While a lot of the buzz around Saturday’s game between Kenya and Zimbabwe has thrown up all manner of interesting statistics ranging from when who last beat who and where, there really is one all important moment in recent history that provides the context for the clash.
On a balmy Saturday afternoon in Antananarivo almost three years to the date, the Sables tripped Kenya’s seemingly inevitable March to a maiden Rugby World Cup appearance in a masterful 27-10 win.
This taste has lingered long and bitter in the proverbial mouths of Kenyans who had fielded what seemed to be an all-conquering side coached by a no-nonsense South African littered with the finest of Kenya’s sevens talents. Some fans had even started booking tickets to London before.
How things have changed. Kenya have been rightly dominant in the head to head stakes over the past four years, routing the Sables twice at home including an impressive 61-10 blowout in Harare two years ago.
On Saturday, an almost completely different Kenya XVs from the one that tripped at the last hurdle in 2015 will take on the pitch against a similarly new generation of Sables with a few survivors such as Oliver Mang’eni and Curtis Lilako on the bench.
This time round, the Sables will be handled by a South African tactician that has coached in a Rugby World Cup while the Kenyans give the home fans a first taste of the offerings of Kiwi rugby under new coach Ian Snook.
Both sides have had the same opponent in preparation that will probably dictate the approaches to Saturday’s showdown.
The Sables will be disappointed to have been reeled in by Morocco in a 23 all draw at home two weeks ago while the Kenyans pulled off a brave 28-24 away win to break a long duck against the home team in Casablanca last week.
While the Sables matched the massive Moroccan pack pound for pound but were undone by poor kicking and finishing, the Kenyans used their slick backline, good finishing and metronomic boot of Darwin Mukidza to edge the Moroccans.
While this game may not have the drama and glitter of 2015, a loss will probably end either side’s world cup hopes with the marauding Namibians looming large in the second half of the competition.
Ian Snook continues to shuffle his decks and has moved the mercurial Darwin Mukidza to center to cover the loss of Leo Seje while prodigy Malcom Onsando makes a test start at lock with Elkeans Musonye replacing the injured Philip Ikambili in the only three changes from last week.
A more rested Zimbabwe have been economical with changes and will look to race out the blocks to keep their Rugby World Cup dream alive while the Kenyans look set to play a high tempo run it from anywhere game.
Players to Watch
For Kenya, lanky debutant Malcom Onsando will be under the microscope to fix Kenya’s lineout woes while scrumhalf Samson Onsomu is always a threat from the base.
Darwin Mukidza will continue his Kurtley Beale versatility impression by lining up at 12 after turning out at the back and pivot in the last two games and the home side will rely heavily on his meticulous goalkicking.
Watch out for Tony Onyango on the wing who grabbed an instinctive brace last week to also sniff for opportunities.
For Zimbabwe, there is a lot of buzz around South African based lock Johannes Stander’s ability to get over the gain-line, dynamic fetcher Conor Pritchard and pivot Lenience Tambwera’s ability to spark the Sables backline.
Head to Head
The front row battle will be key as Kenyan trio of Patrick Ouko, Coleman Were and Joseph Odero will want to put their Casablanca blues behind them against the more seasoned Denford Mutamnagira, David Mukanda and Farai Mudariki who had a better outing against Morocco.
The most exciting battle however will pit diminutive pocket dynamo livewire scrumhalves Samson Onsomu who is in fine form against Ernest Mudzengerere who has Hilton Mudariki’s physically small but metaphorically big boots to fill.
It will also be interesting to see the midfield battle between pivots Issac Adimo and Lenience Tambwera and centers Brandon Madivenga facing the versatile Darwin Mukidza.
Preview by Tun Szu