Kenya coach Ian Snook says his side may be a little undercooked going into the 2019 Rugby World Cup repechage competition in Marseille, starting on Sunday, but is hopeful they can book a first ever finals berth for the African nation and become the third side from the continent in Japan.
The New Zealander will lead Kenya against tournament favourites Canada, Hong Kong and Germany after they finished second in the African qualifiers behind perennial finalists Namibia, losing only one match to the latter.
But he says it will be a tough task having played only one warm-up match against Romania, who defeated Kenya 36-5 in Bucharest this past weekend.
“We probably needed two or three more warm-up games to be better prepared, but we must just go into the repechage without them,” Snook told KweseESPN in an exclusive interview from Bucharest.
“The Romania game is the only warm-up we have had, so the preparation has been pretty minimal. But the boys are in good spirits so we will see how we go.”
The Simbas were also to have played British Army Training Unit-Kenya (BATUK), Namibia and Loftus 200, a semi-professional side from South African club Vodacom Blue Bulls, but the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) said in a statement: “Namibia are unable to travel to Kenya for the fixture due to some internal administrative issues, while BATUK and The Loftus 200 pulled out of the set matches due to financial constraints.”
Kenya open their campaign in Marseille against Canada on Sunday, which will be a crucial test of their chances against many people’s pre-tournament favourites.
“It will be a huge game for us, we’ve got a couple more days to turn up and put in a really good performance,” Snook says. “Whoever gets the jump in those first two games will stand a big chance.”
Kenya face Hong Kong in their second game, on Nov. 17, before a clash with Germany six days later to round out their pool campaign.
The top team in the pool will advance to the World Cup, where they will be placed in Group B alongside world champions New Zealand, South Africa, Italy and Namibia.
“The big thing for the boys is to make sure they play as well as they can, to reach the level we know they can do,” Snook says.
“We have watched footage of Canada and they are well organised, so it will be very difficult.”
Kenya appointed Snook in March to boost their bid to reach the World Cup, and he has worked hard to try and get the side to play a more expansive game.
“We probably spent the first six weeks just trying to get them fit,” he says.
“But we had a core squad that were in reasonably good nick. The tight five weren’t there, though, so to be honest we worked on running laps and so on before we even got into the coaching.
“From there it was understanding the process of trying to get them to play a more fluent and open game, rather than just battering in around the ruck.
“There are a lot of talented athletes in Kenya, and we are trying to exploit the explosiveness and the strength they have.
“Added to that, we need to bring that together with an understanding of when to pass and how to manipulate the opposition defence. Kenyan club rugby tends to be fairly direct in style and we believe more thinking is required.”
Snook said the potential was huge for Kenyan rugby, who are already a respected nation in the Sevens format, and a World Cup appearance would be a tremendous boost for the 15-man game.
“There is so much talent in Kenya, they probably don’t even realise the level they could potentially reach. They have done well in the Sevens of course, though to my mind they could go up another level there too.
“The awareness from the public in the game is also really high. Even just getting this far has created a lot of interest, and the support in the stands during the Gold Cup was outstanding. It is a country where the game can grow.”