What you need to know:
- MMUST then caused one of the major upsets when they stunned three-time former champions Mean Machine 21-12 in the semi-finals in Kakamega on February 13 to qualify for the Kenya Cup for the first time ever. Machine had dismissed Egerton Wasps 37-0 in the playoffs.
- The Leos stopped Northern Suburbs 23-6 in the other semi-final to roar back to Kenya Cup.
Playing in their first ever Kenya Cup, they direly needed a victory to get the confidence they needed on the big stage. And then the big day came in the fourth round of the league last Saturday.
Putting behind previous losses to former champions Kabras Sugar Rugby (56-0) and Nakuru Rugby Club (23-10), Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST) claimed a big scalp.
It’s the 1983 Kenya Cup champions, Mwamba Rugby Football Club, who felt the wrath of the hungry science students.
Achieng Ahaya’s charges squeezed a vital 12-6 victory against the black shirts, fondly known as “Kulabu”, at the KCB Ruaraka Sports Club.
Back Kevin Abuga put MMUST ahead with a try but Mwamba replied with a penalty through fullback Brian Kivasia.
Then left wing Lameck Ambetsa went for another touchdown for MMUST before right wing John Bebati added the extras for the university students to stretch their lead 12-3 at the break.
Both sides failed to penetrate across each other’s try line in the second half with Mwamba only managing a penalty through Charles Kuka.
However, all was in vain as the students held on for the famous victory to hand Mwamba their second defeat this season.
“We needed something to cushion us by virtue of being new in the league,” said Ahaya, who has managed to transform the club over the years to join the big boys club.
“It was a difficult game and we are lucky to have won but it's a victory we had yearned for,” explains Ahaya.
“Interestingly, we played well in the second half in which we failed to score, missing out on two great opportunities.
Ayaha hastens to add that they are fast learning their lessons in the Kenya Cup, a tournament which is, clearly, not easy.
“Even with the win, it has never been easy at any stage anyway,” says Ahaya, adding that the biggest lesson so far is that they need to develop a formidable mental strength as they go forward.
“In some way, I also think that the boys have demonstrated that it is just a matter of time and they will claim another big scalp,” notes Ahaya.
One would say it’s not by chance that MMUST made it to the Kenya Cup, with the club having given birth to Western Bulls and Kabras Sugar that went on to feature at the country’s top flight league.
In fact, it’s Kabras Sugar that made history as the second club outside Nairobi, after Nakuru RFC, to have won the Kenya Cup, lifting the title in 2016.
In 2012, MMUST merged with Kakamega Rugby Club to form Western Bulls with the advice of then Kenya Rugby Union chairman Mwangi Muthee.
Despite producing top rugby players, Western region had then not produced any Kenya Cup rugby league side.
From the days of legendary Jackson Omaido, Peter Akatsa, Joe Masiga to the later days Humphrey Kayange, Collins Injera, Paul "Pau" Murunga, Bill Odongo, Oscar Ayodi, Brian Nyikuli... the list is long.
The merger of Kakamega Rugby that was formed in 2000 and MMUST, who came into existence in 2005, was in pursuit of producing a strong team that would represent Western Kenya in the Kenya Cup.
Well, Ahaya was fast to embrace the idea that worked well as Western Bulls finished second in Eric Shirley Shield to earn promotion to the Kenya Cup for the 2012/2013 season.
Western Bulls took them with some of MMUST’s key players like Davis Chenge, who went on to captain Kenya “Simbas” 15s side and their captain Bram Shikanda.
“Actually, almost 100 percent of Western Bulls players came from MMUST but we realised all wasn’t working well at Bulls and we decided to go back to MMUST where we enjoyed playing rugby more.
“We started almost from scratch with young players,” says Ahaya adding that they started to play at the Inter Varsity Championships.
MMUST had barely settled before Ahaya’s friend Ray Olendo approached him in 2014 with a view to supporting newly formed Kabras Sugar Rugby Club.
“I couldn’t resist because I saw good opportunities for my students at the Western Kenya Sugar factory and beyond,” explains Ahaya.
