It started with two underdog teams, Canada against Fiji, at the USA Sevens Rugby Tournament in Las Vegas.
Canada needed a victory to advance. If Canada won, the Kenya Sevens National Team would also move on.
That’s when the Kenya Sevens met the Grande Prairie Rugby Club, cheering in the stands for Canada.
Four years later, few remember who won that game in 2012, but it was the beginning of an unlikely alliance between GP Rugby and Kenya Sevens – two teams from opposite sides of the world.
They’ve stayed in contact ever since, primarily through social media.
“We at no point knew where it was going to go from there,” says Lloyd Piehl, manager of the GP Rugby Club, and primary administrator of its Twitter account, @GPrubgy.
“It started just as fan support on Twitter, and then over time it grew to a point where they were giving us just as much love back.”
Since 2012, the small northern Alberta club has exchanged more than a thousand tweets with the Kenya Sevens National Team through an independent fan account, @KenyaRugby247. The account is run by Kenyan national Alex Owino, and has more than 50,000 followers worldwide.
As a result of the relationship, the GP Rugby Club has a growing fan base in Kenya – more than 5,000 people according to Owino’s estimates.
GP Rugby, founded in 1984, has about 75 members — who now have a reputation in the large East African country as being “friendly,” “humble,” and “pretty cool people.”
“I like their style, I like the innovation of it and I like their openness,” says Owino, who relays all communication between himself and Grande Prairie with the players of Kenya Sevens. “It’s very rare that you have a team in a developed country like that show an interest in a country like Kenya.”
Many players from both teams met for the first time this year at the Las Vegas Sevens match in February, and joined one another to cheer in the stands. They play different levels of rugby, which means they never face off on the field, and are free to be each other’s number one fans.
Kenya Sevens captain Andrew Amonde looks forward to meeting the new GP players every year, and says the team couldn’t ask for a better set of devotees.
“It’s that feeling of being a family when we travel away from home,” he says. "The emotional feeling that we get when we see them around the field. I think it’s a big motivation for us, coming into rugby, knowing that there are people who look forward to us and support us when we need their support.”
Two minnows, 'big pond'
In rugby, an underdog team is called a “minnow,” and on an international scale, Grande Prairie and Kenya are two small fish in a very big pond. Rugby is still a developing sport in Canada and Kenya, where hockey and soccer, respectively, reign supreme.
“I tell my high school kids when I coach – and they laugh at me – that if you play rugby, there’s a coach waiting for you anywhere in the world,” Piehl says. “In rugby, we always say we don’t care what colour your skin is, what your sexual orientation is, what your religion is – as long as you’re willing to pick up a rugby ball and smash somebody you are welcome in this world.”
It’s a sentiment felt strongly by both teams. They now want to extend their relationship beyond the realm of tournaments and Twitter.
With a bit of luck and funding, they hope to do an exchange that would see the players practice together either in Grande Prairie or Nairobi, Kenya's capital.
Either way, the teams will meet for the first time on Canadian soil next year at the HSBC Sevens World Series in Vancouver. Rugby Canada announced last month that the Olympic city beat more than 20 other bidding nations in order to host the prestigious tournament.
Kenya Sevens coach Felix Ochieng looks forward to his team’s first trip to the Great White North, but is disappointed he won’t see anyone shovelling snow off the rugby field. He often jokes about weather with Piehl over Twitter in a “tongue and cheek” sort of way.
“We don’t have any boundaries,” he says. “We have a good rivalry. So we’ll be talking to (Grande Prairie) going forward and seeing what we can do, how we can exchange information and resources in order to help the game.”
Piehl is a little jealous that the Kenyan team will make it to Canada before Grande Prairie makes to Kenya, but isn’t letting that deter him.
“In my lifetime, I am going to see rugby on Kenyan soil,” he says. “That’s just on my bucket list.”