Odongo: Engineer who juggled school, work and rugby

Brian Odong breaks away from Kenyan players during an Elgon Cup clash.  Photos/John Batanude

What you need to know:

  • At the age of 33, Brian Odongo hung up his rugby boots to concentrate on his career as an electrical engineer with the Ministry of Education and Sports. He is regarded by many as one of the best props to have stepped onto the pitch and captained both his club Kobs and the Rugby Cranes. His discipline, knowledge of the game and leadership skills made him stand out in his 20 years of playing the game, writes Emanzi Ndyamuhaki.

Haven’t you retired early?

No. I have played rugby since 2008. This year, I turn 34 and I believe that’s not too early. Of course, some other commitments have forced me to retire.

How would you summarise your career?
My rugby career is surprising because when I joined club rugby in 2008, I honestly didn’t expect to hit the heights that I have.
To be honest, I used to watch national team games and I didn’t ever imagine that I would one time play for Uganda. 
To my surprise, the same year I joined Kobs, I made my national team debut through coach David Dobela, he really liked me because even in 2007 when we were training for U19, he had asked me to join the senior team.

How did you get to play rugby anyway, is it because your brother was in it already?
I got into rugby in 2001 while at Mary’s College Kisubi and of course it was because of my brother. I didn’t even know what rugby was then.

Do you have any memories of your league debut?

I first played a whole year in the junior team (Boks) in my S.6 vacation so going into the next season, it was the second semester of my first year at campus. 
I was promoted because Fred Mudoola had injured his shoulder and Kenneth Mutabaruka tore a bicep during pre-season. There was a need for props and they promoted me. 
The debut was exciting, I think it was against Buffaloes at Legends. It was a mixture of many things including being scared. The captain at that time -Adrian Bukenya was a bit tough so you knew that whenever you stepped on the pitch, you had to perform to your best. 
There was excitement and also the fear of failure and for me personally, the fear of failure drives me in everything I do be it school, work or sport. I don’t want to fail so the debut was a pressure moment for me but exciting as well.

And your national team debut?

That was 2008 and we were playing Kenya in the return leg of the Elgon Cup. We had beaten Kenya 20-3 and we had a healthy advantage going into the second leg, I was brought into the team. 
The props that travelled were Ronald Adigas, Kenneth Mutabaruka and I. By half time, Kenya piled up many points and had overturned the advantage going into the second half. Kenneth Mutabaruka keeps telling me that he gave me a national team debut.  The coach asked him if I could handle that game and he told him, “Yeah, he’s actually very capable. Field him” and that’s how I got onto the field.

We lost the Elgon Cup by a conversion. The kicker (Joel Anguyo), who was my teammate at Kobs and just like me, part of the younger group, told me during dinner later that he actually didn’t know the score. He thought the kick he was taking was useless, it was the last play of the game and if he had converted it, we would have won the cup by one point. We missed out on the cup but of course I was excited to make my debut.

What is it like to captain Kobs and how big is the responsibility?

First of all, captaining Kobs came as a surprise. I first heard it as a rumor. Someone, who was playing with us, walked up to me and said, “by the way there is a rumour that you are going to be the next Kobs captain.” 
Then another person told me the same. There was an allegation that I was not aware of, that I was going to Pirates the next season. Apparently, they made me captain to make me stay. At the time they made me captain, it was a point of rebuilding because we had lost so many players due to people getting work commitments and others retiring. I remember being the coach in 2011. I would come from campus and coach guys who were much older than me. It was a tough rebuilding time; we didn’t have a sponsor and everything was hard.

From Kobs you went on to captain the Rugby Cranes. How was that like?

The pressure is massive. When you are walking out onto the pitch, the place is so packed it looks dark, you feel like the sun has disappeared. At that point you suck up the emotion. 
There are pressure moments in the game and the crowd wants a victory, at times going for three points won’t excite the crowd, they want you to go to the corner and maul or someone to scratch and hit the opponent because they want both the victory and fun. As captain sometimes you take a decision even if it is only you who appreciates it. At times it is the right decision and sometimes it’s not. At the end of the day, life is all about decisions.
Rugby Cranes captains have been accused of not fighting for their players especially when it comes to the issues of allowances. 

In as much as you would fight for it, it would delay. At some point, you have to be straight up with the union and ask them to explain before a campaign. At a certain point we got a solution and money used to come.  I think now the situation has improved because there are more resources coming in. There are times we failed to handle these issues and I remember a game we played in Nairobi and we had been promised that players would get their money on Friday before the game and it didn’t happen. 
Some of the players were really hurt and disappointed, we didn’t do well in the game. In such cases my only plea was for the union to be open and tell the players that the money will come later but play and honour your national team.