Kabras Rugby played in the Nationwide League in 2014 and won the title unbeaten to gain promotion to the 2015 Kenya Cup before clinching the title a year later.
Again, Ahaya thought it wise to regroup after disentangling from Kabras Sugar.
“We kept working hard to reach the Nationwide League quarter-finals in 2015/2016, and that is when varsity’s management started to develop full interest in us with Ahaya carrying the weight of the team,” notes MMUST deputy John “Papa” Asila.
Then MMUST won the Nationwide League to qualify for the 2018/2019 KRU Championship and as they faced the challenges of players moving out.
“We kept on recruiting since the Championship was a new thing to us. However, what made the difference is that the university management was supportive than ever before,” says Asila, who described the 2018/2019 KRU Championship as “interesting” as they finished fifth.
“The event proved tough with injuries taking toll on us,” said Asila adding that they came back fresh for the 2019/2020 season with defined targets.
Having helped Western Bulls and Kabras Sugar reach Kenya Cup, Asila says that it was the right time to realise their dream of reaching playing at the top flight league.
“Our head coach Ahaya believed that we were now ripe to dine with Kings at Kenya Cup after having washed our hands clean right from Nationwide and the Championship leagues,” says Asila, noting that they had attained the experience they needed, having also recruited key players from Kabras Sugar, Kevin Onyango, Timothy Mmasi and John Bahati.
The 2019/2020 season will remain memorable for MMUST after they finished second in their pool behind Strathmore Leos to reach the semi-finals. They only lost to Strathmore Leos.
MMUST then caused one of the major upsets when they stunned three-time former champions Mean Machine 21-12 in the semi-finals in Kakamega on February 13 to qualify for the Kenya Cup for the first time ever. Machine had dismissed Egerton Wasps 37-0 in the playoffs.
The Leos stopped Northern Suburbs 23-6 in the other semi-final to roar back to Kenya Cup.
“Without bragging, I always tell my boys to think as they play. Rugby is about contests and the players ought to know their weak and strong points. Ours was fairly a good journey to the Kenya Cup,” says Ahaya as Asila explains that they were more focused and knew what they wanted.
“The players knew that they were ripe and mature for the Kenya Cup,” adds Asila.
Ahaya hastens to add that there is something good that the university under acting Vice Chancellor Solomon Shibairo has been doing, a gesture that helped catapult them into the Kenya Cup.
The close to 20 players are either on full or half scholarship at the institution goes without saying.
“We have talent scholarships given to students who have talent yet they are needy in terms of school fees. We have 15 of them who enjoy full scholarships,” says Shibairo, adding that they provide transport, accommodation, playing kit and equipment, among other things, to the stars.
Shibairo intimates that they are in talks with the university’s council with a view of increasing the allocation meant for sport because they want rugby to be a flagship sport programme.
“This varsity should be known in Kenya and Africa for its rugby. We won’t say it by mouth, but by action,” says Shibairo, who congratulated Ahaya and his charges for their outstanding performance.
“These are highly motivated players, they are just tough men, who work very hard,” states Shibairo, adding that they will not want to dwell about how rich or good their opponents are.
“My players are made of flesh and blood just like them,” says Shibairo, explaining that it’s a matter of motivating them and that they shall conquer their opponents even before meeting them.
Shibairo says he shall support his team with the necessary equipment and technical assistance for them to prevail in the Kenya Cup.
Ahaya says that with the delays and uncertainty occasioned by Covid-19 pandemic, they didn’t have a budget for Kenya Cup hence the varsity management’s support is welcomed.
Asila notes that with no promotion and relegations this year, his players have an opportunity to get exposed to high level of rugby and under the keen eyes of the national 15s and sevens selectors.
However, Asila pleads with KRU to briefly open the transfer window to enable them to sign a few players so as to improve their depth and experience.
“We were not sure if the Championship would end and get promoted to the Kenya Cup. It just happened after the window had been closed,” notes Asila, adding that they will not be ambitious but will target not to finish in the bottom two.
Asila says that their vision is to win the Kenya Cup in the next five years and make history as the only other university after Mean Machine from the University of Nairobi to lift the Kenya Cup.