Sunday December 17 2017

Rugby 7s remain work in progress

Solomon Okia has been impressive for t

Solomon Okia has been impressive for the national Rugby Sevens’ team. PHOTO BY EDDIE CHICCO 

By Robert Madoi

It is a good time to be a player of the Uganda Rugby Sevens; more so if your name is Solomon Okia. The 21-year-old went over for a joint-high eight tries at the HSBC Dubai Sevens.

Okia was also amongst the tries scorers in the HSBC Cape Town Sevens. It was no mean feat for a player whose fragility and brittleness has in the recent past been well documented.

Of course, Okia was not the only right button that the Uganda Sevens pressed in Dubai and Cape Town. Sure there was a dash of individuality with the Kenya Harlequins player exceptionally feinting and turning on the afterburners, but the collective power of the Uganda Sevens also transcended expectations.

The ball retention — encapsulated by the sheer number of hands on ball in the run-up to James Odong’s try against Canada in Dubai — was often times extraordinarily accomplished.

The reward for playing with an air of competence and solidarity was a welcome dearth of blowout defeats. Blowout scores did rear an ugly head in Cape Town, but this principally down to conditioning more than anything (the tale of two halves in the defeat against England accentuates this fact).

Put simply, the pulse showcased in Dubai and Cape Town was strong enough to override concerns about missed tackles and kick-off jitters. That’s not to say that the shortfalls have not prompted some rancour.

While observers on both sides of the aisle did not quite think or deduce in lockstep, there was agreement that the outings in Dubai and Cape Town were not an unmitigated disaster. In fact, the illuminating insight points to the Uganda Sevens being a work in progress. Little wonder, Tolbert Onyango, the team’s indefatigable coach, has set his charges a target of becoming a core sevens nation in 2019. To make achieve the feat, Uganda Sevens will need the enthusiastic support of all relevant stakeholders.

A few weeks back, rugby website Raga House detailed what rugby players plying their trade in Kenya earn at both club and international levels. The figures did not come as a vulgar surprise. If anything, they mined destructive impulses amongst opposite numbers in Uganda. A junior Kenya Sevens player on contract for instance earns Shs3.5m per month before tax.

The most senior players on the team can bag as much as Shs5.8m each month. The figures for a 15s player, while not as rosy, are also decent enough to prompt an expression of barely concealed regret from players on this side of the divide.

Uganda Rugby Union always swats away any collective frown by insisting that capacity is being gradually built in Uganda. It obviously wasn’t fast enough for the three Uganda Sevens players that went AWOL in Germany this year. Doomsday scenarios have also been forecasted to pan out after Uganda exhausts its fixtures at next year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens in USA (they will also make a stopover in Gold Coast, Australia to figure in the Commonwealth Games).

On its part, Kenya Rugby Union won’t be looking over its shoulders because its players get decent stipends that dim the lure of doing odd jobs in the US. What all of this points to is the need to have a sober discussion about player welfare before things darken substantially. At times, it seems as if Uganda Rugby Union is doing its best not to catch the mood of frustration. As it continues to showcase the chaotic authenticity of the proverbial ostrich with head in sand, the risk of writing a haunting subtext becomes more pronounced.

To forestall the perfect storm, mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that players have a voice. This column has always held that unionising players will go a long way in averting the painfully topical cat-and-mouse drama that serially gnaws at the sport. Instead of talking in hushed voices, players will come out with bold and common positions on various pertinent issues. This can only be healthy and will sure add another draw to being a Uganda Sevens player.

Hood Kawesa can offer a Plan B at Chan 2018

Who is he? is a question that a great deal of Cranes fans asked as Hood Kaweesa came off the bench to make his debut in the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup. It’s not that they were unhappy to see him — quite the opposite.

It might have not occurred to them that Kaweesa has been amongst the goals in the Uganda Premier League (for many Cranes fans, watching matches in the topflight is a rare pastime), but they sensed that he could offer something different. Which he can.

The Police FC centre forward brings a battering ram’s taste for good, old-fashioned directness. Such an antiquated style may pack too little excitement, certainly for purists, but the alternative strategy it offers is not in doubt.

While the Plan B did not establish a reputation for relentless perfectionism during the midweek goalless draw with Burundi, there appears to be a consensus that the baby should not be thrown out along with the bath water.

Uganda is awash with strikers who love to run the channels, creating pockets for attacking midfielders to wreak havoc. This dense population has, however, not stopped The Cranes from being clenched in misery. Part of the reason for this sombre outlook is that goal-scoring midfielders are few and far between.

Not many will put in clinics that are devastatingly on the money as Paul Mucureezi did when Uganda annihilated South Sudan during a 2018 African Nations Championship (Chan) qualifier. Because of this, it is imperative for The Cranes to have a Plan B. Above all, this explains why Kaweesa should be on the plane to Morocco in January for the Chan finals.

The battering ram will offer something markedly different from what say Muhammad Shaban, Derrick Nsibambi or even Nelson Senkatuka bring to the table. It might not be pretty, but could well be Uganda’s get-out-of-jail card.

After falling to defend their Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup title (Uganda suffered an ignominious 2-1 loss at the hands of, wait for it, Zanzibar!), The Cranes will need to shake things up drastically if they are to be competitive at Chan 2018. Thinking outside the box will be of the essence.

What we now know....

We know that Uganda’s under-20 football team pulled up short in its bid to reach the Cosafa under-20 Championship final.

We know that after bundling hosts Zambia out at the group stage, Uganda failed to get a dial on the goal during a tense penalty shootout against Lesotho.

We also know that despite falling short, Uganda’s Hippos left an indelible mark on the championship. By the time of writing this piece, Hippos skipper Muhammad Shaban was the championship’s leading scorer. The KCCA FC forward could yet be asked to come to Uganda’s rescue when the senior football team figures in the 2018 African Nations Championship.

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