Ideally, finishing eighth of 16 teams is modest. But considering the circumstances, Uganda has genuine reasons to celebrate that She Cranes performance at the 2015 Netball World Cup in Sydney, Australia, their first appearance after 36 years.
Until then Uganda’s best netball moment was the gold medal at the 2011 All-African in Maputo, but it attracted little attention. When the ladies finally played again for the world since 1979 in Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda’s turned a corner.
Tough road to Sydney
“The road to Sydney wasn’t easy,” the captain Peace Proscovia told us after the World Cup. The team hopped from one training ground to another. Nakivubo was gazetted for rehabilitation. The tarmac court at Makerere University was not friendly, either. They shortly worked out at Mandela National Stadium in Namboole and Lugogo Indoor Stadium.
Finally, in July 2015, NIC insured all the players’ health and Asiatic Sports provided the kits. They also settled at GEMS Cambridge International School, training on an international standard court.
Most of the girls had trained at least thrice a week starting November 2014 in preparation for Sydney.
Martha Soigi would leave her three-month old baby home to attend training. Ruth Meeme, then a third-year BBA student at Nkumba University, had to balance training and preparing for exams. All had to sponsor their training needs.
Qualifying for the World Cup had been another struggle, which begun in 2013. For the African Netball Championship in June 2013, the team drove 1,097-mile by bus from Kampala to Blantyre, Malawi, with just Shs600,000 as upkeep. “We spent a full week on the road and had to play the following day,” goalkeeper Florence Nanyonga, recounts.
Still, they finished joint-third with Zambia, behind South Africa and Malawi. Again due to delayed funding, the team also missed the flight to Singapore for the Six Nation tournament in 2013 and their first match was ruled as a walkover.”
The turning point came in Botswana 2014 where the She Cranes won all their matches and qualified for the World Cup in Sydney.
Do it for sacked coach
By mid-July, the 15 ladies had leaped over enough hurdles and the remaining question was who would make the final 12 to Sydney. But suddenly, Fred Mugerwa, who had coached the national team since 1998, was controversially fired and replaced with Rashid Mubiru.
“We felt heartbroken and demotivated,” centre Ruth Meeme, one of the best performers in Sydney, told us in 2015.
“But we reminded ourselves that this was our future, and coach Mugerwa had done his job. He had imparted all the skills and we were indebted to him to deliver, even in his absence.”
Mugerwa’s farewell message was the fuel that kept the girls going. He told them: “Do me a favour and advance from the first group, then you will handle the rest as it comes. I wish you good luck and I will always miss you.”
Whenever things got tough, they reminded each other to “do it for Coach Mugerwa.” Meeme added: “I attribute our achievements to teamwork. Even when Mugerwa left, we remained united the way he had nurtured us, on and off the court.”
Captain Proscovia also commended new Coach Mubiru for quickly adjusting to the new job and upholding the team’s unity and commitment.
Sydney’s cold weather and unfamiliar time zone did not bother the She Cranes who camped at Ibis Hotel.
“The crowds were cheerful of us; everyone wondered how little girls [because we were small] put up such a spirited challenge,” Meeme recalls. “They could scream ‘Come on Rachel get that shot’; they couldn’t miss watching us play.”
After a warm-up loss to New Zealand, Uganda started the World Cup by thrashing Zambia 74-38. Next, they beat Fiji 61-40 to reach the second group stage, as former coach Mugerwa had wished.
But Uganda lost all their next six games. But what chance did they stand against “superior, more experienced, better prepared opponents, who know netball like the back of their hands?” as Meeme acknowledged. In the final classification match, Uganda lost to Wales 61-40 to finish eighth.
After Sydney 2015, the netball world started paying attention to Uganda. Two years later, Uganda would host and win the 2017 African Championships. The She Cranes, led by shooter Proscovia, amassed 10 points with a perfect winning percentage, in a six-nation tournament scoring 335 goals and conceding 198. They would defend the trophy in Zambia 2018 before surrendering it to South Africa last year.
In 2018 Uganda hosted and won the Fisu World University Netball Championship. After defeating all their six respective opponents in a round-robin tournament at Makerere University, Uganda and South Africa tied 42-42 in the last match. Uganda edged South Africa in the tiebreaker 44-43.
The victory came months after the senior side the She Cranes had finished sixth of 12 nations at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. It was no mean feat finishing behind England, Australia, Jamaica, New Zealand and South Africa, the soccer equivalents of Brazil, France, Germany.
This prepared the ladies for the 2019 World Cup, where they finished seventh of 16 teams.
Netball became a priority sport in Uganda, attracting better funding. The likes of Proscovia, Mary Nuba, Rachel Nanyonga, attract as much media attention as world athletics champions Halima Nakaayi, Joshua Cheptegei, among others.
Like Nakaayi and Cheptegei reap from the lucrative circuits in Europe, Proscovia plays in Australia, the best paid netball league in the world.
Nuba, who replaced her at Loughborough Lightning in UK, looks in a similar direction. Challenges still abound: netball still wanders for a home ground, and the training hustle for the 2019 World Cup was no different from that of 2015.
The federation has also failed to convince a sponsor for the league and umpiring still very questionable. But all these can fixed now that everyone realises huge potential of the sport. It all started in Sydney 2015.
THE WORLD CUP HEROINES
Captain: Peace Proscovia, 26
Rachael Nanyonga, 24
Ruth Meeme, 25
Betty Namukasa, 37
Alice Nanteza, 37
Lilian Ajio, 31
Florence Nanyonga, 27
Harriet Apako, 42
Halimah Nakachwa, 27
Jessica Achan, 24
Stella Oyella, 24
Florence Amono, 41
Position: Assistant Coach
Position: Team Manager