Malcolm Okello: Kid with a thunderous boot and maturity of a pro

Heathens young ster Malcolm Okello nails one of his many perfect kicks. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE 

What you need to know:

The growth path at Kyadondo is designed in a way that when you graduate from Tigers, you join Stallions, which is the ladder below Buffaloes and Heathens. 

Dark like a shadow with a boyish smile, Daniel Malcolm Okello is as talented as all rugby players that came out of the former Nakawa Quarters and found a home at Kyadondo Rugby Club.

The current boy wonder of Ugandan rugby, Okello's path was shaped by his old peers and idols, especially big brother Jasper Onen Boskut.

It's nowonder that Okello is known by the same last name to his friends and teammates.

In the last two years, Okello has taken the rugby fraternity by storm. From captaining the Uganda Baby Cranes U-20 team at the 2022 Barthes Trophy, captaining Hana Mixed International School to the URU Schools Rugby glory in 2023 to being voted the Uganda Cup MVP last weekend after kicking Heathens to the trophy, the Senior Six leaver is surely a gem on the rise.

Start them young 

Nakawa Housing Quarters was such a rich catchment area for talent and Kyadondo Rugby Club opened its doors to kids from all over the place. 

Okello was lucky to grow up watching big names like his brother Boskut Onen, Michael Wokorach, Kevin and Jude Kermundu, Benon Kizza, James Odongo, Philip Pariyo, Chris "Opah" Lubanga and Charles Uhuru, among others, as idols.

At the age of six, he was enrolled into the famous Kyadondo Tag Rugby program which has proved a resourceful conveyor belt for rugby in the country.

Christine Kizito, Stella Kyarikunda, Evelyn Aweku and Peter "Sky" Ochol have developed this program and mentored players through the age grade rugby training plus availing education opportunities through the oval ball.

In September 2015, Okello's cohort landed an invite to England under the Tag Rugby Trust (TRT) program and that became the proverbial breakthrough. Emma Ochan, Steven Kalema, (Heathens), Aaron Tukei (Buffaloes), Michael Kalyango (Rams) and Rajab Kudra were part of the team. 

"Stepping on a plane at that age made us realize that with hard work and focus we could go far with this sport, and life in general," reminisces Okello.

The Kyadondo rugby grassroots rugby is structured in a way that there are under age teams until you reach the top tier that has Heathens and Buffaloes.

So, Okello and his peers started out at Tigers, at the base the age grade ladder. 

In 2016 when I had joined Stallions for a rugby career that didn't really last long, I met a young, skinny Okello. 

As a former footballer, I naturally wanted to go for what looked easiest for me: kicking. 

The young boy found me practicing my kicks and boldly looked me in the face and asked: "oyagala kuyiga okusamba nga tonnayiga kupassinga?"

(Are you sure you want to begin by kicking the rugby ball for points and territory before you can even pass the ball?)

I laughed at myself. Kid, in his early teens, asked me for the ball and "ordered" me to follow him in passing drills. I obliged and what followed is a joke that we still laugh about todate.

Prancing Stallions

The growth path at Kyadondo is designed in a way that when you graduate from Tigers, you join Stallions, which is the ladder below Buffaloes and Heathens. 

Okello captained Stallions in the Central League and landed himself a scholarship at Hana. The school has an education arrangement with Kyadondo. He went alongside Ochan, Kalema, Tukei, Meddie Abdallah (Buffaloes) and Eugene Ikaaba (KOBs). 

They led Hana to the URU school trophy last year, with Okello the captain also emerging top points scorer. 

At that time he had tasted top tier rugby with Heathens in the 7s circuit and a few games in the 15s setup.

In 2022, Arthur Mukama, the yellow machine veteran backrower, told me: "This kid's boot and overall rugby brain should be something to smile about in the next five years".

However it's only two years since. Meaning the best is still coming.

"I don't want to promise a lot but I know I am in good hands and shape. I just need to keep working on my body for more power and I'll get where I want to get in this sport," Okello told me after picking his Man of the Match and MVP award on Saturday at King's Park. 

Welcome to the table of men

They say the fire burns ferociously in the top tier and Okello has since had his fair share. 

Last year I met him in Jinja during the Kyabazinga 7s. He was walking with a minor limp. He told me things are tough up there and laughed at me for walking away from the sport. In the ensuing exchange, he admitted that it's a completely different ball game as you go up the curve as the amount and gravity of tackles keeps tripling.

However, he has manned up and delivered big performances in big games. After all, big name players make big game displays on big game days, as the old saying goes. The semi final against Pirates a fortnight ago was one of those. 

Taking away the team's main kicking duties from Opah and having the full team trusting you isn't for the faint hearted. 

"Since my days as a small kid in tag rugby I've always wanted to be a reliable kicker. I've always done special kicking sessions and now I doubled up. I do extra training with the kicking because I know that a good boot can win a game," he says.

Leadership credentials 

For a boy who commanded a mid 30 year old man to ditch kicking and embrace the basics of passing, that is leadership in its core form.

Balls of steel. When Richard Lumu chose Okello to lead the Baby Cranes outfit in Nairobi, he stated: "I have followed him through the years. He is disciplined, has an all round knowledge of the game and a voice to call his fellows out."

Naturally, players want a captain who will lead with actions and star performances. That is what Okello brought to Lumu's team with his playmaking agility and prowess from the kicking tee en route to being named the tournament top points scorer.

At last year's schools finals against St. Mary's College, Kisubi (Smack), Okello scored a try, three conversions and four penalties to ensure a fine evening. They won 33-13.

Now is the future

For many, the future never comes. For Okello, the future is now. Photographer Hassan Wamwayi captured one interesting photo in the game against Pirates. Michael Wokorach, the evergreen Heathens captain was seen handing the ball to Okello for a convertion. In the photo was Opah, seen walking away. Was it more of a transfer of powers? Maybe. The signs are there that Okello's sweet left boot is being relied on and trusted and that gives loads of confidence to the youngster. 

In 2022, Philip Wokorach gifted Okello a kicking tee from France. "That one is like my (kid) brother because I know the whole family. I know his journey and if I can throw in some little bit of assistance, why not?", remarked Wokorach.

For now, Okello can only keep working hard and growing into the player many expect and wish him to be, as he awaits the results of his Senior Six exams and try to further his education. 

In brief

Name: Daniel Malcolm Okello

Club: Heathens

Previous teams: Tigers, Stallions

National teams: Baby Cranes (U-20)

*Part of Uganda 7s training squad, yet to debut.

Position: Utility back (fly half, first center, fullback)

Kicking style: Left foot mid and long range

Honours: URU Schools champion (2023 with Hana)

National 15s league (2022)

Uganda Cup: 2022, 2023

Top points scorer: Schools (2023), Barthes Trophy (2022), Uganda Cup (2023)