Kenya Sevens skipper Andrew Amonde targeting highs after recent team troubles

After leading Kenya to the 2013 Rugby World Cup semi-finals, Amonde discusses his hopes of bowing out at the Tokyo Olympic Games with a medal.
By Evelyn Watta

For Andrew Amonde, captaincy is a double-edged sword.

In his eight years as skipper of the Kenya men's rugby sevens team, including their Olympic debut at Rio 2016, there have been protests over players’ contracts and allowances.

And last year, with senior members of the team absent, the side was almost relegated from the World Rugby Sevens Series.

But he's now looking forward to ending his international sevens career on a high at next year's Tokyo Olympic Games.

"Having a second chance to go to the Olympics is something that we hold highly because we now know what is expected of us, and the kind of work we need to put in to be able to win a medal." - Andrew Amonde to Olympic Channel.

Andrew Amonde lifts the trophy after Kenya's victory in the 2016 Singapore Sevens

Taking up rugby to 'fit in'

Standing 1.90m (6'3") tall, Amonde was more inclined to play basketball.

But growing up in western Kenya, rugby was the most popular sport amongst his peers in the lakeside city of Kisumu.

He began playing the sport to fit in.

Speaking from Kenya's capital Nairobi, Amonde told Olympic Channel, "I just got into rugby after high school because most of my mates in the hood were rugby players. They went for practices and I was left behind alone so I thought, 'Why should I not just follow them to rugby?’"

During one of these ‘rugby hangouts’, he was spotted by a neighbour - a leading winger of a local team - who convinced him to keep playing with the egg-shaped ball.

"The late Andrew Okwaro of Kisumu RFC was the first person to approach me. He told me that with my kind of body and physique I could do very well in rugby." the 36-year-old shared.

"He always believed that I would be a great player after seeing what I was able to do. I came to love the game and kept it in my heart and never diverted my dedication to it."

It was a gamble that paid off as Amonde grew to become one of Kenya’s most trusted forwards, learning to use his strength to his team’s advantage.

Since making his Kenya debut at the 2006 South Africa Sevens, he has soaked up the hard tackles on and off the pitch.

"I have been there for a very long time which I see as a reward that you get when you put in the hard work and make the sacrifices." - Andrew Amonde.

Kenya Sevens: “A struggle”

In recent times, Kenya Sevens' playing unit has been rocked by player protests and boycotts, mainly over claims of unfulfilled pay, salaries, and contracts.

Amonde was one of a handful of senior players who agreed to return to play in 2019 and helped the team fight relegation from the 14 core teams on the World Rugby Sevens Series circuit.

Despite having his loyalty called into question by some of his team-mates, he explained, "I decided to go back and play because as a leader of that team, I knew the repercussions of what would happen.

"We still needed to be on the [World Rugby] series because that is the only place we can say we hold as a high point for our country, and that’s the place we expose most of our young guys who are coming up. We just couldn’t let it go."

Top players including Collins Injera and Oscar Ouma then returned to the setup ahead of the 2019-20 World Series which was curtailed by the Covid pandemic.

But Amonde admits several issues remain which make things harder for the team to compete.

"Kenya Rugby needs to manage better the welfare of players by raising the standards of engagement to reach even just half what is considered international level. If we can get even half of what the other players we play against in the series and tournaments get, we will go far," he said disappointedly.

None of the players train full-time with the Kenya Sevens side nicknamed 'Shujaa', a Swahili world for heroes.

Most have other day jobs. Amonde trained as a television producer.

Amonde added, "When there is a proper guide, medical is covered, the salaries are paid on time, we are going to be good quality players. A player who is at peace with himself can put out 100%."

"It's very tough to explain yourself to players when we have no medical insurance. We are missing some of the key things that we need to prepare well. There is no proper guide for the team. It is just a struggle!"

Kenya's Andrew Amonde tries to escape the attentions of New Zealand's DJ Forbes at the 2012 Dubai Sevens

New coaches mean new systems

That lack of stability is a recurring factor, with no coach holding the job for more than two seasons.

In September, former player Innocent Simiyu took charge of the team again having guided the team in 2016 and 2017.

He replaced New Zealander Paul Feeney who resigned in April, but only after the Kenya Rugby Union had overturned an earlier decision to appoint Dennis Mwanja to the position amid internal political wrangling.

Amonde strongly believes a lack of continuity in coaching staff has hindered their efforts on the field.

He said, "Every time we have a new coach means we are going to play under a new system again."

"Yes, we now have our experienced players back but their level of playing has not reached the level from where they left before they sat out for a whole year. And the pandemic has just made it worse."

Making history

In spite of their issues, Kenya's men remain a match for anyone on their day.

Injera, second on the all-time list for try scorers in the World Rugby Sevens Series with 279, remains a potent threat with ball in hand.

The temporary absence of top names also brought new players into the fold, with Vincent Onyala leading the way with 13 tries in the shortened 2019-20 campaign.

Johnstone Olindi and Daniel Taabu are other young players now featuring alongside the returning talent.

As well as their famed athleticism and speed, the players possess great mental strength to perform in the toughest conditions.

That was shown in the final of the 2016 Singapore Sevens when they beat Olympic champions Fiji 30-7 to secure their first victory on the World Sevens circuit.

"The biggest highlight for me was Singapore in 2016.That is something we hold highly. During that season we were able to beat the top teams because we were a very experienced team."

Kenya have continued to mix it with the very best since then.

At the 2018 USA Sevens in Las Vegas, it was Amonde who scored a last-gasp try to beat Fiji 17-14 in the group stages.

Shujaa went out in the quarter-finals to Argentina before losing to Fiji in the next two finals, in Vancouver and Hong Kong.

Going out on a high

In addition to that historic Singapore success, Amonde has also led Kenya to their second of two World Cup semi-finals (in 2013), and two consecutive Olympic qualifications.

As they eagerly await their return to the Games, the 14-year international veteran admits that he is pained by the inconsistency of arguably Kenya’s most successful sports team.

"I hate losing. It is not something that I take politely, it brings me back. I question a lot of things from where I started, why did I lose and what caused our loss."

Kenya captain Andrew Amonde at the 2019 London Sevens

The Covid pandemic has deeply impacted Kenya’s semi-professional squad.

With some sports still suspended in the East African nation since March, the team's plan for training and high-level competitions ahead of Tokyo remains uncertain, with the World Rugby Sevens Challenger events and the opening four rounds of the 2021 Sevens Series all cancelled.

But Amonde believes the lessons learned from Rio 2016, where Kenya finished 11th out of 12, will stand them in good stead for the challenges ahead.

"It was a big lesson for us, so having a second chance to go to the Olympics is something that we hold highly because we now know what is expected of us at the Olympics and the kind of work we need to put in to be able to win a medal."

With 358 World Sevens appearances so far, behind only Injera's 424 among Kenyans, Amonde is also looking forward to passing the baton on to the next generation of Kenyans.

"I have played for a long time and it is just fair enough to allow others to take this game to another level or take this team even higher than what I have achieved."