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From Eastlands with excellence, how Muhuri Muchiri conquered the region

Winston Churchill in his many quotes once described rugby as a hooligans game played by gentlemen while many described football as a gentleman’s game played by hooligans.

That adage can be used to describe Nairobi’s East and West as far as the two sports go given Eastlands is the home to the bulk of talent in the beautiful game while the west is known for its prowess with the oval ball.

However, one school deep in Nairobi’s Eastlands is changing that. Mention rugby among Nairobi schools and what comes to mind is St Mary’s, Lenana School, Nairobi School and lately Laiser Hill, all institutions that are not found in Eastlands.

But check the records on who won the 2017 East Africa Secondary School Games sevens rugby title and none of these so-called elite schools feature anywhere, not even Western Kenya giants Maseno School or Kakamega High School.

This enviable title is in the custody of little-known Muhuri Muchiri. Based in Ruai in the outskirts of Nairobi, Muhuri Muchiri pulled a “Leicester City” and shocked everyone as they stormed to the regional sevens rugby title in Gulu, northern Uganda at the expense of some of East Africa’s big names.

HOW IT STARTED

But unlike Leicester who popped up from nowhere to claim the English Premier League title two years ago before disappearing into obscurity, Muchiri’s march to regional supremacy are the fruits of meticulous planning, hard work and dedication from one man Kikechi Kombo.

Posted to the school by his employer the Teachers Service Commission, the Kenyatta University (KU) alumnus saw an opportunity beyond teaching. A rugby lover, Kombo who had been an active member of KU’s Blak Blad, did not just want to sit on his talent now that he was unable to play professionally. He instead ventured into coaching.

“I joined the school in 2010 and immediately undertook the task of building a rugby team. It was very difficult for me at first since this is largely a football-dominated area and rugby was a foreign concept for them. However, when the students realised that I have the passion, they started creating more interest,” says Kombo.

Starting off with slightly mature students in Forms three and four, Kombo realised he wasn’t headed for greatness with a squad which was full of indiscipline cases. He chose to build from the bottom.

“You cannot play rugby when you are indisciplined. I dropped the team and brought in young players in 2012 with a vision of creating a strong team in two years’ time. My plan worked,” he added. However, it was not instant success as the team lost most of their matches in 2012 and 2013 before Kombo’s efforts started paying off in 2014.

That year, they reached the Nairobi region semi-finals and the following year, the players had matured enough to match their much illustrious opponents in the city as they qualified for the nationals where they finished third.

BREAKTHROUGH YEAR

“Our physicality came under real test during our first national games and we had to work on that. After the first group left, 2016 was a bad year as we lost in the quarter-finals at regional level to Nairobi School and I swore to come back stronger in 2017,” he said.

And true to his word, 2017 turned out to be better than they had even expected. Kombo guided his side to the nationals for the first time where he won all his pool matches but lost to Chavakali High School in the semis, again blaming endurance for the loss.

Luckily for the coach, St Peter’s Mumias had won the East Africa title in 2016 and they were guaranteed a slot in the regional showpiece by virtue of being defending champions. That meant Kenya got an extra slot which went to the third-placed team in this case Muchiri.

They had beaten Bungoma 21-15 to finish third and they got the rare opportunity to travel to Gulu alongside national champions Menengai Day Mixed Secondary School of Nakuru and second-placed Chavakali. Muchiri were just meant to make the numbers but what followed stunned everyone.

They announced their title intentions early, beating Menengai 24-20 and despite losing to Chavakali for the second time, they qualified for the finals after winning 19-10 against Uganda champions Kololo.

Unbeknown to many, Kombo had been working on how to improve his sides’ weaknesses the moment they landed the lucky slot. “Endurance and physic had been my biggest undoing and I knew I had to work on that, which I did. Riding on experience gained in 2015 and 2017 nationals I was ready to conquer East Africa,” he says.

ACCOLADES KEEP COMING

They had got their chance and were ready to take full advantage of it. “Facing home team Jinja in the finals put my players and I under immense pressure. The Sports Ministry wanted a gold medal and we had to deliver.

I had to change our game plan and went for attack instead of defence after Jinja equalised. My boys did well in the match and we eventually won 14-7 with two tries in either half,” remembers Kombo. Since then, the accolades have been coming and Muchiri were crowned the best school in last month’s 2017 Sports Personality of The Year Awards (SOYA) with Kombo feted with the School Coach of The Year gong at the same gala.

With the enhanced reputation, the Embakasi Ranching Company-sponsored school knows staying at the top will not be easy since the giants they rolled over last year are preparing for revenge in 2018. However, Kombo is unfazed and instead of worrying about a title defence, he is focused on nurturing more talent which will go on to feature in the local league Kenya Cup besides playing for national teams in the future.

“The journey has been very challenging but we are happy that some of our players are transitioning to playing the sport professionally. I still believe in having young players as the pillar of my team so that they can grow in the game and also mentor the new ones who join the team. Currently, I have over 150 students playing rugby,” said Kombo.

Already, two players, Bonface Waga a prop and Victor Ayiro a centre, have been earmarked to join the national Under 20 team Chipu. The school is also well represented in the Kenya Rugby Union Nationwide League with Community Rugby Association (Comras) housing eight of their alumni.

Kenya cup teams Nondies and Homeboyz have two of their graduates in their reserve teams too. “If a player leaves and I cannot sustain the team’s performance then as a coach I am failing. We have played in the Lenana and Thika Open this year and still won the trophies so I believe the players who have taken their places are up to the task,” he added.

Since he deals with students, Kombo has also been keen to stress the need of taking their studies seriously and ensures they balance their school work and sports well. “Life is not about rugby and one has to have a fall-back plan.

That plan has to be excelling in school. The school has a mean score of 6.1 and I follow the players’ progress in class and if one cannot balance the two, I drop them from the team,” stressed Kombo.

All that would not have been possible without the support of school principal Kimathi Mwongera who joined the four-stream county school in 2011, 13 years after it was started when Embakasi Ranching Company donated land for its construction.

Formerly at Igembe Boys in Meru and Peter Kibukosia secondary in Umoja Estate in Nairobi, Mwongera embraced coach Kombo’s vision for rugby and sports in the school and has walked with him ever since.

“We have invested heavily in the sport. Be it buying uniform, paying for their participation in different tournaments as well as providing a special diet for the rugby players since they require more energy especially when they are competing,” said Mwongera.

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