Two events profoundly influenced the training philosophy of Kenya Simbas coach Paul Odera.
The day is December 2, 1999. Kenya are in Pool C of the Dubai Sevens together with heavyweights Australia, France and USA. This is the first leg of the inaugural International Rugby Board (IRB) Sevens World Series (now called World Rugby Sevens Series), the most elite global competition in this version of the game.
Kenya had been honoured by being put among the 16 top rugby sevens playing nations in the world to feature in a brand new tournament whose role the then IRB (now World Rugby), chairman Vernon Pugh, summarised thus: “this competition has set in place another important element in the IRB’s drive to establish rugby as a truly global sport, one with widespread visibility and steadily improving standards of athletic excellence.”
Training was intense for this group of swashbuckling Kenyan amateurs that included the talented Odera, who could play on the wing and as a loose forward, powerful running Paul Murunga, big Shaka Kwach, elusively fast Felix Ochieng and brilliant stand-off Sammy Khakame, under experienced local coach and former international Michael “Tank” Otieno.
They were eager to show Pugh and the world the progress that the Kenyan game had made.
“We had trained hard with Tangie (Michael Otieno). Man, we trained. I remember his popular split sprints that we all dreaded to do but must to enter into his good books — running six 100 metres, rest some few seconds, run four 200m, then two 400m and finishing with an 800m, at pace. Repeatedly, consistently. It was punishing but we were fit ‘Vee’,” Odera tells this scribe at his quaintly, tastefully furnished apartment with a bulging trophy cabinet off Ngong Road, and just a stone throw away from the cradle of Kenyan rugby — Rugby Football Union of East Africa grounds.
“Vee” is a nickname, this scribe, a former player himself, had, known by those who were close to him in this game of shared bonds, by brothers bound by the fraternity and the code, but that is another story.
Odera, better known as “Paul O” continues, his face turning sombre as his mind goes back 21 years ago to the Dubai Exiles Rugby Ground: “But there was something that was not right with us. First our kit was not right. Very heavy cotton in the hot desert heat. Then we were playing against big nations and big names for the very first time, who featured in Super rugby and Rugby World Cup. Players we had mostly read about or watched on television and were seeing them in the flesh for the first time. ‘Vee’, I will honestly tell you, we were scared.
“Terrified. It was a culture shock. Some of us also added sudden weight while in Dubai. There was a 24-hour ice cream bar right next to our hotel,” he recalls in mirth, his rumbling laugh reverberating in the cool Ngong road room. “We were just running. Those guys were conditioned, impressive physical specimen and they had come to play the game.”
Kenya conceded 100 points for 12 made, losing 49-5 to France, 39-0 to Australia and 12-7 to USA in their pool assignments.
“I remember one particular incident against Australia. The ball was raised into our half. Bill Odongo, one of our big guys claimed possession, only to be smashed flat by big Jim Williams, a world Cup winner with Australia. I felt the thud of the impact. It was like a heavy wet cloth slapping on a body. Bill, though, passed the ball to our speedster Toti (Felix Ochieng). The Australian somehow caught up with Toti, smashed him, picked the ball and scored a try. Heee, heee! That is when I realised this was a different ball game.”
The second incident for Odera was softer — and off the pitch.
The arena was again the IRB World Sevens Series, this time 6,622 kilometres south of Dubai, at the 2001 Durban Sevens world series in South Africa.
The talented Kenya Sevens team of Odera, the elusive running Collins Akwanyi, Kwach, tricky Philip Mwenesi, audaciously sidestepping Sydney Obonyo, Bill Odongo, speedy Nicholas Olewa, Newton Ongalo, Kennedy Aswani and Allan Wamanga were given a hiding in Pool D, 45-0 against hosts South Africa, 38-10 versus Samoa and 28-19 to Portugal at the magnificent Kings Cup Stadium in Durban.
The closely contested loss to Portugal was no consolation to Odera.
“What were these other teams doing that we were not doing?” he wondered not unlike Isaac Newton pondering why the apple fell down from the tree.
Showing the independence, the hunger to learn, to adapt and to believe that continues to shape his growing philosophy as a trainer, Odera sought out the audience of New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens. And it was not by chance.
Tietjens was the New Zealand sevens coach with a growing reputation in the abridged version of the game. He had guided the All Blacks to the first two World Sevens Series titles. New Zealand had crushed South Africa 38-7 in the semi-final of the Cup competition in Durban on their way to lifting the South African leg and were playing amazing sevens rugby.
“I said to him ‘coach we have been thrashed badly here. Can you give me a few pointers’? Just like that, he said ‘fine, come to my hotel.”
