from around the world. Beyond this, a sevens rugby crowd is akin to a crowd at a concert where most people came because that was the place to be that weekend and not necessarily because of the artists performing. Simply put, majority of the crowd turns out for booze and the carnival atmosphere and not necessary the action of the pitch. Sevens rugby provides a ‘romantic’ environment that people want to be associated with. Still although slowly, the game is attracting a following that appreciates the game and perhaps in this instance selling the game as more than just on the pitch action is a winning formula.
Having said that, the local sevens circuit is not nearly as popular as the Safari Sevens, which brings to question many things including the brand of rugby played. Crowds flock to the Prinsloo and Driftwood sevens tournaments but it has more to do with the change of scenery. Who does not want to spend a weekend at the coast; sun and sand etcetera etcetera? It does not take much effort to go to Nakuru. Crowds for the Christie and Kabeberi Sevens have been the same bunch of people over the years even with a lot more money being infused into the local circuit this year through sponsorship.
In Kenya, fifteens rugby runs throughout the season from the Impala Floodlights tournament to the Kenya Cup and Eric Shirley Shield leagues to the Rugby Super Series and the Chairman’s Cup tournament. Impala Floodlights attracts a huge crowd probably because it is the first tournament in the year after a few months break in the off-season. Rugby enthusiasts therefore flock over in numbers to scratch that rugby itch. Also, the ambience that night time brings with it serves to attract creatures of the night looking for something to do in the cover of darkness.
The Kenya Cup and Eric Shirley leagues hardly draw an audience. There is a handful of die-hard club fans and perhaps some of the players who did not make the team that weekend. There is also a negligible number of people, not aligned to any club who are just out to watch a good game of rugby. Beyond that, rugby clubs in Kenya do not seem to have any programmes in place to attract crowds. They seem to rely on nostalgia of past players to want to watch them play and perhaps drag a few people along with them. One might liken clubs to tribes that do not go out of their way to welcome strangers but rather tolerate them. There is hardly any conscious effort from the clubs to increase their fan bases. (‘A’ for effort for the clubs that have active Face Book profiles). Often, rugby enthusiasts must make the lone effort to align themselves with clubs of their choice.
The Rugby Super Series 15 aside tournament attracts a sizeable crowd. All the clubs are playing at one venue in their various franchises, which means that their fans all congregate in one area. It is also interesting to see how members of franchises gel. Inclusion of Uganda and Tanzania seems set to catapult this tournament into undoubtedly, Africa’s premier fifteen a side tournament. The Rugby Super Series provides five weekends of East Africa’s top players battling to claim supremacy. The guarantee of top-notch rugby attracts rugby enthusiasts.
It appears then that it really has nothing to do with which version of the game is more popular, but rather, what entertainment value that particular fixture offers. Now, the “Virgin Boys” and the funfair that surrounds them, provide a lot of entertainment. The National Fifteens team provides a considerable amount of entertainment especially with their ongoing rivalry against Uganda.
Again, the length of the games means that sevens provides a display of more rugby over a shorter span of time so sevens will likely be more popular for a long time to come, or until the national fifteens team makes it to the Rugby World Cup. Ideally, sevens should be used as a training ground for players to prove themselves before moving on to fifteens; develop an individual skill and then learn to use it so that it complements the skills of the fourteen other people on the pitch. The trick is in transforming these one-man operations into different parts of a team; learning how to share the ball and rely on your teammates. However, the situation in Kenya suggests that making it to the sevens team is the epitome of any players rugby career ambitions; and why not? The sevens team get a lot of media coverage and have a worldwide following not to mention a major sponsor.
The issue that must be addressed by rugby administration is how to market the game in the country. How do we make Kenyan’s appreciate rugby as much or even more than they appreciate football? How do we get to where we do not have to entice people with the promises of lots of alcohol and entertainment to get them to come and watch a game? How do we fill the RFUEA grounds during the National Sevens Circuit, the Supremacy Cup, or the Enterprise Cup?
We must realise that fifteens rugby is a harder game to sell. For the 15’s national team to attract a sponsor there must be seen to be interest in the game at club level, then at a national level. How do we expect to attract a sponsor to a national team if we cannot attract a modest crowd to a league game. Once we discover the formula to selling the game to rugby fans who would rather watch football at home than come to a league game, then we will have discovered the formula to winning over sponsors and giving the “Virgin Boys” a run for their money; literally. The Union and its constituent clubs must work to promote the fifteens game as a viable investment for sponsors and rugby enthusiasts.
Kenya will host the Junior World Rugby Trophy in 2009. This will be the biggest fifteen a side tournament ever held in Kenya. It will be interesting to see how the Union sells this event to Kenyans and what crowds it attracts. Will it be the usual suspects who attend local fifteens fixtures, will it be schools out to watch their school mates on an international stage, or will an entire country rally behind the Kenyan Under 20 team in a show of support for fifteens rugby at whatever level? This could very likely be the launching pad that fifteens rugby has been waiting for. An international tournament like this one is bound to catch the eye of corporate bodies looking to use sports for marketing purposes. Can this interest be diverted to the local fifteens rugby scene?