Brian Tabaruka Tindikahwa. Gentleman extraordinaire, his calm demeanour rubs off him on and off the pitch.
In Runyankole/Rukiga dialect, Tabaruka loosely translates to ‘Congratulations’. Tindikahwa for ‘I will never get enough of it’. Indeed, Tabaruka has been congratulated countless times for never getting enough of playing rugby.
Tabaruka is such a talented player that he can choose to take a 10-year break from playing, only to bounce back and still stand out.
Affectionately known as ‘Tindi’ in the rugby circles, Tabaruka retrieved his retirement boots, dusted the rust off himself at the beginning of the current season and has been such a fulcrum in Toyota Buffaloes’ backline, reminding everyone that at 43, age is just a number.
Tabaruka has been nominated for four Man-of-Match (MOM) gongs so far, and walked away with one. In short, class is permanent.
In 2009, Tabaruka announced his retirement from club rugby. He was featuring for Hima Cement Heathens. He immediately took over the coaching reigns at the club.
In 2015, he moved away from all forms of on-field rugby, citing a heavy workload and the need to get closer to his young family. A father of two daughters and a son, he is also the Area Manager at Regus, a multinational corporation dealing in workplace solutions in more than 100 countries.
But even after announcing retirement, Tabaruka would still put in some strong solo runs at Kyadondo, especially at night, under the lights. He still looked fit and sharp. During one of those evenings, our reporter set a timer and he had ran for close to two hours.
“You are going to come back someday,” our reporter told him. “No. It (the retirement) is for good,” he coolly assured, in typical Tabaruka style.
“Let’s give it time,” we quipped in. And time has proved me right.
Tabaruka is back. With a bang. But this time, he is pulling the strings for Buffaloes, another Kyadondo outfit.
Namilyango College has produced arguably the largest chunk of Ugandan ruggers. But funny enough, Tabaruka did not touch the egg-ball while at the college.
“It was a sport of big bodies yet I was a small boy. Of course it was all out of ignorance. Even today, most people (wrongly) think the game is a preserve of guys with huge bodies,” he opines.
During Tabaruka’s Senior Six vacation, he got bored. His brother, Allan Tindikahwa, was already playing for Heathens. So Tabaruka tagged along and he has never looked back.
“I found rugby very interesting. I became a problem around my brother, asking him all manner of questions about rugby. And he was willing to teach me everything, that’s how I got hooked,” he says.
Tabaruka started out as a winger but during one training session, he slotted in at the base of the pitch (fullback) and made the position his own for more than a decade for both club and country. His national team debut came in 1999 against Kenya.
Bowing out on a high
On September 29, 2007, Tabaruka entered the Uganda rugby history books. The Rugby Cranes beat hosts Madagascar 42-11 in the finals of the Confederation of Africa Rugby (now Rugby Africa).
And Tabaruka, 32 caps at the time, announced his retirement from national service. What a way to bow out! The win in Madagascar, todate, remains the highest moment in the history of the national XVs team.
“My mind was already into that (retirement). Before the tournament, we camped in South Africa and that opened my eyes. We were training like animals. I got to know the real demands of a pro-rugby player. Blood and sweat. I realised that I couldn’t keep my eyes on this sport for long.
“If we had lost, maybe I was going to keep playing but after that victory, I felt that I had played enough rugby. Look at it this way: my cousin Allan Masiko was playing with and against me yet he is some young man who was in Primary Four when I started playing in 1996.
So when he announced his retirement to his teammates, obviously, they got touched. His colleagues were in the dressing rooms, still celebrating with the African trophy when he dropped the bombshell.
“A number of them couldn’t believe it. My announcement kind of dimmed the whole atmosphere but that was my decision and I had thought it through for long: to go out on a high...”
Adrian Bukenya, Uganda’s captain in 2007, rates Tabaruka way up there: “He is one guy that every team needs. On the pitch he gives his all in terms of hard work and motivation. Off the pitch he is a funny character that binds all teammates with his jokes and words of courage; a colleague you need in all situations,” says Bukenya. Walking away on a high is Tabaruka’s mode of operation. In 2015, he did the same. After guiding Heathens to a 13-10 win against Betway Kobs in the Uganda Cup final, he announced that he had quit the coaching post.
“There is no better way to step out than doing so on such a day,” he said then.
This season, Tabaruka decided to jump out of retirement. But not with Heathens. Instead, he chose to feature for Toyota Buffaloes, Heathens’ feeder club. In fact, this is the second time he is ‘betraying’ Heathens. At one time, Tabaruka played for Kobs, Heathens’ eternal rivals! During the 2002 Makerere 10s, Tabaruka played for Kobs, at the expense of Heathens.
“Edward Kitaka (Kobs chairman at the time) told me some sweet words and we found some leeway around the rules of the tournament and I represented Kobs. Kobs wanted me to join for good but I changed my mind. Even as a coach, I had many approaches from them plus other teams but I’ve always rejected them,” he reveals.
It’s no wonder he is widely held in high regard even by the Kobs faithful. Not very many do enjoy that privilege.
When Tabaruka joined Buffaloes, the rugby fraternity welcomed back a player who would give a young Buffaloes side the much-needed experience from someone who had seen, done and achieved it all.
But what prompted him to join a team like Buffaloes?
“I wanted a fresh challenge; to work with young kids, teach them a few things but also learn from them. So far the experience has been worth every drop of sweat,” adds Tabaruka.“We sat, talked and he first refused to join us. But when he finally agreed, I was the happiest man alive. Because I knew Tindi was going to help me build that team. During a match, I know I have a player/coach on the turf. That’s how important he is,” says Edgar Lemerigar, the Buffaloes coach, and his former teammate at Heathens.
Heathens and Buffaloes are two different teams with different aspirations. Heathens, the most successful rugby team in Uganda, draws most of its players from Buffaloes.
Despite being ‘brothers’ under the Kyadondo Rugby Club management, when these two teams meet up, it’s always a brutal sibling battle.
“My first game against Heathens was a bit emotional. But I was pumped up for them. I wanted to hurt them. I keep saying that if in that game there came an opportunity to secure the win with let’s say a penalty, I was going to ask to take it. That’s how badly I wanted Buffaloes to punish Heathens. But they played like champions and I congratulated them afterwards,” he adds.
Heathens won the game 25-00. And Tabaruka didn’t get the chance to punish them in the return leg. He was rested because of a sore back.
Pillar of inspiration
Without a doubt, Buffaloes players and coaches do respect Tabaruka but he is quick to sweep it under the rag.
“During training, I work like a donkey. Sometimes I am on the verge of breaking down but I look at these young kids, some half my age, and pick inspiration. It’s a symbiotic relationship. They also look at a ‘Mzee’ working hard and pick inspiration to push on. They also enjoy hitting me hard during training. It’s very painful but I have to swallow it like a big man (chuckles).
“During team talks, I am a player like any other. Maybe sometimes the coach will ask me to pass a word or two but that’s where it ends,” Tabaruka explains. Tabaruka is six years older than his coach.
In recent times, many veterans have come out of retirement and still put in some commendable shifts. Does that mean the league is a tad below standards? “Yes and no. The old generation was one of hard work and perseverance. We used to work our skins off. And most of us didn’t have many distractions like the current crop of players. So when we come in, we bring that warrior attitude from the past.
“The current crop of players receives better training than we used to do. Their strength and conditioning is also better than ours. These days waking up on a Sunday morning after a Saturday match is very tough. These boys’ tackles can easily rip your body into pieces,” he heartily laughs.