- South Africa-born coach draws from his experience as a player to help Kenyan players overcome challenges on the pitch.
- He is happy with progress made in local rugby but wants more partners to come on board to develop the game.
Apartheid era in South Africa made him develop thick skin, and he went on to play for the country’s revered rugby team, Springboks, attracting both friends and enemies not only in the team but also among indigenous Africans.
All that time, Kenya 15s rugby coach Jerome Paarwater had never become so emotional as to shed tears the whole of his rugby career as a player and later as a coach. Not for being picked in the starting line-up for a match or being dropped from the team.
But that stubborn part of the former Springboks scrum-half finally gave way to tears on July 6, 2014 at Mahamasina Municipal Stadium in Antananarivo, Madagascar, rivulets of tears streamed down his cheeks uncontrollably after Kenya 15s rugby team, needing only a point to reach 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, lost to Zimbabwe in the team’s last match of the qualifiers to miss out on the global showpiece.
Paarwater, 50, wept openly and retreated to a car park from where one of his players Joshua Chisanga, and team physio Chris Makacha fetched him for the presentation ceremony.
Paarwater, who also coached South Africa’s provincial rugby team Western Province, had become so attached to Kenya 15s rugby team it hurt him to see the team fall at the last hurdle. Kenya 15s rugby team, popularly known as Kenya Simbas, had shocked many in their campaign for a place in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and only needed a point to make their maiden appearance at world’s largest rugby festival.
Going into the qualifier match that also doubled up as Rugby Africa Cup match, giants Namibia were perhaps Kenya’s toughest opponents. However, the team stunned Namibia 29-22, and beat Madagascar 34-0 to move to within a touching distance from the 2015 World Cup. Regardless of the result of the match, Kenya Simbas needed just a point against Zimbabwe to bring their points tally to 11 and qualify for the World Cup for the first time.
But Simbas lost to Zimbabwe Sables 28-10, extinguishing any lingering dreams of a maiden Rugby World Cup appearance. In the end, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya tied on 10 points each.
Namibia beat Zimbabwe and Madagascar 24-20 and 89-10 respectively to sail through on superior aggregate.
“It was really a sad day for the Kenya, the players and the team management, having worked so hard. Nobody gave us a chance of reaching that stage but suddenly expectations were heightened when we beat Namibia,” says Paarwater. “I just broke down in tears. It was the first time in my rugby career (that I broke down).”
Paarwater reckons although it’s every player’s dream to play at the biggest stage, his players faltered because they were not quite ready for the big stage.
“Despite that, it was the most disappointing thing for me as a coach because you also aspire to be on a big stage. Who knows? The players’ lives could have changed had they gone to the World Cup,” says Paarwater.
“Maybe we were not yet ready to play at the World Cup. I think we could have embarrassed the country, soaking in a century points (at the 2015 World Cup) since Kenya could have met New Zealand’s All Blacks in their first match. It could have been a disaster,” Paarwater says with a telling laughter.
Paarwater says it took his team a while to come to terms with what had happened. “We only got together after four months to pick up the pieces. It was a good thing for everybody to clear their minds and get back to start afresh. I told them we had achieved a lot despite missing out on a place at the World Cup since Kenya’s ranking improved.”
But the quest for a place at the 2015 World Cup may have started for Paarwater and his charges in 2013 when his team reclaimed the Rugby Africa Cup title they had won for the first and last time in 2011 after beating Namibia and Zimbabwe in Madagascar.
“The players started to believe in bigger things. They started to believe that they could actually qualify for the 2015 World Cup. People thought we were crazy and they never gave us a chance,” Paarwater recalls. “But the belief the players had was overwhelming and with experience, I knew what to do and we came so close.”
Paarwater reckons that when he took over Kenya Simbas, there were no structures and the team’s conditioning was at its lowest. The players couldn’t run fast enough yet the impression Paarwater had when he came to Kenya was that the country had good runners. “I joked with them that they gave me a wrong perception of Kenya. I told them ‘you guys can’t run!’,” Paarwater says with a light chuckle.