Your columnist recently met a rugby enthusiast who was full of bile after watching Uganda’s bid to become a core nation on the 2018/19 World Series fall flat on its face. Like many Ugandans, the aforementioned enthusiast thought it was something of a given that the Uganda Sevens would be allowed beyond the velvet rope to the front of the queue.
It wasn’t and they weren’t.
Two of the countries that Uganda lost against - Japan and Germany - went on to contest the final of the Hong Kong World Series qualifier.
Japan won a fascinatingly enthralling arm wrestle at the death to ensure that they will - not for the first time - rub shoulders with the big boys during the 2018/19 World Series.
While solace can be sought in the fact that Uganda lost at the hands of the eventual finalists, there is no running away from the fact that Tolbert Onyango’s charges play with the handbrake on whenever push comes to shove.
Indeed it has become sharply evident that Uganda Sevens players have to find an antidote to the stage fright that always holds them captive at the big time.
It also seems like the team has badly misread the trajectory of the breakdown in sevens rugby. One observer put it neatly when, in drawing onto an old aphorism, they said Uganda Sevens players ‘pray’ at rucks. It was a figurative expression that owes more to the fact that Uganda shows little or no physicality at the breakdown.
But it could also mean that they go into physical contests hoping for some kind of divine intervention.
This is gravely catastrophic because turning over the ball at the breakdown is of great significance nowadays. There has been a significant dip in the number of times teams are able to score without having a contest over the ball.
It, therefore, goes without saying that the Uganda Sevens have to embrace physicality and lead their game plan around the breakdown.
You get the sense that the proverbial penny long dropped for Onyango. The Kenyan coach has over the years earned a good reputation thanks in no small measure to his tactical astuteness. Onyango’s wide-wide plan in Hong Kong for instance looked to have added another feather in his cap after Uganda picked the scalps of Chile and Georgia on day one.
The plan committed flyers to Uganda’s pack with the intention of creating mismatches with slower opponents. It was hugely successful in the first two outings, but came unstuck against Japan and Germany.
Uganda Sevens players were no different from the metaphorical fish out of water during those losses. They particularly looked bereft of ideas when Germany was giving them a hiding.
Many Ugandans back home were not pleased that Onyango chose to use Adrian Kasito sparingly in both matches. And rightly so.
Onyango had his reasons and can probably justify why he threw his weight behind Aaron Ofoyrwoth.
What he can’t justify and — dare I say — must be livid about is the manner in which his charges chose not to execute his wide-wide plan to the letter during the business end of the World Series qualifier. That plus the ‘praying’ at rucks must be deeply vexing.
Commonwealth 2018: Team Uganda’s high, low moments
The curtain comes down on the XXI Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia today. Although the games are unlikely to win a popularity contest (besides being the second cousin of the Olympics and Worlds, they are widely seen as being antiquated), they sure have had their blue-ribbon moments in the past ten days.
There is no doubt as to what has been Uganda’s feel-good story. And, no, it’s neither Joshua Cheptegei’s voracious appetite for gold nor Stella Chesang disproving those that labelled her a mountain-climbing specialist. Make no mistake, those two storylines were profoundly powerful as was flyweight Juma Miiro’s hard-fought bronze. Many would in fact hold that those storylines put the performance of Uganda’s netball team in the shade.
And maybe they did.
Your columnist’s feel-good story was, however, signed, sealed and delivered by the She Cranes who possessed an unfailing sense of belief on the Gold Coast. It’s perhaps no surprise that they placed sixth in a tournament, which, for all intents and purposes, was a dress rehearsal for next year’s Netball World Cup.
Most if not all netball powerhouses are part of the Commonwealth, and so watching the She Cranes give as good as they got (they won three and lost three) was pleasantly surprising. The win against Malawi, which secured a ticket to Liverpool where the 2019 Netball World Cup will be played, showed the She Cranes in the most gratifying light. It certainly underpinned a newfound confidence. Patronising comments about the team’s lack of structure and - as England grimly noted after being run close - awkward style did not dull the confidence. There is no doubt as to the She Cranes’ power. The team’s nuanced style - particularly its unconventional defence - will continue to be its centrepiece and source of distress for adversaries.
Yet if the She Cranes did Uganda proud, an incident involving the weightlifter Hamza Sempereza was easily the lowlight. It certainly crumbled into an eyesore. Sempereza attempted to snatch in the 69kg category in under 10 seconds after eating up a substantial part of his time playing the waiting game. It was an incident that was as shocking as anything anyone could ever encounter. It has stoked the chorus for taking officials that will actually make themselves useful by way of executing managerial responsibilities.
The sightseeing and torrent of selfies that inundate Team Uganda officials’ social networks would be perfectly acceptable if athletes are not hang out to dry as Sempereza was.
The hapless weightlifter’s backstory and the response it elicited appear to be symptomatic of broader unease about the inner workings of Team Uganda officials at global meets. They always seem hell-bent to make news for all the wrong reasons. If it isn’t hanging athletes out to dry, then it is the quintessentially Ugandan problem of their sheer big number.
It is the wish of this column that lightning doesn’t strike twice going forward. Hopefully lessons will be learnt.