This past week Ugandan rugby witnessed something unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. Egg chasers and their current or immediate past coach usually showcase a form of camaraderie to which both never took offence. But there are exceptions, and sadly we recently got to witness one.
There’s no concrete evidence to suggest that the Lady Cranes players that figured in last weekend’s Africa Women’s Sevens have ever felt an intolerable aversion to their coach. Helen Koyokoyo Buteme is tough, unyielding, passionate and relentless. Notable for her investment of trust in young players, the wisdom of Buteme’s directing hand is reputed for bringing a dash of care and thoughtfulness to the equation.
Those that don’t get along tolerably with the 38-year-old have, however, made it abundantly clear that the maths doesn’t add up. The maths also remarkably didn’t add up last year when Buteme beat the odds to lead Uganda to a second-place finish. A great burden was still on her shoulders. Dropping two places at this year’s tournament, which also doubled as an Olympics qualifier, surely meant that whatever advantage gained was quickly lost.
It seemed wholly possible -- even inevitable -- that those violently opposed to the idea of change would waste no time in stoking fears. And true to form, Buteme’s detractors have plunged everyone into a feeling of despair. Here is the unsettling bit: The detractors, whose tone on social media has been as patronising as it was disparaging, are national players.
Not sevens but 15s players. Most if not all were deemed surplus to requirements after the reins for the sevens national team were handed to Buteme in 2016. They have always maintained their scorn, dancing around their former coach’s grave at any opportunity. This, though, is more than a score-settling episode. It speaks to the player power that is blighting sport in such a profound manner (not just Uganda, but the likes of Zimbabwe whose players refused to play to their coach’s instructions last weekend).
The sense of entitlement of the modern day player has made them so grotesquely dismissive. Lacking in all mannerisms, this breed of player sees nothing wrong in going about business with a striking lack of dignity. Toys are thrown out of the pram when things go south. They then take themselves for a solitary Jupiterian hero[ine] when things are looking up. Such volatility represents a stark stumbling block to progress, yet it still goes unpunished anyway. It certainly will in Ugandan lady rugby ranks with the players that taunted Buteme rewarded with game time in both sevens and 15s international matches.
Although the idea of sacrifice never seemed to weigh heavily on her mind, first on the pitch and later in the dugout, Buteme strongly believes a rubicon has been crossed. So strong that she reportedly handed in her resignation letter this past Monday. Unsurprisingly, the 38-year-old coach’s default position in the wake of her resignation has been silence.
Unimpeachable voices have nonetheless intimated to this column that Buteme’s mood of frustration owes much to a perceived snub from Uganda Rugby Union’s executive committee than anything.
Her plea to have the Lady Cranes camp in Kenya ahead of last weekend’s continental showpiece was flatly rejected.
Instead, she headed to Monastir with players that had been in residential camp for four days. South Africa, Kenya, Madagascar and Tunisia put had well drawn out training camps. It is not immediately obvious why the Uganda Rugby Union opted to get a solidarity grant that only tends to men’s rugby. What isn’t in doubt is that the likes of Buteme (those that hold Ugandan women’s rugby dear) feel shortchanged.
Just as appalling is the failure to appreciate that success is a journey and not destination. Women’s rugby has burnt its fingers before thanks to viewing success through a narrow prism. Buteme had a deep appreciation of these problems and was using a sharply intelligent approach to address them. Or be it on a shoestring budget. It is unfortunate that a perfect storm has swept through to ensure that there is no room for such an intellectual presence. Ugandan women’s rugby will be poorer without her.