You joined a national team that had players that had won the Africa Cup in 2007, how was it like to play with those stars?

The seniors were extremely helpful. We reached a point where we all understood ourselves. Even on game day as captain  before making some of those difficult calls, you make eye contact with the seniors and in that eye contact you have communicated. I will talk about mostly the forwards like Moses Soita, Mathias Ochwo, Robert Sseguya (RIP), Alex Mubiru, Solomon Mawanda. At the start of training after call ups, you knew you were going into a tough campaign but you had old timers on the team. They wanted to take the lead and guide, show you that this is what they did previously, and advise on what to do better. Whenever you came in for training, you would learn something.
Tell us about games between Kobs and Heathens, you must have loved the clashes

It is the biggest game in Ugandan rugby. If you are not prepared, don’t get on to that field. I will tell you something about our current captain (Joseph Aredo). He was still a young lad and we were going to play Heathens at home (Legends), in the changing room I saw him shivering and shaking so I walked up to him and gave him a tight grip to pump him up. 
I had not seen him like that before. Heathens is a very difficult team to beat because they will compete until the final whistle, it doesn’t matter who they select to play and I am sure they (Heathens) say the same thing about Kobs. That’s why our scores are always nail-biters, at some point we asked ourselves if our fans deserved this. 

Why can’t one team just beat the other and by half time the game is done?  The thing about those games is that the best prepared team will win, you take your opportunities, you win the game. The games are always physical, I remember in 2009, we played Heathens at Legends and the game was 0-0 until about 70 minutes, they got two penalties in the last minutes and Keremundu converted for them. 
Even penalty scoring opportunities were not there, the whole game was played between the two 10-meter lines. I recovered from that game after about five days.
What do you think of the competition in the league? Looks like it is all about Heathens, Kobs and Pirates
Not at all. Mongers is a hard team to beat, Buffaloes beat us a couple of times, there is a time Impis was tough. I wouldn’t say any team is weak. There is no easy team. Those other teams might argue that the big teams poach their players and that is partly true but it happens everywhere in sports.

Who would you rate as your toughest opponent in Ugandan rugby?

They are many, I wouldn’t say just one. I have faced Brian Makalama, actually when I had just joined it was Brian, Denis Mugambe (Heathens) then along came Martial Chumkam.
Whenever we met Heathens, Asuman and I never used to collide a lot because we were playing the same number. There is one guy who gave me a hard time but he was my teammate and that is Eber Aturinde, if he had stayed in Ugandan rugby, I can swear he would be starting for Uganda. Every time we met in training; he had my number. Even in Bamburi, he actually told someone that he was going to retire me and maybe if he had stayed, I might have retired much earlier. Kenneth Mutabaruka and Paul Barigye were my teammates so we never met.

How would you rate the current crop of props in Uganda?

They are actually ok. I see people complaining that we don’t have the numbers but how many countries actually do? Maybe South Africa but even then, I can argue that they don’t have more than four. How many countries have ten good props? It is really hard and it is the same for the other numbers as well. I can name six props here and, on any day, if selected they can all do well for Uganda.

What is your fondest memory in rugby?

For Kobs, it is the first title I lifted in 2008. For Rugby Cranes, it is the victory against Zimbabwe in Harare. It was a very hard game and I was named man of the match.

Any moments to forget?

Heathens washed us in the Uganda Cup final in 2009. For the national team, the loss to Kenya in 2015, the time allowances caused problems. As a Kobs fan and part of management, the loss to Pirates on Women’s Day in 2018 hurt. 
We were complacent and assumed that Pirates would not be fired up for that game. They had nothing to win and nothing to lose and that is the most dangerous opponent. One of the tries they scored, I would call it a 14-pointer, from us almost scoring seven on one end, we went and conceded seven the other.

 You are now into management with Kobs, where is this leading you to?

Management is about a vote. The previous EXCOM, I was secretary and I have stayed in that position. There is a claim about me being the next chairman but I don’t want to enter that conversation right now. 
If there is any other person who is more suitable than I am or if the current chairman hopes to continue in the position, well and good but as and when the time comes, I will see where to go. It could be Kobs or the Union, if I win the vote. It is all about winning the vote.

What kind of potential does Ugandan rugby have, on the pitch, commercially and in general?

