•One rugby player, who sought anonymity for fear of antagonising his club, believes that player safety has not been prioritised
•Wayodi died of a cardiac arrest in September 2016 after Mwamba’s match against Nakuru RFC in a Kenya Cup sixth round tie.
Rugby has distinguished itself as a game of brains and brawns where muscled players seek to outdo one another and get the oval ball over the try line.
In Kenya, rugby games are often characterised by a fever pitch atmosphere that transmits to the fans who shout themselves hoarse in support of their favourite teams.
However, there is a dark side to this gladiator-like contest as was evidenced a fortnight ago following the death of Eliakim Oundo, a Form 3 student at Sigalame High School in Busia County.
He succumbed to head and neck injuries he had incurred after a collision with an opponent during a match at St Matthias High School in Busia County. Injuries – sometimes career-ending – are occupational hazards in any sports discipline.
What is, however, raising eyebrows in the rugby fraternity is the frequency with which rugby players are losing their lives on the pitch. Two weeks ago, 28-year-old KCB RFC winger/fullback Tony Onyango collapsed and died at his home in Ngong’.
The two deaths are among a long list of tragedies that have befallen Kenyan rugby in recent years. What could be the underlying factors behind the increasing demise of rugby players?
One rugby player, who sought anonymity for fear of antagonising his club, believes that player safety has not been prioritised.
“Undertaking one medical check-up per year is not enough because a lot can happen in between. The check-ups should be regular to ensure that any medical condition, especially heart problems, is identified immediately,” he said.
The player also points out that lack of qualified medical personnel during matches puts players at risk in case of an injury.
“Look at the case of school matches; in most cases, there is no ambulance on standby to attend to emergencies as soon as possible. And even when there is an ambulance, the medical personnel are only equipped to do first aid, which may not be enough at times when the injury is serious,” he said.
Similarly, Clyde Mulando, a former player with Mwamba RFC, decries the lack of rigorous medical examinations to immediately diagnose salient medical conditions that players may have a tendency to ignore.
“You see like in the case of Wayodi (Victor), it was just a case of chest pains and we thought he would be fine. We even told him that we would see him later but that turned out not to be the case,” Mulando, who now undertakes fitness programmes with Harambee Stars Under-15 and Ligi Ndogo, recalls.
Wayodi died of a cardiac arrest in December 2017 after Mwamba’s match against Nakuru RFC in a Kenya Cup sixth round tie.
The 24-year old scrum-half encountered breathing difficulties and passed on while undergoing treatment at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital.
His demise came barely a week after the death of Ogeto Gecheo who had breathing complications after spine surgery.
The 19-year-old Nondescripts centre had earlier suffered the spine injury during their match against Strathmore Leos at Madaraka grounds. Just like Tony Onyango, Wayodi and Gecheo were alumni of Maseno School.
James Wafula, a rugby player, however, believes that these deaths are purely unfortunate accidents.
“Such deaths are just tough luck; I wouldn’t say there is a reason behind it. It is unfortunate that they happen but it is the way of life,” Wafula said.
However, Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) medical officer Dr Ondiege Ochola, revealed that the union has been on a vigorous awareness campaign at all levels of the game to improve player safety on and off the pitch.
“Over the last few years, we have been doing a lot of training with World Rugby. We are working with more doctors, physiotherapists and teams on player safety. World Rugby has offered numerous online courses that are offered in terms of player safety and welfare,” Dr Ochola revealed.
Ochola also noted that rugby is increasingly becoming a safer sport in contrast to yesteryears.
“If you watch rugby these days, you will see that there is a lot of penalisation. Nowadays, any contact above the neck is penalised,” he said.
None the less, Ochola agrees that such unfortunate events in the sport may affect certain players psychologically, especially upcoming ones.
“Someone upcoming would be afraid to engage in the sport. I can only imagine what the teammates, coaches and teachers of that student (Oundo) are going through. So, for us, we want to assure people out there that rugby is safe by providing more and better medical care and improving coaching,” Ochola says.
Another area in which KRU is trying to improve is officiating through training and encouraging more experienced hands to delve into it.
“When it comes to referees, there is the Kenya Rugby Referees Association which handles that. Of late, the union is also encouraging more and more former and even current players to roll into refereeing. This is because as a former player, you are aware of the rules of the game and understand it very well,” Ochola revealed.
Rugby has brought so much joy to the country on the international scene courtesy of the exploits of the Kenya Rugby Sevens team as well as the Kenya Lionesses.
However, their successes are no mean feat but products of blood, sweat and tears – some of which are career-enders.
As fans of the sport, one can only hope that player safety and welfare will continue to improve and that these men and women who give their hearts out for the game will not pay a high price for it.