At the crossroads of whether to go to football (a sport that was closely associated with his family) or rugby, Kabras assistant coach, Edwin Achayo chose rugby.
His uncle Alfred Obwaka Achayo had played soccer and had even represented the national football team Harambee Stars as a defender but Achayo opted not to follow his route and to date, he says, it is the best decision he ever made.
“K9” as is he famously goes by, is more than just a mere alphabet sitting next to a number. It is a title-turned-crown that was deservedly bequeathed, with concern to his rugby journey.
‘Kenya 9’ as what the initials stand for, represents a figure whose journey, as he shared with The Scrummage, is to be admired on and off the field.
But before the K, or the 9, or the famous hairstyle, was a young lad whose rugby journey began at a small island just about the shores of the Indian Ocean, deep down in the Coast, “twenty years ago at the very least”.
“My rugby account dates back to 1998. I was born in Mombasa, in a family closely associated with football. A section of my relatives had reached national levels playing football. For me, however, I wanted to do something different. There was the Mombasa Sports Club Rugby team, and together with my friends, we used to go watch them train. That’s how I got hooked to the sport,” he said.
“Rugby offered something different. It was a different sport that caught my eye; guys running over each other, the passing and the drills. That was how I got into the sport and got hold of a rugby ball,” he added.
Although his stint with Mombasa Sports Club RFC saw him never being given any playing time, training sessions with the team, he said, was more than he could ask for.
His long-awaited moment of representing a team came shortly after, in 2001, when he joined Moi Forces Academy for his secondary school education.
“I was immediately tossed in the junior high school team. Fortunately, the captain of the team, Jared Orare, was also from Mombasa. During our orientation, he asked us if there was anyone from Mombasa. That was how I made way into the school team. I was in a rugby pitch on my second day after joining high school,” he said.
It was here at MFA Marines that Achayo’s career saw sunlight. His efforts on and off the field were quickly picked up by Orare (who also served as the team’s coach), and it was not long before he was inducted into the school’s first team.
He mentions the famous win against Nairobi High School at the 2002 Uttermost 7s as one of his memorable moments in the MFA Marines’ jersey.
“I remember me and Davis Yanga, formerly of Nakuru RFC, combining to score the winning try. Also, being voted the best player in Nairobi province when we played the schools’ provincials games the following year (2003) at St Marys High School was a big moment for me. MFA Marines was a pretty solid start to my career,” he said.
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On paper, one would think, ‘what an easy ride?’, but according to Achayo, the process of building his rugby journey came at serious personal sacrifices and challenges.
“All this while, my mother did not want to even engage in the slightest idea of me wanting to play rugby. A physical, contact sport would make any mum wary. Also, back then, the set up was not all ‘furnished’ as it is currently. There were fewer stakeholders, coaches and necessary training tools. The burden fell squarely on our shoulders as players to train and sharpen ourselves,” he said.
An industrious four years of high school rugby came to halt for Achayo in 2005 when he completed his high school education. At this point, he revealed, his mind was set on continuing playing the game. It was then that he re-joined Mombasa Sports Club RFC.
“That was my goal while in high school: to one day play for Mombasa Sports Club. I owed the team that much. It was where I learnt all the rugby basics. It was challenging yes, but one of the greatest time in my career,” he said.
Three years later, in 2008, and Achayo was making his way back to the city. This time, to further his studies at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).
Even on campus, Achayo never stopped. He balanced his education and rugby perfectly. JKUAT Cougars became his new home, where he managed a few games on “several occasions”.
Later on, word spread of a young scrumhalf from JKUAT Cougars whose spinning passes and ruck experience was like that of a canine. Kenya Harlequins duo of David Mogere and George Odipo, who were also JKUAT students, had witnessed these accounts first hand.
“It was Mogere and Odipo, both of whom we used to train together occasionally at Cougars, that convinced me to join Harlequins. Initially, I was shy, but they had confidence in me. That’s how I joined Quins. In one training session, Charles Cardovillis, one of the coaches then at Quins, came and promoted me to train with the first team,” he said.
At Quins, Achayo’s career was polished. The young boy from Mombasa became a three-peat Kenya Cup champion (2010, 2011, and 2012). His first national call up was the icing to the cake.
“The experience at Quins was really good. I played some of my best rugby there. We had six coaches working with the team. My most memorable moment has to be the three-peat obviously. From where I had come from to that point, it was like a dream come true,” he added.
His biggest challenge at Ngong Road in first season, he said, was: “Building the team chemistry. We had a pretty young squad during my first season, as I was not the only player to be promoted to the first team. There was Isaac Adimo, Eden Agero, Patrice Agunda among others. Although our only defeat came in the hands of Nakuru RFC that season, we had to work overtime to make sure the team was intact,” he said.
Back then, according to Achayo, representing Kenya Simbas was equated to the epitome of one’s career. Changing room stories by guys who were already been part of the Simbas lot used to wrestle his nerves.
He described his first national call up as simply the “biggest moment” of his career.
“I was excited and nervous at the same time. I was gutted to have missed the previous year’s call up, but I kept a sober head and finally, the moment came,” he said.
His debut came during the 27-10 away loss to Zimbabwe in 2014. The loss, though, couldn’t make him hide his excitement of representing the national team for the first time.
“I came off the bench in that game. It wasn’t the best of debuts as we lost the game, but I was very excited. Being part of the group, getting to experience how test matches are prepared and the feel of it was something to take home,” he said.
His described his stint with the Kenya Simbas a successful one, owing to the “pretty good squad” the team boasted. Lifting the 2013 Rugby Africa Cup (then known as Confederation of African Rugby Cup)and the famous 29-22 win over Namibia in the World Cup qualifiers ranks as his biggest moment representing the country.
“Getting one over Namibia during the 2015 world cup qualifiers was a high moment for everyone who was part of the team. Being in that setup and achieving the goal we had laid down, jotted down as a memorable moment for us. Lifting the African Cup of Nations was another great moment,”
As is his best moments, Achayo confessed there was, also, sour memories during his spell with the Simbas. Missing out on the 2015 Rugby World Cup is the most unthinkable of them all.
“I don’t think any player that was part of that team will heal from this nightmare in his career. It hurts to date,” he said.
(In part two of his rugby journey, Achayo discusses the events leading to his switch from Quins to Kabras, the main reason behind his decision to hang his boots, and his future plans as a coach)
Edwin Achayo’s Profile
Name: Edwin Achayo
Nicknames: K9, Archieman
Current role: Coach Kabras
School: Moi Forces Academy
Previous pos: Fly-Half, Scrum-half
Previous Clubs: Mombasa, JKUAT, Kenya Harlequins, Kabras
Achievements: Kenya Cup winner (2010, 2011, 2012) 2016, Enterprise Cup winner 2011, Africa Cup winner 2013