African teams chase Olympic qualification

Fourteen teams will compete for the Rugby Africa men's sevens title and Olympic qualification in Johannesburg this weekend (8-9 November). Picture: WORLD RUGBY

Kenya travel to Johannesburg in South Africa with a squad full of household names as they look to overturn last year’s shock 17-5 defeat to Zimbabwe and reclaim the Africa Sevens title.

With Olympic qualification also on the line at the Bosman Stadium, the Shujaa will be led this weekend by Andrew Amonde (pictured), a veteran of 333 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series matches, while other legends of the circuit such as vice-captains Jeffrey Oluoch and Jacob Ojee, Willy Ambaka and Billy ‘The Kid’ Odhiambo are also ready to light up the tournament.

Kenya’s leading try-scorer Collin Injera, however, is ruled out after picking up an injury in last month’s Safari Sevens win.

The Shujaa were crowned champions when the tournament was last played in Johannesburg in 2015, and with such a stellar line-up on show, they will be fancied to collect a fifth title.

“We’re definitely looking forward to reclaiming the Cup which we lost last year to Zimbabwe,” said team manager Erick Ogweno

“This year’s tournament is equally important as it also turns out to be an Olympic qualifier. It will be best for us to seal the Tokyo 2020 ticket while in Johannesburg as opposed to proceeding to the repechage. It’s every athlete’s dream to compete at the Olympics.

“The preparations have been ideal; I trust the best we’ve had in years and this was topped up by the Safari Sevens win for the young lads.

“The preparations and winning the Safari Sevens give us the momentum we require to enable us to reclaim the trophy.”

UGANDA READY FOR THE BATTLE

Third seeds Uganda went into last year’s tournament as back-to-back champions but lost an extra-time thriller to Zimbabwe in the semi-finals, bringing their run of success to an end.

The Rugby Cranes had to settle for the bronze medal after edging out Madagascar, but coach Tolbert Onyango is hoping his team – a mix of youth and experience – can finish higher up on the podium this time around.

“The team is ready to battle this weekend, we’re looking forward to a positive outcome,” he said.

Uganda will be captained by Michael Okorach, while Philip Wokorach’s rugby pedigree is without dispute.

CHEETAHS AWARE OF HIGH STAKES

As for defending champions Zimbabwe, qualifying for the Olympics for the first time would be another major achievement after the recent Victoria Cup success in 15s.

Hilton Mudariki was a key member of that all-conquering team, at scrum-half, and also took part in Zimbabwe’s last failed Olympic qualification bid.

The 27-year-old, who is on familiar ground as he plays his club rugby for the Pirates in Johannesburg, does not need any reminding of the prize at stake.

“We are coming into this tournament fully aware of the stakes which are there. This is not just another Sevens tournament,” he said.

“We have to retain the trophy we won last year and that will propel us to the Olympics in 2020. That is every Zimbabwean wish. We are the players and we go into the contest knowing that we are carrying the people’s hopes.”

Zimbabwe begin their campaign against Nigeria, who are making their tournament debut alongside fellow newcomers, Ivory Coast.

Madagascar, Zambia, Tunisia, Senegal, Morocco, Namibia, Ghana, Botswana and Mauritius are also in the 14-strong field.

TOKYO LINE-UP TAKING SHAPE

Eight teams have already qualified for Tokyo 2020 – Japan as hosts and four through the series, Fiji, USA, New Zealand and South Africa, while Great Britain, Argentina and Canada came through their respective regional qualification tournaments.

With the Oceania Sevens also taking place this weekend, two more of the 12 spots will be taken up, leaving Asia as the last region to send a qualifier to Japan. The Asian qualification tournament takes place in Incheon, Korea later this month, on 23-24 November.

While Africa Sevens champion will take the direct route to Tokyo, the second and third-placed teams will go through to the World Rugby Global Repechage competition in June 2020 which will round off the qualification process.

As well as providing a ticket to Tokyo 2020, the teams finishing in first and second place at the Africa Men’s Sevens will be in the mix for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series qualifier tournament with more details to be announced in due course.

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