What you need to know:
- You can imagine what kind of players they will be after a few years of competitive play. If they get as much support as their male counterparts – from sponsors and fans, the women’s version of the game in Kenya can only grow bigger.
- I will certainly be on the stands for the next league fixture throatily shouting: “Try, we want a try!”
Last Saturday, I took the trouble to be at Impala Club on a chilly and drizzly morning to be part of history.
On that day, Mwamba played Nakuru in the very first match of the inaugural Women’s Kenya Cup that had three fixtures on the cards.
To realize that after more than a century of rugby in East Africa this was the very first time that an elite women’s league was being introduced in Kenya was both shocking and curious.
I mean, rugby has been one of the more successful team sports in this country and it would be expected that the game would be entrenched in both genders.
Look at football, basketball, hockey, volleyball, handball, just to name the more established sports in the country; their elite women’s leagues have been as prominent as the men’s competitions.
So curious did I find this rugby development in Kenya I went back in history in search of answers.
And you guessed it. The history of women’s rugby can be traced back to that island nation that once was a mighty empire where the sun never set – Britain.
First documented match
The website rugbyspeakersuk.com writes that “around 1884, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Ireland formed the school’s first rugby team, which included a young woman called Emily Valentine, making her the first official woman to play rugby.
The same story reveals that in 1891, a women's team tour to New Zealand was stopped due to social unacceptance, and the side was forced to disband.
The first documented match of female teams was in 1917 at Cardiff Arms Park in Wales featuring Cardiff Ladies against Newport Ladies.
There are records of a women's league playing the full game in Australia in 1930. There is not much of documented history of the game in Kenya.
I glanced through the 131-page “Rugby Football in East Africa, 1909-59” edited by M. Campbell and E. J. Cohen and published in 1960.
It talks about the first recorded match in the region -- between Officials versus Settlers; history of clubs; formations of the national unions in the region, tours, history of schools’ rugby and even how the famed but now decrepit RFUEA grounds was built through a harambee effort.
But there is no mention of women’s rugby. Nada. Women simply did not play the game then in this part of the world.
If my memory serves me right, women’s rugby in Kenya started getting noticed at the turn of the century thanks to Mwamba.
Players joining the club were mostly older girls crossing over from other sports, chiefly hockey and football, to try their hand in rugger. In fact, almost the entire national team then was composed of players from Mwamba.
The few club fixtures held were exhibition matches that were treated with a lot of amusement from the purist fans.
Some wondered what women were doing in the rough and tumble “man’s game.” Women’s rugby has, however, grown in leaps and bounds and is now a regular feature of the global and national game.
The re-introduction of rugby at the Olympics featuring both the men’s and women’s competition has only increased the profile of the game.
Our Kenyan girls, with obvious limitations have regularly carried the national flag high in the sevens version of the game, featuring in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games and the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Popularly known as Kenya “Lionesses”, they have finished second in the Rugby Africa Women’s Sevens since 2014, save for 2018 when they clinched the title.
That our sevens girls have achieved that without a national sevens series for women is remarkable.
That KRU has managed to regularly field a full 15s side internationally without a running league to keep the players in shape and to monitor potential call-ups is just as astounding.
I must confess I was treated so some entertaining rugby last Saturday. Mwamba, perhaps because of their history in the game, were by far the superior side and it was no surprising they comfortably won 28-13.
They certainly had the size advantage, seemed fitter and better drilled.
Make no mistake, the competition was intense and the hard running, hard knocks, hand offs, breakdown confrontations, dummies, side steps, hallmarks of the men’s game, were very much on display at the women’s match.
I was impressed by the two Mwamba backs, Terry Ayesa and Janet Okello.
Beautiful running, boundless energy and balanced poise. Kenya Lionesses by any other name.
Perhaps because of the lousy weather, (or was it because it was a women’s game?), the stands at Impala were sparsely filled. For those who did not turn up I can only say you missed a hugely enjoyable game.
In the second fixture at the same venue, an immaculate (in kit and in play), Yamanashi Impala Saracens demolished little-known Nairobi-based Ruck It 98-7.
The third scheduled match between Homeboyz and Northern Suburbs did not take place at the request of the former who wanted more time to prepare.
The exuberant women I saw playing at Impala Club were mostly young, some just getting out of their teenage years.
You can imagine what kind of players they will be after a few years of competitive play. If they get as much support as their male counterparts – from sponsors and fans, the women’s version of the game in Kenya can only grow bigger.
I will certainly be on the stands for the next league fixture throatily shouting: “Try, we want a try!”