What you need to know:
- Ebonga, born on January 24, 1997, to Eunice Owori and Boniface Ojedi, first picked a rugby ball while at Victoria Primary School in 2007
Jinja Hippos captain Maxwell Ebonga won the 2021 top scorers’ gong for the Nile Special Rugby Premiership earning frequent calls to the national teams.
His star started shining.
Ebonga, born on January 24, 1997, to Eunice Owori and Boniface Ojedi, first picked a rugby ball while at Victoria Primary School in 2007.
Coaches from the UK had partnered with Coach Denis Anguyo, Robert Bwali, Michael Abaliwano and several others to introduce Tag Rugby to Jinja.
“I was starting out as a footballer but a group of coaches started teaching us rugby through the Tag Rugby project. It changed our course,” Ebonga narrates.
That is how Ebonga and his peers, now teammates at Jinja Hippos, were lured into the sport. Among them are Denis Etwau, Timothy Mugisha and John Echeru.
“That was the turning point because those people came and motivated us with small gifts like boots which were hard to come-by in football,” he adds.
Defender becomes attacker
Ebonga’s football skills as a young defender with a powerful kick came in handy. Rugby requires a lot of kicking.
“One of the reasons I have been converting a lot is that in football, I played in the defence and used to clear long balls so when we joined rugby, my friends and the coaches saw that was my strongest point and encouraged me to focus on the kicks,” Ebonga explains.
The Tag Rugby project ended in 2014 but the lot were absorbed into the junior team of the now-defunct Nile RFC.
The team was handled by Abaliwano and Bwali. The former is now an executive at Hippos and the latter is the Training and Education manager at Uganda Rugby Union.
Nile was relegated from the Premiership in 2013 but in 2014, Jinja Hippos was formed and the lot was taken in.
Ebonga was part of the team that won two consecutive Genocide Memorial 7s tournament title in Rwanda and participated in the national 7s series.
National 7s coach Tolbert Onyango was paying attention and summoned him for trials in 2017.
“Just being called was a big motivation because you know that you’re on the national team radar.
“We were doing well in the national and regional 7s tournaments, that’s how we were spotted,” the 25-year-old says.
He was part of the core of the Hippos team that earned promotion to the Premiership in 2018.
“Qualifying for the topflight exposed us a lot. After that, I made my debut in the national 7s colours in 2018 when we played the French Army then followed that with the 15s in 2019 in the Elgon Cup against Kenya in Kisumu. These games pushed me further,” he feels.
Ebonga is also part of the Rugby Cranes 15s team that took part and qualified for the upcoming Rugby Africa Cup in July.
During the 2021/22 qualifier in Kampala between July 10 and 18 last year, Ebonga played in both games in the 53-12 win over Ghana when he came on as a 59th minute substitute, and scored a penalty in the 22-16 loss to Algeria.
He was again summoned to the national 7s team for the 2022 cycle that climaxed with the team winning the 2022 Africa Men’s 7s title and qualification to the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup.
The beginning of Ebonga’s nightmare unfolded fast as he picked a career-threatening injury just three days to reporting to camp.
OJ, as he is commonly known among his peers, ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee last August 31 in training.
“Coach Tolbert called me on the phone and said: ‘we need you to come and start training for the Sevens.’ I was excited but then a day later, I was injured,” Ebonga says.
“I could not believe it! The knee was hurting and my heart ached because this was the time I felt my breakthrough was ripe!”
“I tell myself, ‘mmh... OJ, everything is ruined now. This is the end of me: the Sevens is going to Cape Town (South Africa) and you won’t go. You won’t play the 7s series for your club and the doctors say you won’t play the league, maybe never again! This is the end!
“I was really frustrated. I won’t be in the team going to France because of this. Maybe I could’ve been part of the historic 7s team that has gone to the Commonwealth Games and World Cup.”
Surgery, guardian angels
For his injury, OJ was referred for surgery in Kenya. It’s in Nairobi that he found a guardian angel, Denis Mwanja (a former Kenyan international).
“I was still devastated but a friend, who is also doubles as my sponsor, Dave Olagna, from Australia introduced me to Denis who had recovered from similar injury,” he says.
“Denis gave me motivation and verses in the Bible that made me strong mentally because that is what I needed most during the surgery and recovery.”
Mwanja, together with Olagna and Hippos management, catered for Ebonga’s full medical costs until his return to Uganda. He made his return to the pitch in Hippos’ final match of the season against Warriors on May 7 at the Legends.
The captain was a second-half substitute in the 20-11 victory, scoring a penalty and a conversion after his primary school peer Etwau’s try.
“When that moment to step back on the pitch came, it was special because it proved that I had conquered the setback.
“It showed that God is with me and my story should inspire anyone out there passing through a difficult time,” Ebonga says.