It feels like 2002 all over again. Just over a decade ago, Ugandan rugby was pushing for a place on the high table.
That place was earned with a pulsating 31-22 victory over Kenya in Nairobi to move up from Africa Cup 1A to 1B. The ascent continued for years, culminating into the famous triumph at the Africa Cup 1A in 2007.
It didn’t seem a peak at the time. Sadly, now everyone thinks that was the peak as retrogression followed as the Rugby Cranes are now back where it all started, tier 1B. Last year’s 52-11 loss to Kenya got Uganda relegated but the chance to get back up is on as they face Ivory Coast today in Tunis, Tunisia.
Even if the future is uncertain with changes by the Confederation of African Rugby (CAR), the least Uganda can do is return from North Africa with some kind of success.
“Tier 1B is deceptively very strong,” coach Peter Magona before departure on Sunday. His side, at 50th in the International Rugby Board (IRB) rankings, is the lowest ranked with Senegal 42nd, Ivory Coast 47th and the hosts 43rd.
“That said, we are not thinking much farther than our first game against Ivory Coast on Tuesday (today),” the former national captain, part of the 2002 team, added. Prop Brian Odongo will lead the side that has only one survivor from the 2007 team in former skipper Mathias Ochwo.
Flanker Ochwo, arguably the best jumper in associate rugby in Africa, has lost his line-out partner as hooker Alex Mubiru is no longer part of the set-up due to injury.
Hooker Paul Sserujogi is expected to take that role like he has from Mubiru at club level and finding symmetry with Ochwo and lock Romano Ogwal could be key. Against their much bigger opponents whom Uganda played back in 2006, winning 32-7 in Kampala before losing 18-7 in Abidjan, they will need lots of brain and less brawn.
Most of the players from the horrors of 2013 are still in the side and the chance to make amends is one they wouldn’t want to throw away. Centre Michael Wokorach, captain then, will command the backline that includes pint-sized Justin Kimono, often the most reliable try scorer.
Uganda vs. Ivory Coast (2.30pm)
Tunisia vs. Senegal (4.30pm)