Kenyans to get up close with Sevens heroes

Kenyan rugby sevens fans are known all over the world for their passionate support for their national team when taking in the IRB World series circuit.

The loyal fans will have the chance to watch their heroes up close on home soil during the Safaricom Sevens, which gets underway in Nairobi on Friday.

The tournament, which will be played in the 60,000-seater Moi International stadium, comes only two weeks before the team resumes its campaign in the 2013-14 series in Australia.

It will mark the first time that the Safaricom Sevens, dubbed Africa's premier rugby festival, is being staged in such a big arena -- signifying the soaring national popularity of the seven-a-side sport, which has grown significantly over the last few years.

"This is going to be the biggest-ever in crowd participation. Rugby has come of age," the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) chairman Mwangi Muthee told AFP.

"We have made tremendous gains in the HSBC World series. We are now firmly among the four best rugby sevens playing nations in the world.

"Our successful national sevens rugby team has boosted the image of the Safaricom Sevens to a world class event, and spectacularly in the last 12 months," added Muthee.

Although it has been two years since a Kenya team last won the tournament, the organisers are gearing up for a massive festival, in terms of crowd and team attendances.

They aim to send a strong statement to the International Rugby Board (IRB) that Kenya can host one round of the Sevens World series in Nairobi.

The three-day tournament will feature teams drawn from as far a field as Australia and England.

Defending champions Samoa and Western Province of South Africa have also joined the fray.

Western Province, one of the top South African sides, are perhaps a worthy replacement for fellow countrymen and regular campaigners, Emerging Springboks, who dealt the tournament a blow when they withdrew at the last minute.

The two-time champions have opted to instead remain at home and compete in the Nashua Middleburg Sevens festival which will be taking place the same weekend.

Kenya, keen to provide an opportunity for young, up-and-coming players, have entered the national under-19 academy side in the tournament, with an eye focused firmly on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where sevens will be making its Games debut.

"It is a good opportunity for the youngsters to play against the big boys. We will be out to gather as much experience and exposure as possible," said former international Paul Murunga, the U-19 coach.

The team will also have a chance to feature in the 2014 Youth Olympics in China next August, which will serve as a dress rehearsal for the 2016 Olympics.