URU suspends Lekuru in case that keeps twisting and turning

Lekuru is now in the eye of the storm. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE 

What you need to know:

On January 4, Lekuru was named among the 12-player travelling team but she pulled out at the last minute, citing a busy work schedule. 

At the World Rugby Challenger Series in Dubai, Uganda Lady Cranes had to make do without Emilly Lekuru, the country's undisputed finisher and last season's top tryscorer in all local competitions.

On January 4, Lekuru was named among the 12-player travelling team but she pulled out at the last minute, citing a busy work schedule. 

What followed has been a case of who's right and wrong between the Uganda Rugby Union, player, club and employer. A scenario akin to grasshoppers in a sack, mercilessly biting on each instead of collectively working on a way out. 

The elephant in the room 

When coach Charles Onen named his final and travelling squad, Lekuru's name appeared on the list. 

A few hours later, it was confirmed that Lekuru had asked to be left out because her work schedule at Rugby Tackling Life, an NGO where she works as the only accountant, was very tight. Accusations came down harder and ferocious than Israeli bombs on the besieged Gaza Strip.

Lekuru told her followers on social media platform, X, that she was also surprised and disturbed by what she was seeing.

She said she had informed Prossy Nakakande, the Team Manager, that she wasn't going to be travelling to Dubai because of work, but would still train with the team to master the moves and also bond with her teammates. 

She also claims to have asked Nakakande for a fully detailed schedule for future engagements to share with her bosses at RTL for better planning between work and national team programs. 

Nakakande denies. As thus, the Union, which had already processed all travel documents, found itself in a race against time to get a replacement in just days, of course incurring losses in the process.

Not to sit and watch, the URU, citing World Rugby regulation 9.32 slapped Lekuru with a suspension from all Black Pearls local calendar engagements. The suspension started last weekend in the Black Pearls' Uganda Cup semi game against Nile Rapids, which they lost 27-26 to the visitors.

In-between, Lekuru must also face the Union's disciplinary committee in a hearing scheduled for January 17. 

Counter accusations

In a society like ours where proper communication remains a myth, everyone will want to present  themselves as clean. 
January 9 was a busy day for all parties involved. 

Peter Odong the URU secretary wrote to Black Pearls, informing them of Lekuru's suspension. The club responded through Susan Khainza, its Team Manager, insisting that the suspension was unfair because in the first place, URU had never written to them to ask for the said player, but most importantly, the club had no hand in stoping the player from travelling, but the employer. 

Khainza also cited previous cases of players excusing themselves from national team duties and the Union has never punished their clubs.

Black Pearls' response, in part, reads: 
"...Uganda Rugby Union (URU) did not send and or make a formal request to the club requesting the player to join the national team training. 
The club equally never denied and or stopped the player from joining the National team training despite URU not making a formal request to release the said player.

"The player does not have a contract and or agreement with URU or the National 7s team. The player has a contract with her place of work, Rugby Tackling Life (RTL), which in turn refused to release the player for National team due to work commitments; the club was not involved."

"Black Pearls Rugby Club and RTL are two different entities and the club should not be punished if an employer refuses to release their employee for National team duty," reasons Khainza.

When I put this to Eric Butime, the URU Vice President-Technical, his reply was a brief "no comment".

He however opined that these players sign a code of conduct with the national teams and URU not to put the game into disrepute, but couldn't provide proof to this in Lekuru's case. He also didn't show any proof that the Union had indeed written to Black Pearls to release the player.

Lekuru also wrote back to Odong, pleading her innocence and insisting that she informed Nakakande, who, instead, claims Lekuru, didn't play her role to inform the Union and the coach.

Grasshoppers in a sack

Lekuru says she informed Nakakande of her employer's stand. If so, then this opens up the whole thing. Did Nakakande "sleep" on duty?

Butime says this will be for the disciplinary committee to decide. By press time, Nakakande was with the team in Dubai. 

Odong acknowledges that Rugby Tackling Life (RTL) wrote to them, albeit late, on the day that Lekuru was named on the team, informing them of their employee's inability to travel.

This is an indicator that the Union works on assumption that players are obliged to report as and when summoned. Even when some are contracted to workplaces outside rugby, which is an amateur sport and doesn't pay their bills anyway. 

Lekuru asserts that as the only accountant at RTL, she is working under tight deadlines to present her books of accounts to the organizations board and donors and in her absence, she has no one to do it. 

"On December 22 I told her (Nakakande) that l will not be unable to travel because RTL has two major deadlines to beat; one is on January 15 where l will have to submit the 2023 financial reports and accountabilities to our donors. 

"RTL has another deadline for February 1, and I have a financial part that I need to prepare to submit. That is on top of my other daily accounting work. I also have an online UN workshop that I must attend on (last) Friday," her letter reads in part.

It should also be noted that  RTL is the same organization that educated her from lower secondary to graduation. Some bit of loyalty, possibly...

Far reaching consequences
George Mbalu heads Lone Africa, an engineering firm that sponsors Black Pearls. As a sponsor he wants value for his money.

"This was handled in a messy way. Team management is lacking and it is sucking many people into its mess. We spend money and time to build players but get frustrated by other people.

"As a sponsor if your team's player gets suspended and you lose games, you may be forced to look elsewhere. And it's funny because these are the same people always crying for companies to sponsor the sport. But let's see what happens after the disciplinary sitting," argues Mbalu. 

Going forward, such clashes like this are bound to still happen, if communication channels aren't properly defined. It could be Lekuru or any other player. Also, Lekuru says she values her professional career so much to put anything before it. Do we see her quitting national team in case the two calendars keep clashing? Who knows.

RTL, which is registered with the URSB and the Uganda National Bureau for NGOs, under the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, only uses rugby just as a tool to achieve social change in different communities across the country.