From rugby, I’ve learnt to tackle problems fearlessly

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Photo credit: Chris Omollo

What you need to know:

  • Laban honed his rugby skills further at Baringo High School and former East Africa rugby 15s champions Laiser Hill Academy
  • Kipsang received his first call up to the national team immediately after high school, to play in the 2021 Rugby Africa Under-20 Barthes Trophy held in Nairobi where Kenya’s Chipu emerged winners
  • He joined former Kenya Cup champions Kenya Harlequin in June the following year after the Christie Sevens leg of the National Sevens circuit
  • Laban stands six feet and three inches tall, and is fondly referred to by his team mates as Fumo Liyongo – a celebrated hero, warrior and poet from the East African coast who lived between the ninth and 13th centuries, and Maro Itoje – a top England rugby player.
  • He is the men’s U20 team captain

Laban Kipsang’s childhood dream was to be a top footballer, a striker like Harambee Stars captain Michael Olunga or former Arsenal, Manchester United and Inter Milan forward Alexis Sanchez. He loved the work rate and keenness of Alexis and Olunga, and especially their confidence, creativity and prowess when taking free-kicks and penalties. But, his older brother, Reuben Chepkonga, who was also a rugby player, had other ideas for him. He encouraged the fifth-born in a family of seven to immerse himself in rugby.

How did you get into rugby?
Initially I was a football forward (number nine). That was my dream career. I attended football training sessions in Eldoret as my brother went for rugby training, but eventually he convinced me that rugby was a good sport and encouraged me to try it. At the time, I was a football striker at Uasin Gishu Primary School. I didn’t have any interest in rugby. I believed that rugby was a difficult sport where one can easily get injured. But after some time, I decided to try it out. My brother would take me for training sessions with the University of Eldoret’s Trojans when his university was on recess. He taught me the basics like tackling and passing, and gradually, I developed interest.

While in Form Three at Baringo High School, our team reached the Rift Valley regional school games and it was there that I was spotted by Laiser Hill School, who had defeated us 14-0 in the semifinals. The school’s teacher and rugby coach Geoffrey Okisai offered me a full scholarship and I gladly accepted the offer. I studied there and played rugby for the remaining two years of high school. Immediately afterwards, I attended trials for the Kenya U-20 team (Chipu) ahead of the Barthes Trophy tournament 2021. Luckily, I impressed the coaches and was selected. We won the title!

So, you never went to college after secondary school?
I took a certificate course at Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC) and I am a qualified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and paramedic set to graduate in December this year. I am currently unemployed, but I am looking for a job.

Your dream is to play for Kenya Sevens one day. What are you doing to ensure you attain this goal?
As a dedicated Christian, I put God first in everything I do. To achieve this goal, I do strength and conditioning exercises at Alpha Fit gym along Ngong Road every morning. In the evenings, I work on my fitness at Kenya Harlequin Rugby Club. I also watch most of the World Rugby Sevens Series games to learn how different players and teams execute their skills on the field. My ultimate goal is to play for the Kenya Sevens rugby team and I pray to God that one day I'll be on the big screens.

Nicknames can inspire, and you have very interesting ones. Tell us about them…
One of my nicknames is Maro Itoje, which comes from the England Rugby Club’s lock and jumper. My brother Reuben gave it to me. Itoje is good with high balls because of his height. He almost always wins balls from scrums, and is also good at tackling and defending. His displays motivate me to keep working hard to improve my skills. We play the same position and I just love the way he runs into the space, then offloads the ball to his teammates. That is my thing. I also like lineouts because I believe I can use my height well to jump for and win the ball.

What are some of the challenges you have faced?
My family is not well off, so it was quite a while before my mum could afford to buy my first rugby boots, which cost Sh4,000. Even when I was playing football, I used shoes donated to me by a friend, Xavier Okoth. Also, I used to walk all the way to Eldoret Sports Club from our home in Maili Nne to attend training sessions. That was a great challenge. I often arrived there when I was already tired because it is a long distance, which would normally require you to board two matatus to get there. Getting the proper diet was also a challenge yet in rugby, you have to eat well and take your supplements to stay in shape.

Tell us about the highlights and lowlights of your career …
My best moment was during the Kenya Cup match between my team, Quins and Kabras Sugar, last season. I came on as a second-half substitute. We got a lineout and from it, I won the ball from the turnover. It felt good because I didn’t think that I could do that against such a formidable side like Kabras. Winning Barthes Trophy in 2021 was another proud moment for me. My worst moment was in June 2022 when I picked a knee injury during the National rugby sevens circuit just before Driftwood Sevens in Mombasa. I had to stay out for two months. 

Where do you get your inspiration to play rugby?
There aren’t so many people from my community who play rugby. My community is mostly known for athletics. I want to be different. I want to dispel this notion that only people from Luo, Luhya and Kisii communities are good in rugby and show that even Kalenjins can excel in this sport. I also want to show children and upcoming rugby players that with passion and hard work, it is possible to excel despite your background.

Who are your role models?
Apart from Maro Itoje, I adore Kenya Sevens captain Andrew Amonde who plays for KCB Rugby Football Club. He is a forward like me. I like the way how strong and confident he is and how he runs with the ball. He is not easy to bring down.

What life lessons have you learnt from rugby?
I have learnt how to completely block my fears, tackle any problems and to always finish strong in whatever I do. I apply these principles both in rugby and in my daily life.