In December 2017, the Rugby Sevens Cranes were making back-to-back appearances at Dubai World Rugby Sevens Series as an invited side.
In pool A, Uganda was drawn with Kenya, Canada and three time champions South Africa, also known as the Blitzboks. Uganda opened their account against South Africa and the latter’s squad rolled out onto the screen with a relatable name, Tim Agaba, among the replacements.
With the game 14-5 in favour of South Africa, Agaba came on to score and make it 19-5 before Phillip Wokorach scored the last try of the game to end 19-10.
“The game against Uganda in Dubai in 2017 was really special. I came off the bench and had a soft spot for Uganda, I was hoping we (South Africa) actually lose but we won. It was nice to play against my country,” Agaba recalls while talking for Rugby Fanatics, a local podcast recently.
Agaba was born in Kabale in July 1989 but moved to South Africa as a kid where he has developed into an elite rugby player. His exploits with the Blitzbok and Blue Bulls in Super Rugby, arguably the world’s best club rugby showpiece, make him an inspiration to Ugandan players.
“I was born in Uganda but pretty much bred in South Africa. South Africa is home although a big piece of my heart remains in Uganda and I’m still passionate about the place,” he says.
At Stirling High School, East London in the Eastern Cape Province, Agaba’s rugby expedition kicked off.
“When I got to high school, my new friends had a rugby background although our school was more known for jazz band,” recollects Agaba, who credits William Pringle, then head of sports at Stirling High, for pushing him to get into rugby.
He would later join the Sharks Academy but failed to graduate.
“I got an opportunity to attend the Sharks Academy which was a big stepping stone – not many people get the chance – unfortunately I could not breakthrough,” says the 32 year old.
His shortcomings at Sharks were overridden when he joined the University of Port Elizabeth. While there, Agaba played under a good coach who nurtured him to play for the Kings for three years. It was then that his big leap came.
“I got the opportunity to join the sevens academy which I grabbed with both hands in 2015,” he says on being admitted into the Blitzbok system.
Around 2015 before joining the sevens setting, The Uganda Rugby Union (URU) through coach John Duncan got to Agaba with hope of luring him into the Rugby Cranes.
“I was playing for the South Africa varsity side. I received a call from the Cranes coach, he offered me the opportunity to play for Uganda,” he recalls.
The answer was no from Agaba, he had made up his mind to stick with South Africa. For Agaba, had the opportunity come years before, he would have taken it but it was too late. Choosing Uganda would mean forfeiting his chance to play for South Africa.
The different levels at which the game runs in both countries made Agaba’s choice easier.
“You can’t compare the two, it was the driving force to rejecting the offer to play for Uganda. I was bred in South Africa but had URU been more competitive on the world stage I would have considered it. Had they come earlier when I never saw myself playing for South Africa, I would have considered them,” he adds.
Bittersweet Rio Olympics
The Olympics is the pinnacle of all sports and all sports personalities dream of representing their country at the games. Agaba got his shot when he joined the South Africa squad in 2016.
He might not have been an established sevens player but had the attributes of one as a foundation. Being around decorated players like Brian Habana (2007 World Rugby Player of the Year), Cecil Afrika (2011 World Rugby International Sevens Player of the Year) and captain Philip Snyman motivated Agaba after being welcomed with open arms.
“It’s a special 7s system here, they have found a working system, recruitment. You might be a good player but it takes a type of person to fit in,” he says.
At the Olympics, South Africa were favourites but finished third. A 7-5 loss to Great Britain at the semifinal stage dealt the rainbow nation a massive blow.
“Sevens rugby is brutal, especially when you go into a tournament as favourites. We were a good team but against Great Britain, it was one of those games where the ball does not bounce for you. The gold was our target but it never happened,” he admits to the disappointment.
Super Rugby experience
In 2018, Agaba got his first Super Rugby start for Bulls against Sharks. It was unexpected but more than welcome with 60 minutes bagged. Playing Super Rugby for Bulls who Agaba calls the “Real Madrid of South African rugby” was special to him.
The Bulls have won three Super 14 titles and a Super Rugby unlocked title recently. It was a dream come true under New Zealand coach John Mitchell, who fancied his style of play, starting him at eight man.
The cap came with a victory. Transiting back to 15s rugby was never a challenge as Agaba had played the format before 7s and planned on returning after all its more lucrative.
“7s isn’t lucrative, once players here establish themselves, they are offered money they can’t reject,” explains Agaba.
On Uganda rugby
While at the 2018 Hong Kong 7, Agaba got the chance to talk to some of the Ugandan players at the tournament.
“I tried to interact with the guys and get to know them, I have seen a lot of Phillip (Wokorach) on social media. I have seen some of the team play and it is really impressive,” he says.
“Phillip is really a special player, I hope his career takes on.”
The loose forward encourages Ugandan players to reach out to him on social media as he would love a deeper connection with Uganda rugby.
“I have always wanted to do something like coaching, consulting or anything once rugby is in the back seat of my life. I would encourage Ugandan players to reach out for advice.”
Alex Mubiru, a veteran hooker at Hima Heathens and Rugby Cranes, is in touch with Agaba more than with local players. They talk supplements and Mubiru updates Agaba with goings-on.
“I met him the last time I came to Uganda,” says Agaba who would love to explore Uganda, more beyond the capital, Kampala, and Kabale, his hometown in western Uganda.
At 32, Agaba has one more rugby goal to chase, playing for the Springboks.
“I dream of playing for the Springboks, it’s the ultimate goal,” he says.
After rugby, Agaba plans to rekindle his love of health fitness ranging from studying the body anatomy to sports science.
Advice to Uganda players aspiring for pro career
“Focus on your dreams because it’s not easy. I felt I had no business becoming a pro rugby player, it’s a struggle as a teenager and it’s easy to be distracted. A lot of players from high school fall off. Focus and mentorship is important. Nutrition, sleeping patterns, psychology and seeking knowledge are all key,” he advises.
He admits that becoming a pro player in South Africa is a struggle as there are standards to be met. However, the best recommendation is to start early.
“Grassroots level is how you can make it because the pool here is too big,” he says.