“My wife says if I play rugby for Nondies one more time she’ll divorce me…I’m really going to miss her.”
The statement, printed boldly on the front of a Nondescripts RFC supporters T-shirt exaggerates and at the same time drives a point home: the members of the oldest rugby club in Kenya have a close bond with their club.
“There is a bond of friendship at Nondescripts that lasts long beyond ones playing days”, asserts Bill Cherry, whose son Alex currently plays for the club.
In its ninety year existence Nondies, as the club is fondly known, has weathered the good times and the hard.
“Longevity is a good indication of success”, said Kenya Rugby Union chairman Mwangi Muthee at the launch of Nondescripts 90 year celebrations at ‘The Red Lion’, Nondies clubhouse at the ASK’s showground in Nairobi. “It is through a long existence that a culture is established and a system perfected.”
Nondescripts beginnings go back to a meeting at the New Stanley Hotel on Wednesday, July 11th, 1923. The meeting, attended by rugby players based in Nairobi had been convened with the purpose of forming a rugby club.
The meetings purpose was immediately modified.
In the meeting it was “proposed by Mr. Kemp, and seconded by Mr. Ogilvie, that the meeting proceed to the formation of two clubs,” the minutes of the meeting read.
The proposal was put to the vote, with the ‘two clubs’ proposal winning by 16 votes to 11.
“After further discussion it was resolved that those present decide as to which club they would belong, and for the purpose, sign one of two lists headed respectively ‘Nairobi North’ and ‘Nairobi South’.”
Several names were put forward for Nairobi North, among them Crusaders, Wanderers and Harlequins.
On being put to vote Harlequins and Wanderers secured an equal number of votes, and the Chairman, Reverend. Orr tipped the scale, declaring Harlequins to be the name of the new club.
Nairobi South went on to become Nondescripts.
Those must have been exciting times for rugby in the region; two years earlier in 1921 the Rugby Football Union- Kenya had been formed, and in 1925, the first local competition, the Nairobi District Championship was played.
In 1928, Nondescripts won the NDC in its fourth year. Between 1928 and 1960, Nondies lifted the NDC flag (the trophy was a flag) 12 times outright. In 1937 Nondies wrested the Enterprise Cup from five time champions Eldoret, whose membership came mainly from Afrikaners who settled around the post office named ‘Farm 64’ , later named Eldoret. To date Nondies hold the record for winning the Enterprise Cup 25 times since its inception in 1930.
“Sometimes it has seemed that the Nondies have been too strong for their rivals, to the detriment of the latter”, wrote M. Campbell and E.J. Cohen in the book Rugby Football in East Africa- 1909-1959. “ This is rather more the fault of other clubs, and recent years have shown the rise, in Nairobi, of new clubs to challenge the Nondies.”
Indeed, several new rugby clubs were formed over the years. It seemed that Nondescripts influence was a substantial reason.
The Railway Club started a rugby section in 1930, and it was not without opposition. “It was generally felt that the reigning supremacy of Nondescripts in the District should be met by amalgamation rather than the formation of new clubs”, wrote Campbell and Cohen.
When a new club, Kenya Harlequin was formed in 1952, it was “named to resuscitate an honoured name that had first appeared in Kenya rugby in 1923”, mainly to “try and upset Nondies supremacy”, wrote Owen Wheeler, a founder and captain of Kenya Harlequin. The original Harlequins had disappeared, but their role in Kenya rugby was rekindled.
For Kenyan rugby, the 1970’s presented sufficient numbers of quality indigenous players eager to compete for club first team places and representation honours. As Kenyan’s were taking over clubs like Impala and Kenya Harlequins from within, mainly indigenous University sides Mean Machine and Blak Blad were formed and subsequently Mwamba RFC in 1978. In an apparent reply to Nondies all white strip, Mwamba chose to play in black. “Mwamba was formed to correct an imbalance”, recalled founder Frank Ojiambo.
“It’s a pity that we were a bunch of mostly white guys, playing in all white kit”, reflected Clive Evans, as he broke the ice at Nondies 90 year cocktail launch.
Paul Ngoga, who played for Nondies in the 80’s and 90’s, was often a victim of African supporter abuse while on the pitch. “Every time the fans called me names, I’d win the ball or put in extra effort for Nondescripts. We did not have very fast backs, but we were very tactical”, remembers the second row who played when Nondies were at their peak. “We were a very disciplined side, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly at Nondies.”
“As a player, one could not be motivated more. We had several local trips, and every so often, we made an international tour.”
While race made the cover of the Nondies story, it was discipline, technical player skills and team tactics that carried an eighty-year supremacy.
Ken Kimani joined Nondies at after Barclays Bank RFC closed down in 1994 and found a technically superior side. “Training as very technical. The skills that the players learnt were not easily learnt elsewhere.”
“It was very disciplined”, remembers Branko Nginja, who joined Nondies from KCB. “If you didn’t train, you didn’t play.”
The unthinkable happened in 1996. Nondescripts were ejected from Parklands Sports Club, their home since 1923. The club first moved briefly to Saint Mary’s School, before settling down at their current clubhouse and grounds at the ASK Showground.
“It was tough, being without a ground. There were some very strong Nondies members who carried the day and kept us together”, remembers Justin Larby, a third generation Nondies member whose grandfather joined Nondies in the 1920’s while a schoolmaster at the Prince of Wales School. “The club could easily have folded were it not for dedicated members. ”
Somehow, it was a fitting farewell salute that Nondies greatest winning streak, a 21 year run from 1975 to 1996, coincided with the clubs eventual departure from Parklands Sports Club. In that period Nondies lifted the Kenya Cup 15 times and won the coveted Enterprise Cup 16 times.
Back to winning ways?
After 1998, Nondies fell off the honours list. This year has seen a change of fortune at Nondescripts after a 10 year hiatus from its winning ways.
“We won this years Impala floodlit tournament and our sevens team won the Lazio Sevens tournament while on tour in Italy last month”, says club Chairman Thomas Opiyo. Opiyo and a team of dedicated club members are committed to the clubs revival.
At 90 Nondies can veer off the beaten track, but is never too far from its winning ways.
BY John Kagagi, writer at Content House