Talk of success on pitch in Uganda rugby and just a handful of memories will spring up. The 2007 XVs African title in Madagascar is priceless and perhaps the dearest of them all.
It’s the big one because Test rugby is more adored than the shorter version - Sevens, thus explaining why it’s easy to forget that Uganda won the Rugby Africa Cup Sevens Championship back-to-back in 2016 and 2017.
2016 remains dear to Sevens rugby in Uganda, it was a stepping stone as the boys under coach Tolbert Onyango went to Kenya and returned as champions - against all odds. “All I can remember is no one believed in us and some people criticised the coach for taking young players,” recalls Adrian Kasito.
“But we believed in ourselves, worked together and ended up victorious .Ever since then, 7s rugby in Uganda has never been the same,” says Kasito, who dashed 90 meters across the Kasarani Stadium turf in Nairobi for a try as Uganda sent the hosts packing in the semifinals.
On naming his final side, Onyango, a Kenyan tactician, targeted a top-four finish out of 11 other nations in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Morocco, Zambia, Madagascar, Tunisia, Namibia and Botswana with continental bragging rights at stake.
Only 12 months back, Uganda finished in seventh place, so for Onyango a trip to the semifinals was going to be another step in the right direction.
Kasito, Al Hadji Manano, Robert Anzugu, Dennis Etwau and Kevin Keremundu were the newbies in the youngest side ever to represent Uganda at the showpiece. The side had four 19-year-olds, four 20-year-olds and 24-year-old Eric Kasita as skipper. “ The side was young with many new playsers. The coach just asked us to progress from the stages but we kept going and grew in confidence with time until we were African champions,” reminisces Kasita
There was a feeling that unlike in the past where teams had been selected based on being ‘historicals’ in the country’s rugby annals; this one had been done on merit bearing in mind that all those that were on song in the just concluded National Sevens Circuit got the nod.
Uganda found themselves in Pool B with Zimbabwe and Mauritius. Zimbabwe were the first to face the future champions with a few pundits giving Uganda any rating. The tie turned out to be an enthralling one as it went down to the wire with a late Phillip Wokorach blinder earning Uganda a nerve-wreaking 19-14 win over the 2015 losing finalists. The win attracted attention and all over a sudden the Cranes following at the games grew two-fold.
Mauritius were up next in what, on paper, looked like a winnable game for Cranes. As anticipated a 35-7 victory was attained with tries from Kasita, James Odong, Kasito and Ramathan Govule to propel Uganda atop the pool and forthwith setting up a semifinal clash against hosts and favourites Kenya.
Kenya are perennial HSBC World Series partakers - the world’s biggest stage when it comes to the shorter version of the game. They have way too much pedigree and their ability to grind with the likes of England, New Zealand, Australia and Fiji among others since 2009 has transformed them into a household name all over the globe in Sevens rugby. In this tournament, they could even afford playing second or third string sides and still win at the end the day. But despire the status, the vibrant Ugandan side was unfazed by the task at hand as they raced into a 17-0 half time lead with quickfire tries from Kasito, Wokorach and Govule. The half time score went viral on social media as more Ugandans back home looked for the nearest screen with Zuku TV to confirm it was not a hoax. In the second seven minutes, Uganda had one job. To defend resolutely, which they did clinically and held on for a famous 17-12 victory with Kenya’s two second half tries proving insufficient. History was on the brink after the shock win and there was no way Uganda weren’t going to push for a maiden Africa Cup 7s title.
The Rugby Cranes following had now tripled in and outside Kasarani Stadium. Onyango’s boys believed the ‘Holy Grail’ was well within reach but Namibia stood in their path. Lawrence Ssebuliba started the Namibia onslaught as Pius Ogena quickly added another five-pointer for Uganda. But the Namibians halved the lead with a try of their own. But Wokorach converted his own try and James Odongo touched down too to make it 26-12 at the breather. Wokorach then returned with something special as he orchestrated a textbook chip for Odongo to extend Uganda’s lead to 33-12. Namibia kept fighting and pulled back a try before Solomon Okia crossed the line in the last minute to sink the final nail in the southern Africans coffins. Final score was 38-19 in favuor for the Cranes and Uganda were African champions - for the first time ever in the Sevens code.
By reaching the final, Uganda and Namibia qualified for the qualifiers of the World Sevens Series that were played during the Hong Kong Sevens in April of 2017.
It was indeed a new dawn for the game. “After bringing back the trophy, this team will be hungry for more,” said Onyango on the team’s return at Entebbe Airport. “This could be the beginning of something special.” He added and he was right as the side defended the title in 2017 in Kampala. They went on to play at the Rugby Sevens World Cup in USA, San Francisco. The side has also gone on to win hearts at the HSBC World Series as an invited side. But we will always remember it all started in 2016.
AFRICA 7s CUP 2016
POOL A: Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal
POOL B: Zimbabwe, Uganda, Mauritius
POOL C: Morocco, Zambia, Madagascar
POOL D: Tunisia, Namibia, Botswana
Uganda 19-14 Zimbabwe
Uganda 35-7 Mauritius
Kenya 12-17 Uganda
Uganda 38-19 Namibia
CRANES 7s AFRICA CUP WINNING TEAM
1. Adrian Kasito
2. Dennis Etwau
3. Pius Ogena
4. Solomon Okia
5. Al Hadji Manano
6. Ramathan Govule
7. Robert Anzugu
8. Phillip Wokorach
9. Eric Kasita, (captain)
10. Kevin Keremundu
11. James Odong
12. Lawrence Ssebuliba