First played in 1996,the Safari Sevens is an annual rugby sevens tournament held in Nairobi, Kenya. The Safari Sevens is open to international representative sides, professional and amateur clubs, invitational teams, university and school teams.
Initially held at the RFUEA Ground, home of the Kenya Rugby Union, the tournament moved to the Nyayo National Stadium in 2011 and 2012 and from 2013 was hosted at the 60,000 seat Moi International Sports Centre to allow for increased number of spectators.
In 2018, the Safari Sevens returned to its spiritual home at the RFUEA Ground on Ngong Road.
A tournament the magnitude and nature of the Safari Sevens had always been discussed in the rugby clubs and parties in Kenya. This was especially so after the glorious 80’s when Watembezi Pacesetters played in the Hong Kong Sevens and performed rather well and Mean Machine went to the Dubai 7’s in the mid 80’s with former KRFU (now KRU) Secretary Frank Sabwa, former Vice Chairman Fred Odhiambo among others and also did well. These stalwarts of the game came back and always talked about having our own tournament. Cliff Mukulu lived and worked in Dubai around this time and he also propagated this idea. Jesse Onsando also discussed this at length while at the Quins clubhouse.
The Rugby Patrons Society led by the late Tony Parfitt and the RFUEA chaired by George Kariuki also entertained similar thoughts. And so it went back and forth. Sadly though, Kenya rugby took a dive in the early 90’s. A freak accident resulting in the death of Ken Kanyi at the Impala Floodlit in 1992 resulted in almost a whole generation of rugby players quitting the game. His contemporaries – like John Ohaga, Edwin Obuya- among others, stopped playing rather suddenly. Clubs like Barclays Bank RFC which won the Impala Floodlit that year and were one of the stronger clubs, and Kenya Breweries RFC closed their doors and the quality of the game dropped.
Many who played with Kanyi stopped even attending matches. Incoming and outgoing tours dried up rather quickly and this resulted in a massive drop in appeal, support and more importantly experience and knowledge of the game.
This soon became painfully evident. In 1993, the KRFU hosted an international rugby tournament for time in many years and signaled the rebirth of rugby as a sport in the country. The committee, led by Dennis Awori, Tom Oketch, Zack Oloo and Sam Agutu set about trying to rebuild the infrastructure and appeal of the game. They reached out to South Africa who had recently been readmitted to the international sporting arena and were desperate to make friends with almost anyone. Dennis Awori spent lots of effort lobbying the then South African Rugby Football Union (SARFU) now SARU to allow the Kenya XV play in one of their provincial tournaments. This was not to be. The South Africans however provided lots of technical advice and support in preparation for the tournament. Some players of note at the time were Jimmy Kimbo, Alois Odhiambo, Sammy Khakame, and Tolbert Onyango.
A major consequence of the qualifier was the decision to have a permanent secretariat/office to centralize operations. This more than anything else changed the focus and perspective of rugby in the national sports world. Prior to this the Union was run from union official’s business offices. In March 1994, they appointed an Executive Officer to run the secretariat and manage the game countrywide. This paved the way for the introduction of a Development Manager in June 1997 with support from the International Rugby Board. In the second week of April 1994, the KRFU hosted a visiting delegation from SARFU – Ian Kirkpatrick, Sas Bailey and Silas Nkanunu. They were in the country to assess how best to help a struggling union like the KRFU. On the evening of 12 April 1994, at a dinner hosted by the KRFU at the International Casino on Museum Hill, the Safari Sevens was born. Seated around that table were Dennis Awori, Tom Oketch, Zack Oloo, Sam Agutu, Tony Parfitt, John Lloyd, George Kariuki, Robin Cahill, Alan Mckittirick, Ian Kirkpatrick, Sas Bailey, Silas Nkanunu and Ronald Bukusi. Robin Cahill produced a paper with the idea which was enthusiastically discussed and a way forward was decided upon.
The tournament’s focus was to run along the lines of the Hong Kong Sevens and look to raising finance for the KRFU to run its programmes. This was not to happen for a long while. Within a week, the Safari Sevens had been registered as a business name, the International Rugby Board had been approached to give consent to allow the hosting of an international rugby tournament on 27-28 July 1996, which was duly received. Having set that ball in motion an initial committee was set up to coordinate fundraising, travel, invitations, protocol, grounds and the actual tournament. The date was set for the last weekend of July 1996 to try and capture the gap between the rugby seasons in the north and south hemispheres. Coca Cola and Tusker came on as major sponsors. After two years of planning and organization, on the evening of 26th July 1996 at a cocktail at the Panafric Hotel on Valley Road, Nairobi, the then Vice President of Kenya, the Hon George Saitoti, opened the 1st Safari Sevens.