A bit like the direction of play on a rugby field, Uganda as a nation has traditionally been backwards in coming forward when it comes to falling in love with the oval ball sport.
Genetically smaller than many of their African neighbours, Ugandans have historically shied away from the physical nature of rugby. But in recent years there has been a dramatic change in attitude, thanks to the hard work of the Uganda Rugby Union (URU) and the support of World Rugby’s Get Into Rugby (GIR) programme and the private Bhubesi Pride charitable initiative.
“World Rugby obviously give us their usual grants and help with training and education, but their Get Into Rugby programme has been very good for us. Since 2014, it has gone into really remote areas that have never seen a rugby ball and we are beginning to familiarise the game at schools,” URU president Andrew Owor said.
“We now have 248 primary schools playing rugby, mostly non-contact through the Tag Rugby Trust. But we are running up-skilling programmes alongside that and Uganda’s GIR is a blend of tag and Uganda Rugby Union programmes. We are locating rugby centres and going to schools that we have had contact with before.
“But schools now write to us saying they want rugby there, which shows the change in mind-set. Before, there was a bit of stigma about rugby in schools and we needed a lot of education, starting with the teachers. The key is also getting parents fully on board and then you get two or three brothers all playing at different high-level clubs.”
Pride of Africa
Bhubesi Pride is the initiative Richard Bennett started in 2010 to bring together rural communities, NGOs (non-government organisations) and government departments in Africa with lovers of rugby. It selects volunteers from all over the world to help develop rugby and harness its benefits for society in general.
According to Bennett, Bhubesi Pride has three main objectives: “To unite communities through rugby, promoting the sport’s values and life skills; empower and up-skill local staff, nurturing community leaders, male and female, in a way that maximises sustainability; and to inspire long-term developmental outcomes via tangible legacy projects, alongside in-country partners.”
Their 2015 expedition began at the end of January in Uganda with a 25-strong team of volunteers drawn from 11 different countries. The Bhubesi Pride team travelled to Jinja where a secondary school student Yusuf Saidi Baban died while playing rugby in July 2013, the tragedy understandably affecting the local population and their attitude to the sport.
“Bhubesi Pride have raised huge awareness, especially in Jinja, which is an hour from Kampala,” Owor said. “It was good that they went to where the boy died on the pitch, they faced that and educated the people about what happened. They go to a number of schools, holding clinics for coaches in the area and it has been a huge success. They do a lot.”
It’s an important year for Uganda rugby because, at the top level, their senior team will be bidding for promotion back into Africa Nations Cup Division 1A and their men’s and women’s sevens teams are both strong contenders to qualify for the Olympic Games.
Uganda rugby has always been renowned for a running, expansive game with the sheer pace of their players meaning most are ideally suited to sevens.
“We’re in the final eight of Olympic qualifying to be held in South Africa in November. Kenya and Zimbabwe are our main rivals, with one other team from Africa joining South Africa at the Olympics. We don’t have funding to travel much which is why we dropped out of the second level of the World Rugby Sevens Series,” Owor explained.
“We’re now looking for a sponsor and we don’t have nearly as much financial backing as Kenya and not much government support, so we’re at a disadvantage. But there is enormous talent, we saw that in Glasgow at the Commonwealth Games last year. They only had four months to train but they performed so well, beating Sri Lanka and not being disgraced by Australia nor England; you could see the raw talent.”
GIR has also proved to be a great avenue for women’s players to excel in Uganda.
“It channels girls into sevens and has produced a multitude of players. The Uganda under-19 girls won the Safaricom Sevens in Nairobi, it was the first time they had ever been outside Uganda and that shows how much talent there is, but it’s unharnessed," Owor revealed.
“Women’s rugby is the success story in Uganda, only South Africa beat our team and the women’s sevens is the first team, across all sporting codes, to represent Uganda at a Rugby World Cup,” Owor said.
Grounds for hope
Apart from the usual problem of limited finance, Uganda Rugby is also longing for their own national rugby stadium. Owor is hopeful that a new agreement with the Kingdom of Buganda will see their dream come true.
“It’s a landmark partnership, going to the local kingdom, which is independent of government. They are in the process of giving us land on which we can put up a stadium, which will also be a facility for their subjects. It’s a huge collaboration with the kingdom, which is in the central third of Uganda, and now we will work together to get partners from the rest of the world and hopefully have a new centre for rugby in east Africa,” he enthused.
At grassroots level, the move to bring families and communities on board has been a key factor in the growth of Ugandan rugby, while instituting a three-tiered competition structure has seen the number of senior clubs grow to 26. The changing model has also seen a decentralisation of rugby with the four regions now empowered to run their own affairs on a semi-autonomous basis.
Franchise rugby, with two or three clubs joining together, has also been introduced and although Owor knows it will take time for all the talent in Uganda to bloom, he is confident the enormous potential of the country will realise its full potential.
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