Simiyu’s quest to change the soul of Kenya Sevens

The national sevens rugby team head coach Innocent Simiyu gets a second bite of the cherry and a chance to right the ship after a torrid first year as the head coach.

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Speaking at the team’s pre-season training session at the RFUEA grounds, Simiyu cut the image of a man at ease with his challenge and one who has the respect of his charges ahead of what will be a tough and long season.

“It was not all doom and gloom last season. We exposed several young players. I was happy with our expansive game. Into the new season it is time for the foundation we laid last season to now flourish.”

Pundits have questioned whether he is his own man or a merely lackey of the Union. Simiyu may not have the large-than-life personalities of Benjamin Ayimba or Mike Friday but in his unassuming, professorial nature there is steel that shines through.

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“Biggest thing I want to do is to improve the Kenyan rugby player. When a player is dropped from Shujaa, he drops in life. If we can improve the player such that they can improve their life for good and also when they stop playing they still contribute to the Kenya sevens eco-system then I shall have achieved something. Player is key. Changing the culture and creating purpose is the way.”

Having covered the team for close to half a decade at close range I was intrigued as to what change in culture meant for the former Impala RFC captain and coach.

“Culture is how Kenya Sevens team behaves, operates and interacts with society. We have to change that. Purpose is who we are and why are we here. If cam get clarity on that then there is sustainability in what we are doing.”

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The national sevens rugby team last season struggled in the World Rugby series blowing hot and cold before finishing 12th with a mere 63 points. Many questioned the ability of Simiyu who despite being a top rugby player in his day had little experience as a coach.

“There will always be doubting Thomases. It is life. For us key is to improve the player, play better, develop the game and off course win. Yes, we understand the expectations of Kenyans who want us to win everything.”

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In his first season coach Simuyu despite a target of 10 points a leg, only led Shujaa to 2 main cup quarterfinals in the 10 legs of the series. He cited a poor pre-season for the team’s dismal run. This season he has had the luxury of starting early and not spend most of the season firefighting. With 12 players in camp ‘Namcos’ asserts that training has been good and that he has had 100 percent attendance.

“Quite excited. Wish we keep the momentum and energy that we have started with. I have a feeling that things will be very good this season.”

Simiyu only had Team Manager Eric Ong’weno in his technical bench for most of the season after Strength and Conditioning coach Ian Gibbons resigned early on. Ahead of the 2017/2018 season Kenya Rugby Union has promoted performance analyst William Webster to assistant coach and rehired Geoffrey Kimani as the strength and conditioning coach.

“It is reliving. I was quite lonely. It is lovely that we have a full set of management. Kim has hit the ground running. He is in familiar grounds and we are happy to have him back. As for Will, he is good in analysis and this relives the pressure on me to focus on tactics.”

Shujaa have a busy season ahead with the World Sevens Series starting in December in Dubai, the Commonwealth Games in Perth Australia in April 2018 and the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Fransisco USA in July 2018. This means a happy, committed and settled squad is key and areas like contracts, health insurance have to be sorted out early.

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“Contracts have been given. The players are to read then sign. The contracts are better and all the benefits are there. It is one of the best packages given. We have improved what we are offering because it is going to be a tough season. The players will tackle 16 tournaments and we require 100 percent commitment so we must compensate them.”

Last season Simiyu fell short of his 10 points per leg goal and this season he has a different outlook in as far as goal-setting.

“As management we shall be player-centric. It is not about us but about the players. Process of goal-setting is bottom up. Players set individual targets, then we set team targets. So they have the developmental forms to fill then we take it from there.”

The national sevens circuit kicked off with the Driftwood leg in Mombasa and will conclude with the Dala Sevens in Kisumu five legs later. The circuit curtain rises for the Safari Sevens which is scheduled to be held in early November while also on paper being a chance for the technical bench to pick new players.

“There is a selection committee of 5 checking out the players in the circuit. We want all the players to show what they have got. We have the core 12 in training then we pick 28 from circuit to make 40 then we whittle down to around 30. Even the 12 have to play a minimum of 2 legs. It is not a surety that they will be in the team, they have to prove themselves. They are on probation.”

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For many coaches it is winning that is the bottom-line but for Simiyu there is seemingly a desire to build a legacy that can withstand the test of time at Kenya Sevens. Given that the team has had five coaches in five years ‘Namcos’ will have to deliver results on the pitch to be given time to build the culture that he envisions.

GOD BLESS KENYA!

(transcribed from an interview with Innocent Simiyu on 5th August at RFUEA grounds)

PS: All images courtesy of Google.

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