With the emergence of the Kenyan national sevens team in the recent years to become one of the real forces on the IRB World Series, it would seem natural that a number of tournaments in the home nation of the side would also emerge as a training ground for future players. This is certainly the case throughout the other major sevens playing nations such as South Africa, England, New Zealand even the USA.
In Kenya though there is only one such tournament, only one tournament that the beloved followers of the Kenyan sevens team can see their heroes play on home ground and that is the Tusker Safari Sevens in Nairobi.
Though it stands alone as the flag bearer of the sevens rugby in Kenya, what a flag bearer the nation has, attracting teams from across the globe to sample the wonderfully pure delights of one of the great countries and cities on the African continent. Sevens teams have been forever touring the globe looking for that one tournament that excites and captivates the mind both on and off the field and that is exactly what the Safari sevens aims to do.
John Hooper who toured with Samurai International at the Safari sevens in 2008 remembers arriving on the morning of the tournament. “We literally were in the oldest mini-bus you had ever seen, driving on a road that could not be described as a road, it felt like we were literally on Safari not playing rugby at the Safari Sevens.” Though all of the Samurai players were thinking ‘where are we?’ on that first morning Hooper goes on to say “then it appeared, the playing arena on Ngong Road had literally thousands of fans around it and it became damn obvious we were there to play rugby!”
That’s the special thing about the Safari sevens, it’s so very African. Exactly how you want a tournament to be when you arrive on foreign soil as a touring team. You don’t want a tournament that merely mimics other tournaments as many have tried in attempting to replicate the world famous Hong Kong and Dubai sevens. When this happens the feeling of the commercial reality that rugby sevens works in becomes overly apparent. Tournaments and their organising committees forget what made teams come to their tournament to begin with, the fact that they are in a different part of the world wanting to sample different cultures whilst playing sevens rugby.
The Safari sevens does not forget this; in fact it in the eyes of the IRB this is to its detriment. It is not run like a commercial machine, it has taken the approach of ‘build it and they will come’ and it works. The spectators are passionate about rugby and their Kenya team (it gives them something to cheer other than endurance running) they are also knowledgeable about the sport, but when you arrive you know that this is somewhere special, that this is not your everyday sevens tournament.
Long term the tournament organisers would like to see the Safari sevens on the IRB World series, but the ‘hidden gem’ nature of this tournament is such that though this makes it so unique for sides to compete in away from the World Series (this year Samoa & Fiji compete) it means that it doesn’t mesh with commercial expectations of a series that includes venues such as Twickenham, Petco Park and ‘The Sevens’ in Dubai on its menu.
This is not to say we won’t see the Safari sevens on the series one day and if they get it right I am sure it will be one of the most popular. Finding that mix of commercial success (on an international scale) without losing what made teams arrive in Nairobi to begin with will not be easy but if it is achieved one of the great sporting competitions will be born.