We can only improve. The key thing is finances and we have seen a sharp increase in funding coming into the sport which is good. Clubs are struggling with sponsorships but with the Union, there is more money coming in. 
We currently got a sponsorship of over a billion with Nile Breweries and that is going to benefit the clubs even more. For national teams, we have a situation where Sevens players are paid a monthly allowance. If it could get better, then we can have some people fully focussing on rugby. If we get to a level where rugby is giving you Shs3m a month, the players might decide to concentrate on just the game, wake up at 5am and go to the gym, at 10am you are at training. That would greatly improve the game.

You have had to juggle rugby with books and work, how did you manage to strike a balance?

It has been very hard. When I was a student at Makerere doing Electrical Engineering, we were using taxis at the time. That meant leaving Wandegeya early, around 3.30pm so that you are at Legends ready for training by 5pm. At that time, people are going into discussions, there are times the next morning you would go to class and see people discussing things that were taught the same day and you are already on the backfoot. 
Then national team games used to clash with exams and personally I never attended all the training sessions, in 2010, I risked being dropped. I showed up the day they were dropping players and it is my past experience that made the coaches select me. I was unfit and had not trained for about a month. Whenever the two collided, for me the decision was easy, books came first. With work, it is a bit easier to balance. 

If I have field work and it is not a scheduled activity like site meetings, I can plan well and see when to train. I must say it reached a point where I had to be in many places at the same time and that is the situation I am in now. It is one of the reasons I decided to retire. I kept getting injured because I was not training enough.

One of many. Brian Odongo (L) and teammates sing the national anthem ahead of an Elgon Cup clash against Kenya in 2017. Since making his debut in 2008, he played 38 games for the Rugby Cranes.  PHOTOs/ Eddie Chicco

Your Kobs have not started the season well, what is the matter?
At this point in time, we are at the mercy of the other two teams cancelling each other out. Unfortunately, we have to state it as it is, if one of them won their remaining games, they are champions. For now, we just have to keep winning our games and I am glad results have started coming for us. The win against Hippos was impressive considering that last season, we were champions and we didn’t pick a bonus point from them. The game was tight until the last minute.

The country recently lost a legend, Robert Sseguya, what kind of player and person was he like to you?
We met during national team training and he used to guide me. He was a competitor and every time someone joined the national team to play number six, it was fire between him and that person. 
Ronald Musajja can attest to that; it was fire in training. He wanted to beat you hands down in training and even on game day, he would show up. There are people who train well and get the nod then on game day, the lion in training turns into a bobcat. Soggy was a lion through and through. 

Every time we faced each other during the Kobs-Heathens games, we had confrontations. There is a game we played at Legends, it must have been 2011, at some point the ref asked us if we wanted to fight. He asked if he should allow us to go to the corner and fight, Soggy gladly told the ref (Ramsey Olinga) that ‘yes please, let us go and fight.’ We were fighting on every breakdown and the ref got fed up. 

There is also another game we played in 2010 at Kyadondo, there was a blood bin and the doctor was stitching Allan Musoke. When we turned, Soggy was assuring two of our players, Barigye and Anguyo. He had taken them aside for a lecture. We wondered how he would just walk into our camp and pick players. 
He is a big loss to the country and may his soul rest in peace. He had gone into coaching and had big plans for Uganda to play at the World Cup. Hopefully, the next coaches can help him achieve that dream.

Alex Mubiru (Rugby   Cranes teammate)
Brian joined us when he was still a young man. We had just come back from winning the Africa Cup. He learnt from the best and little wonder he went on to captain his club and country. He was a quick learner and after some of us captaining the team, he was the suitable candidate to take the mantle. Even when I was captain, he is one person I used to consult and when he was captain, I also gave him a few tips here and there and he would listen.
Brian knew the laws of the game to the dot and that is not the case with the current generation. He used to do player profiling and if you have such a guy, you can’t take him for granted. Rugby doesn’t pay bills and it is understandable if he has chosen to retire, we wish him well. I will miss him, on the national team, we had so many moves with him. Hopefully he will have time for the game, maybe a few sessions with the boys.

 Brian Makalama (coach)
Brilliant lad, mix of old and new school rugby, a fighter and a gentleman. His strength was in the technical understanding of the game and his position on the pitch. He was a very composed player. The new crop of players does not cherish the value of hard work and as captain, he emphasized hard and smart work. He was a born leader.

Michael Wokorach (Rugby Cranes teammate)
Brian was calm and gentle but a fearless rugby player. He didn’t fear to take on any challenge on pitch, indeed he fits the title Captain Fantastic. It was good playing for him because he had very good command of the game and was always ready to put his body on the line for Uganda, led from the front like a true captain. Playing against him was really tough, I always knew he was going to give us a hard time. His leadership skills were unmatched for Kobs and it most times helped them win against us. 


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