How third place finish saved Rugby Cranes 7s’ 2024 season

Isaac Massanganzira evades South African defenders in the semifinal loss at the Africa Men's Sevens Series. PHOTO/DENISE NAMALE 

What you need to know:

After conceding first Uganda tied it at 14-all at some stage but the South Africans found an extra gear towards the end to clinch it 26-14.

The Rugby Cranes 7s season started with two 2023 World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series tournaments in April in Stellenbosch, South Africa where they finished fifth after beating Italy 19-15 in the fifth place final.

The prize for Gold in South Africa was entry to the 2023 London Sevens core team qualifier which Tonga earned.

The Rugby Cranes 7s would later return home to rejoin their clubs for the local season before being summoned by coach Tolbert Onyango to start preparations for the 2023 Africa Men’s Cup that was played in Harare, Zimbabwe this past weekend.

The preps kicked off with up to 24 players summoned from the Nile Special Sevens Series and by early September, it had been trimmed to 12.

One of the most significant additions was that of Pius Ogena who had been out of the fold for three years. David Shimwa, a 21 year old prospect was also part of the team that largely had familiar faces.

In Zimbabwe, Uganda arrived as one of the teams to beat after all they were defending Champions.

A 45-7 win over Algeria followed by a 39-19 victory over Burkina Faso in the opening two pool stages set the pace despite some worrying signs.

Onyango admitted his side had not been defending well especially after leaking 19 points against Burkina Faso.

“We are missing a number of tackles and it is hurting us. I’m surprised it’s some of our best defenders not defending well but it is something we should address,” he said after two pool games.

The Last pool game of the day came against hosts Zimbabwe who had a full Harare Sports Club backyard backing them against Uganda.

It was also a repeat of last year’s Africa Men’s 7s final which Uganda won 28-0 and the hosts came off the blocks with intent.

It ended 35-5 in favour of the hosts but Uganda had more questions than answers despite making the quarterfinals.

“We did not stick to our structure and made the game hard for ourselves. This gave our opponents two early converted tries and they never looked back. We ought to return stronger tomorrow,” said vice-captain Adrian Kasito at the end of Day One.

Day Two had Uganda show up as a completely different team. The urgency, hunger and tenacity was back, they approached every move with intent and Zambia were their first victims with a 25-19 win.

“Our game plan was to calm down and play our game, it paid off,” said Phillip Wokorach. That win set up a semifinal clash with South Africa, it was never going to be an easy walk but Uganda gave the four time World Sevens Series Champions a run for their money.

After conceding first Uganda tied it at 14-all at some stage but the South Africans found an extra gear towards the end to clinch it 26-14. “We took the game to South Africa, unfortunately we fell short. There was a time we thought we had it when we levelled but a few decisions did not go our way. From the game, you can see we are not far away from South Africa,” said Onyango

Defeat to South Africa sent Uganda into a third place play off against Zimbabwe that had also lost their semifinal to Kenya.

“This is our most important game of the tournament. Losing is the last thing on our minds because there is a lot at stake,” said Aaron Ofoyrwoth prior to the Zimbabwe game.

Apart from Ogena who had hurt his ankle against South Africa, Uganda came in unchanged for their last game with something to prove.  

Uganda was on top from the beginning to the end, giving Zimbabwe no room to hurt them like they had in the pool stages.

It ended 24-12 with Uganda grabbing that all important third place, enough to send them to Monaco next June for the final Olympics qualifying round in Monaco.

Uganda also managed to qualify for next year’s World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series.

“It is important that we have qualified for the challenger series, I think there is going to be four or five legs which is important for us as a country.

"If we had missed out, our year is dead and the folks at home playing7 s series will have nothing to play for apart from the safari sevens and Africa cup which will happen a year from now,” said Onyango.

With South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe all firing at the continental showpiece, Onyango admitted that securing first spot was going to be difficult. He is glad that next year is alive with a lot of action lined up for the side.

“We are happy with the third place finish as if we have won the tournament, it is a bit of relief.  The boys gave it their all today and the project is alive. We shall go back and have a two weeks rest as we prepare to work on the issues that have been exposed in this tournament,” he added.

With next year’s World Sevens Challenger Series expected to have about four rounds, Uganda needed to make the cut. It is the only way the Rugby Cranes 7s can keep competing at an elite level in a bid to catch up with the likes of Kenya and other tier two playing countries. Third place in Zimbabwe will feel like a win for now.

Pool results
Uganda 45-7 Algeria
Uganda 36-19 Burkina Faso
Zimbabwe 35-5 Uganda

Uganda 29-15 Zambia

Uganda 14-26 South Africa

Third place playoff
Uganda 24-12 Zimbabwe