So there he was, this slim, 25-year-old smitten Kenyan lad in the New Zealand team hotel rubbing shoulders on the corridor with some of the best sevens players in the world at that time. Players he admired and revered. The outrageously talented Orene Ai’i, Tafai Ioasa, Todd Blythe, Amasio Valence, Chris Masoe, Eric Rush, whom he confesses was one of his best sevens players. Simple. He was awestruck.
Tietjen broke his reverie, “follow me.”
Master and wannabe apprentice eager to learn the finer tricks of the trade faced each other at a hotel in Durban.
Said the novice: “How should we play, how can we play against the top nations of the world — and beat them?”
They talked for two hours, the New Zealander virtuoso giving Odera revealing insights on offence, defence, tactics, game reading. They talked about Kenya’s opponents in the then upcoming 2001 Rugby Sevens World Cup in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Odera scribbled down all the important points and says he still possess those notes to this day.
“After that guy stopped talking I said: ‘I want to coach. I want to coach like you.”
Did Odera ever think that he would one day coach Kenya Simbas — Kenya’s nation rugby 15s side?
“Now that you mention that, yes. We recently had our primary school class reunion and some of my friends told me that my childhood desire of captaining Kenya then coaching the national team had been fulfilled.” And on his terms.
He was named the Kenya Simbas coach on May 30 last year.
“The KRU CEO Sylvia Kamau called me and asked if I would consider applying for the Kenya Simbas coach job. I told her in no uncertain terms I would not apply for the job. You either give me the job or not. If you think I am good enough give me the job. If you think I am not, don’t.”
Granted, there was division in the board, but he got the nod when he was told to give a presentation. The World Rugby Level III, trombone-playing coach, a stickler to processes and systems, and details to bring harmony to the team and the play, laid it out succinctly and precisely to the board with the ultimate goal of taking Kenya Simbas to their first ever Rugby World Cup.
Firsts have been many for Odera.
He is the first local rugby coach to attain a Level III coaching certification. He made St Mary’s School starting sevens team while in Form Two and captained the school’s XVs side for three consecutive years from 1994 to 1996, unprecedented in the institution’s history.
He was a pioneer student in a new bachelor’s degree programme developed by Kenyatta University and Braeburn School — Bachelor of Philosophy in International Teachers Education (Bpil), attaining a second class honours, for his second undergraduate degree.
The stars, it seems, were aligned for Odera to reach the heights he has attained in the game.
Born in 1975 in Nairobi, he was the last in a family of seven — three boys and four girls.
“We were a staunch catholic family. The biggest crime you would make in the house was miss mass on Sunday and to make my dad miss a Gor (Mahia) game,” he says with a guffaw. He laughs easily, easily putting those around him at ease. You immediately want to trust him, to be his friend, to listen to him.
He had speed and dexterity that he says he got from his ex-football and rugby playing dad, Cassianas Edward Odera.
Paul O’s first sport was football, as is the case the world over for many a lad, but it was the rough and tumble of rugby that he found himself leaning to.
For that he will have to thank a French missionary from Cote d’Ivoire, he simply remembers as “Henry”, who came to Consolata Primary in Nairobi in 1986 when he was in Standard Five, with a rugby ball and passion to teach the pupils the game.
Then Kioko Mwitiki, a Kenyatta University graduate and Damu Pevu member — the grouping of graduate teachers from the university intent on spreading the game of rugby wherever they were posted — joined Consolata staff. Mwitiki further pushed the impressionable lads to the game — Odera, his chums Eugene Ligale, Kwame Shiroya, Ronald Mogaka et al, who all went on to play club rugby.
From Consolata, Odera joined Saint Mary’s Nairobi, simply known as Saints, and it was like a fish jumping into water as far as rugby was concerned.
“The conditions were perfect,” Odera recalls in admiration. “Can you imagine we had a fully equipped gymnasium at that time and a Catholic Father Frankline Caffrey, who was very involved in teaching the game to the students. We were a day school and he introduced a two-week preseason residential clinic — to allow us to compete well with boarding schools the like of Lenana and Nairobi School.”
Just to appreciate how talented the lanky boy was, take a look at these honours under him: He made Saints’ second XVs while in Form One, was a member of the school’s sevens side in Form Two and a year later was a regular member of the school’s championship winning XVs side.
These was one of the most talented schools team of that time and included players like Jimmy Kimbo, who went on to get a Watembezi Pacesetters call-up, Alloice Odhiambo, destined to be a Kenya Simbas star before flying to the USA to chase his dream, and Kwame Shiroya. But somehow, they failed to defend Prescott Cup.
“We did not have the chemistry, the culture. That was our undoing,” Odera sums up in hindsight, showing his insight to team composition and harmony and winning.
The following year, 1995, Paul O was made the school’s XVs captain, a post he held for two more years when he returned to Saints for his International Baccalaureate, and led them to consecutive Prescott titles.
