Heathens sole beneficiaries in Covid year

Thursday December 24 2020
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63 With 13 games played and 63 points collected at the top of standings, Heathens were declared champions on grounds that 75% of the season had been played yet resumption was uncertain. Would they have run away with it bar the emergence of the pandemic? Arguably yes, they looked good and unbeaten although two tests against Kobs and Pirates lay ahead. PHOTO/DAVID LUBOWA

By Deus Bugembe

In a year the Covid-19 pandemic captured headlines across all sectors, sport suffered its own share with local rugby left in a dark place. The local rugby calendar which traditionally starts October with the Uganda Cup never made the full trip, stopping in March after the pandemic emerged.

The Uganda Rugby Union (URU) had a full course meal on its plate, swarmed with both local and international activity. Out of the three major local tournaments, only the Uganda Cup was fully played with Betway Kobs piping Hima Heathens 14-15 to claim the first tournament of the rugby calendar.

The Nile Special League kicked off towards the end of November but never climaxed just like the National Sevens Series never got a chance to kick off. 2020 saw just one champion, Heathens, crowned with what even their coach Mohammed Athiyo termed a “boardroom title”.
 
With 13 games played and 63 points collected at the top of standings, Heathens were declared champions on grounds that 75% of the season had been played yet resumption was uncertain. Would they have run away with it bar the emergence of the pandemic? Arguably yes, they looked good and unbeaten although two tests against Kobs and Pirate lay ahead. They were in the driving seat with the road ahead navigable. They would however get handed the Holy Grail eight months later in November.  The Schools’ League, too, was cut short with defending champions, St. Mary’s College Kisubi, and 11 time champions Namilyango College labelled favourites.
 
International fold
Uganda Rugby was primed for one of those years awash with plenty of action. Both the women and men’s national sides had the continent calling. From the 15s to the sevens sides, there were targets.

Rugby Sevens Cranes
Tolbert Onyango’s side  started the year taking part in the inaugural World Challenger Series in Uruguay and Chile where they finished eighth.  Eighth place guaranteed a place at the Hong Kong World Sevens Series qualifier that had been slated for April, it never matured with the pandemic threat at large. After Hong Kong, the final Olympics qualifiers were to lead the side to Biarritz France but it too was cancelled just like the Tokyo games.

 The previous week has however seen World Rugby reschedule the qualifiers to June 2021 in Monaco, France with the likes of Brazil, Chile, Jamaica, Mexico, France, Ireland, Samoa, Tonga, Zimbabwe, China and Hong Kong expected to tussle with Uganda for that lone slot up for grabs. 

Later in the year the same side was to pick up their bags and fly to a venue that was yet to be confirmed in pursuit of a third Africa Sevens Championship in five years. They have ruled Africa twice in 2016 and 2017, making them a continental powerhouse. Out of four competitions, the side managed one with pandemic making the three unplayable. The Sevens Lady Cranes under new coach Charles Onen too had 2020 dreams. Onen who had been around the both sevens and 15s camps before, had an objective of getting more girls into the game. He was to later lead the girls to the annual Africa Women’s Sevens.
 
Test Rugby
For the men’s test side, there was a new format in place for the 15s Africa Rugby Cup. Africa Rugby shifted away from the custom home and away format which has tiers Gold, Silver and Bronze. The new format was rationalised and inclusive to revamp the attractiveness of the game. The new format was to allow more teams to compete and give them the opportunity to gain valuable match experience. It involved 12 sides grouped in four groups of three. The top side from each pool was to make the semis and proceed to the finals. 

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Uganda had been drawn in pool C with Algeria and Senegal where they were favourites to make the last four. 
The exciting two months tournament under a new format did not see the day of light after Rugby Africa cancelled the international season in July.

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The MVP That Never Was. Heathens’ best player of the half season was easily Joseph Oyet. He contributed 87 points to the cham’ cause and the way he manned the back three at full back reminisced Benon Kizza’s days at the swamp. PHOTO/EDDIE CHICCO

Lady Rugby Cranes
The women’s test side returned to action in 2019 for the first time in five years. They had the Elgon Cup initiate them back into business. 

The same year had them finish last in the 2019 Rugby Africa Women’s Cup held in South Africa. 
Kenya, South Africa and Madagascar proved tougher then, 2020 was when the Lady Cranes with new coach Leo Lubambula were to clean up and show some poise. 
The pandemic halted their progress and development with no action, missing out on the 2020 edition.
 
Ray of hope
While speaking at a URU event last month, body president Godwin Kayangwe implied competitive rugby would return on January 23 with the league. It is yet to be confirmed whether his promise will stand as clubs and players are yet to get clear and confirmed communication on a way forward. 

After close to nine months of no rugby, players and fans are itching to find their way back to the various grounds. A lot of valuable time has been lost in 2020, how the local rugby fraternity will react to revamp the game next year remains a big question.

CANCELLED          INTERNATIONAL TOURNAMENTS 
Men
l Hong Kong World Series Qualifier
l Tokyo Olympics final qualifying round
l Rugby Africa Cup
l Rugby Sevens Africa Championship
 
Women
l Rugby Africa Cup
l Rugby Sevens Africa Championship
 
CANCELLED LOCAL EVENTS 
l Men’s National Sevens Series
l Women’s National l Sevens Series
l Uganda Cup

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