The rise of Upper Eastern as a rugby force
- Flashback to April 10, 2018 when the Kenya Secondary School games kicked off in Kangaru Boy’s High School in Embu County
- A game between St. Mary’s Yala versus Alliance Boy’s from Central Kenya had just come to a close and the lake side boys had whipped Alliance boy’s 17-5 in the opening game of the National secondary school games in rugby 15s
Flashback to April 10, 2018 when the Kenya Secondary School games kicked off at Kangaru Boys High School in Embu County.
A game between St. Mary’s Yala versus Alliance Boy’s from Central Kenya had just come to a close and the lake side boys had whipped Alliance boy’s 17-5 in the opening game of the National secondary school games in rugby 15s.
However not much was being discussed about the just concluded match. A few meters away from where St. Mary’s Yala were celebrating, seasoned secondary school rugby heavyweights Kakamega Boys High School were huddled together, deep in conversation about their opening game.
In the past years, this discussion could have been light-heartened with a few grins here and there. But this was a different one.
The then Western Bulls, as they are fondly known, coach Amos Wamanga was leaving no stone unturned before this clash, not because he wanted a fast start to the competition, but because of the opponents he was about to lead his charges against, the Miathene Boy’s High School from Meru county in the Upper Eastern region.
The rugby minnows had arrived at the biggest stage of secondary school games for the first time, but how they had gotten there was the reason no one was taking them for granted.
They had downed renowned rugby kings in Meru School and Kangaru Boys High school- who both have previously reached the East Africa School Games severally- on their way to this level.
Miathene Boy’s otherwise known as ‘Matosa” were in bullish mood, ready to slay the giant and announce themselves to the grandest of stages of amateur rugby in Kenya.
When all the pre-match anticipation was settled and the teams ready to lock horns, it was Miathene who looked more comfortable from the early exchanges, claiming a 7-0 lead early on in the first half. However Kakamega’s experience at this level helped settle the early jitters and run out winners but not without a hint that indeed they had faced a formidable side.
But far from the few who witnessed the diminutive boys from the Miraa growing Meru take on giants at that level fearlessly, was a bunch of former rugby players trying to chart a route to the league of elites as far as rugby is concerned.
Meet Martin Mugambi Kirimi, former Homeboyz hooker in his heyday and now the current Meru RFC chairman. I meet him supervising training at the Kaaga Methodist grounds in the outskirts of Meru town, and he starts by telling me how the idea of reviving rugby in the region was more less a pipe dream when he and others started the journey back in 2016.
He had just moved back to his homeland due to job obligations and he felt lonely in the evenings and on weekends, having been used to the burst of training at Homeboyz.
It’s then that he teamed up with other former players to start training youths in the region about rugby. His small team of coaches would comprise of one Patrick Mwika; former Mwamba RFC and Impala Lock, Kelvin Kirimi; former Thika RFC Lock and Dennis Mokaya; former Mwamba and Daystar RFC flyer who was by then the Meru School head coach.
Mwika was already beginning his own project at Miathene Boys that coincided with Martin’s vision to revive rugby in the region, and Mokaya was also doing well at Meru School in search of his own replacement to speed down the flanks just as he used to in his days at Mwamba RFC.
“We started Meru RFC in 2016, and we developed a small team comprising of young talents from local high schools just to help nurture them. However the team grew very fast because of the local universities and colleges and we registered the team with the Kenya Rugby Union.
“In 2017 we joined the nationwide league and finished 5th which was really a good performance,” Mugambi explains.
During this time, Mugambi tells me they developed age-based trainings for various schools, and this was helped by the fact that his fellow peers were already training some schools in the region. Patrick Mwika was at Miathene Boy’s while Kelvin Kirimi was in the coaching set up of Igembe Boy’s high school.
Two years later, in 2018 their labor started to bear fruits. First up was Miathene Boys conquering seasoned rugby giants Meru School, and qualifying for the Upper Eastern region games.
While some of the rugby enthusiasts in the area thought it was by sheer luck that Matosa had made it to the regionals, their relentless performance at that level and subsequent downing of Kangaru Boys’ High School to qualify for the 2018 National school games for the first time drove the message home that times were changing.
Miathene head coach Patrick Mwika describes their journey to the nationals.
“2018 was a phenomenal year for us. We grew from mere challengers to serious national contenders. People took note of the progress the region was making, and even this year, they are now taking us more seriously than before.” He says with a grin on his face.
Later in the same year (2018), Igembe Boy’s would follow in Miathene’s footsteps and make their maiden qualification to the elite level of secondary school competitions.
Surely there was more to this change than just luck.
“The fact that former rugby players who hail from this region and played in the highest level came back to help these schools made the difference. It was easier for the boys to identify with local lads and believe it was possible to challenge the best,” reiterates Mugambi.
By this time the training is over and I am joined by a sweaty Kelvin Kirimi otherwise known as “Kevo Muscle” because of his huge muscular frame. I am curious to know how he juggles between playing for Meru RFC and coaching Igembe Boys.
“This is my passion, I still love the game and play a few times, but there are younger guys now hungry for play time. This also helps me to teach dedication to my students,” he says.
In this year’s KRU nationwide competitions, Meru RFC made it to the quarter finals where they were eliminated by Chuka University albeit under dubious circumstances but they say their mood isn’t dampened at all. Today’s training is part of their preparation for the Easter 10-aside competitions that will be held in Nakuru.
There are myriad of challenges however that they feel if addressed would grow the sport to even greater heights.
“Lack of sponsors is a major challenge for us. If only we had people to take care of all other logistics and then we only have to worry about the game part, we would get even better.” Mwika says.
The gentlemen here tell me of how the county government of Meru has come in handy to help them in transport logistics.
“The county government has really tried their best to help us whenever we call on them. But it’s just not enough, and we invite other corporate companies to partner with us as they will also help them in return.” Mwika, Mugambi and Kirimi note.
The growth of this beautiful game in the region has not only benefitted the area, but has spilled over to the neighbouring county of Embu, where Benson Mwenda who hails from Meru is slowly reviving the rugby giants. This year, they made it back to the elite level of national school games, and Mwenda says they will settle for nothing less than a spot in this year’s East African Region games.
Just as they say Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Upper Eastern region is slowly reviving its lost glory in rugby, and ready to take on the dominant Nyanza and Western regions.
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