His obvious leadership qualities had been noticed and he was named vice captain of Kenya Schools for their tour to South Africa.
Odera recalls the tour to the rainbow nation so vividly the trip could have been yesterday: “It was a tough but brilliant tour. It opened up my eyes. We played at Ellis Park, curtain raising for a Currie Cup match between Eastern Province and Transvaal. Watching that game was a revelation. There was hardly any mistake. Can you imagine just two knock-ons the entire game? Two!”
Under him were Ben Matibe, George Tutu, Rodney Okok, Alloice Odhiambo, George Gachuhi, Kamanga Mwangi, Steve Owiro, Andrew Githaiga, Jimmy Kimbo, Ligale, Joseph Kariuki, Ian Songa, Mark Holi, players he unreservedly states were ‘thinkers” and helped shape his understanding of the game. All these talented young men went on to play representative rugby.
He captained Kenya Schools in 1996, joined one of Kenya’s top clubs, Kenya Harlequin, while still a schoolboy that year and went on to skipper the side in 2004.
Odero’s progression continued, receiving a Kenya Simbas call-up in 1998 for his only international cap, an 84-0 home drubbing at the hands of touring Public School Wanderers of the United Kingdom. He captained Kenya Under-23 the same year and was also called to Kenya Sevens for the first time eventually being named captain in 2002 for the IRB Sevens World Series Dubai leg.
Trust Odera not to take his leadership qualities for granted in the rough and tumble action on the pitch.
He attained an IRB Level I in 1997 and Level II in 2001 before getting the much desired Level III certification in 2010 even as he had coaching stints with his old school Saint Mary’s, Upper Hill School, Nairobi School, Quins, Strathmore University, Nondescripts and Bamburi Rugby Super Series side Sharks.
He also coached Shujaa with Waisela Serevi appearing as a guest player at the 2005 Safari Sevens, was involved with Hagashi Fukoka of Japan and attended the St Bede’s EOSL Programme in Christchurch New Zealand in 2012.
Meanwhile, he was also making sure amejipanga ki maisha.
He graduated with a BSc in International Business Administration (marketing minor) from USIU in 2002, obtained his BPil from Kenyatta University in 2010 and Masters of Science in Education Management (area of interest rugby) at Strathmore University last year.
The enthusiastic teacher taught science and geography at Kenton College for nine years before moving to Peponi School this year as head of Geography only to be offered the Director of Sports post.
With his impressive papers, Odera was miffed when he missed out on a Kenya Simbas assistant coach job in 2012 with Briton Mike Friday the head coach.
“I applied for the job. When the results came out I was told I was placed second last. I told them it was impossible for me to finish second last. I was the only one from the group of applicants who possessed a Level III qualification. How could I finish among the least suitable persons for the job?” You can still sense his indignation eight years later.
He left for greener pastures in New Zealand but had to return months later to be closer to the love of his life, Nairobi-based lawyer Elaine. He proposed to her a year later and they were married in 2014.
“She has given me so much stability,” he volunteers with the sincerity of the Pope.
Thank God he returned to his heart throb in Kenya. In 2015 he was appointed Kenya Under-20 coach, returning to the national set-up after he unceremoniously vacated the Kenya Under-18 seat in 2006. He fulfilled his promise to the KRU board of qualifying “Chipu” to the Junior World Trophy last year, the first time Kenya did so while playing in qualifiers.
Now he has the big seat. And he feels he is on to something here: “I coach the way I played. I was not a big player. So I had to be very skilled.
“I emphasis a lot on skill. So we have to have the structures, from under-13, under-16, under-18, upwards to the senior national team.
“Then there has to be passion, ruthlessness in attack and defence, reading the game — player intelligence. You have to get it right with the individual to build a great team.
“The more responsibilities you give players the better skilled they get. But the biggest challenge I have found with the Simbas is the culture. I do not think the players themselves believe they can make it to the World Cup. They are happy to play and beat Uganda, Zimbabwe. No disrespect to these nations, but we should be aiming to match up to the best in the world.”
To him, it is all about detailed preparations and faith, as he found out one time 20 years ago.
“I ask my players, are you as fit as the best prop in the world? Can you lift the same weight as him? Are you sprinting at the same speed? I tell them, in this day and age, they can get so much information about their opposite numbers internationally thanks to information technology and match up and even surpass them.
“That is the culture I am trying to build, and it is unfortunate not many players will make the Simbas team. That is how ruthless it will get. I am telling my players that I do not hate them, but if you are not good enough, you are not good enough.”
Odera believes Kenyan players — wherever in the world they are plying their trade — have the talent to progress to the 2023 France World Cup, but as he has queried, will they believe they can qualify?