Tokyo — Shujaa have left themselves with a mountain to climb this evening after falling just short of an important victory over USA in their opening Pool 'C' match of the Olympic rugby sevens tournament here earlier Monday.
With just 90 seconds on the clock and Kenya leading 12-14, Willy Ambaka knocked-on at the try-line, handing the advantage to the stars and stripes who gleefully touched down on the opposite end through skipper Madison Hughes to take the all-important lead.
Steve Tomasin's try sealed the game 19-14.
Shujaa coach Innocent Simiyu started with a fairly young side, opting to have experienced skipper Andrew Amonde and Jeff Oluoch on the bench with speedster Carlin Isles touching down for the early advantage at two minutes and 17 seconds.
Then, at 4:47, it was 12-0 for USA after Hughes converted Martin Iosefo's try, but then Collins Injera tore through to reduce the arrears 11 minutes to the buzzer.
Eden Agero converted for a 12-7 score at half-time.
On resumption, Simiyu rested Billy Odhiambo, bringing on Oluoch and two minutes later, Alvin Otieno replaced Vincent Onyala.
It seemed to work as Oluoch's try kicked over by Agero handed Kenya a 14-12 lead.
And when Ambaka broke clear to touch down, the Kenyan bench was up celebrating but a video review by match referee Jordan Way of Australia judged Ambaka to have lost control and dropped the ball.
Play shifted the other way, handing USA the advantage and all-important try and conversion.
Shujaa are now hard-pressed to forget the near miss and focus on the big match against Blitzbokke which kicks off at 7pm local time (1pm Kenyan time).
"We are just keeping our focus because we have done our best and we know what we need to do," skipper Amonde said after the near-miss.
"We're coming back stronger and we will just keep on pushing until we get what we want from this tournament"
he defended coach Simiyu's decision to bench him at the start.
"It's part of the programme we are trying to run. Everyone has to get a go in this tournament," Amonde said.
"The only way we are going to win is as a team and if we are able to get our 12 players running together, then we are working together as a team."
Coach Simiyu conceded it was a slow start saying they gifted the Americans easy tries, and also rued Ambaka's missed chance to seal the game.
"We started slowly and we gave them two soft tries, but the boys managed to dig in and get back into the game.
"I believe we had a key moment with 90 second to go to close the game and we didn't manage... If it's time to close, you close it...
"We'll pick up in the next game and see how we can go forward."
Simiyu is wary of the challenge South Africa will provide.
"It's a must-win game, but we'll take it as it is, give it our best and see what we get out of it.
Try-scorer Injera described Kenya's pool, that also has Ireland, as "a dogfight."
"We knew it was going to be a close one. The pool is a dogfight pool. We just need to pick ourselves up, forget about that and go on to the next one."
The Mwamba star is happy with the new boys in the team, saying they need to build on the foundation.
"They performed well, there were only four of us who have been here (Olympics) before the rest of the guys held their own and we just need to build the momentum as we go forward.
"We are focusing on South Africa, it's going to be tough, it's an African derby so definitely we just have to get our head right and go into it looking for a win."
Former Shujaa coach Mike Friday, who handles the USA team, was full of praise for Kenya.
"The Kenyan boys always play with heart, desire and they've got a lot of talent," he said.
"We knew it was going to be very difficult, very tough and the Kenyan boys didn't disappoint.
"That game could have gone either way. I'm proud of the American boys that we were able to go past such a tough, talented, physical side.
"I'm very proud of my boys but I'm equally proud of hopefully what Kenya will do as well. They've got a big opportunity, a big chance in this tournament and I hope we can both move into the knockout rounds - it was a tough, physical game."
Nicknamed "Otoyo" in his Kenyan coaching days between 2012and 2013, Friday said knowing Kenya's players gave him a slight edge, but noted that it also played to Kenya's advantage.
"It gave them (Kenya) an edge because they always have always raise their game when they play me...
"They always have something special for Otoyo and they didn't disappoint...
"Ambaka was physical, Amonde came on and made a difference, Collins is always Collins, Eden Agero has grown into a big man... He was a skinny man when I had him - he's a handful!
"Then to see the likes of Nelson and Jeff... they are formidable and they are showcasing Kenya in exactly the way it should be showcased."
Friday, 48, described their group as "brutal" and wished Kenya luck against South Africa.
"We have a tough game against Ireland this afternoon and you (Kenya) get an opportunity to go against South Africa who have their own woes and concerns to worry about," he added, alluding to the fact that some Blitzbokke players had earlier been quarantined as part of the organisers' Covid-19 compliance procedures.
"They (Kenya) showed in that game how physical they can be and how much pace they have as a team.
"They should be excited and confident about what's going to be a brutal two days... any team from 11 can win this tournament. Just because you had adversity on game one doesn't mean you can't prevail."
In today's earlier group game, South Africa beat Ireland 33-14.
Monday's morning session scores:
New Zealand 50-5 South Korea
Australia 19-29 Argentina
Fiji 24-19 Japan
Great Britain 24-0 Canada
South Africa 33-14 Ireland
USA 19-14 Kenya
Afternoon session order of play (Kenyan times):
10.30am: Great Britain v Japan
11.00am: Fiji v Canada
11.30am: New Zeland v Argentina
12.00pm: Australia v South Korea
12.30pm: USA v Ireland
1.00pm: South Africa v Kenya