Fresh-faced and fast-paced Ugandans chasing a World Series spot that would ‘blow up’ rugby in the country
Mixed results in the qualifier at the Hong Kong Sevens leaves exuberant East Africans a solid chance to progress as Spain and Germany lay down the marker
If the powers that be are looking for a team to ensure the World Rugby Sevens Series remains a spectacle between Olympics, they could do worse than the excitement machine that is Uganda.
In Hong Kong for their first-ever qualifying competition, the youthfully exuberant Ugandans are on a mission that coach Tolbert Onyango says would change everything.
“It [a spot on the World Series] would mean the world to us. Our lives would change, the way rugby is played back at home, the way it’s structured, the way it’s financed, the whole package would change,” he said.
A team of mostly students with an average age of 22, Uganda turned in a mixed performance on day one of the Hong Kong Sevens.
But whether it was dancing a merry dance in a 29-0 win over Tonga or maintaining their flair in a 24-0 loss to a well-oiled German machine, there was no doubt the Ugandans struck a chord with the crowd at Hong Kong Stadium.
They celebrated every try in the opening game with a rare vigour that endeared them to onlookers, with Lawrence Ssebuliba crossing twice.
Rugby is growing like wildfire in Uganda, with Onyango saying his side is “miles” ahead of where they were two years ago.
“It is obviously behind football but it is one of the fastest rising games in Uganda and within the East Africa region as well,” he said. “If we get into the World Series itself, it would just blow up.”
After playing as the invited team in the first two legs of the World Series in Dubai and Cape Town, Uganda are taking every new challenge in their stride.
The Olympics is the ultimate goal, hence why Onyango is wheeling out such a young side.
So fresh is the squad that some players were straight out of school when Uganda faced a baptism of fire against South Africa, USA and Scotland in Dubai.
“We are building and putting up a young team to target the Olympics,” he said. “Within two to three years we should be where we expect to be, a formidable side.”
It remains to be seen whether Uganda are ready to make a serious run through days two and three of the qualifier this weekend.
However, they possess a sheer size and speed belying the fact their youngest player is 19 and most are still studying.
According to 27-year-old powerhouse Michael Okorach, who has played in two Commonwealth Games and is one of only two players in the squad that work, there are no professional rugby sevens contracts in Uganda.
“Rugby is just leisure for me. There is not much I am earning from the sport but I’m looking to earn something in the future,” said Okorach, who works as a procurement officer.
“If we get to the World Series it is a life-changing thing. We are trying to make a living out of rugby and if we get to the series definitely sponsorship will come and a lot will change.”
As focused and driven as the side is, they are still more than willing to admit they often find themselves in disbelief at just how far they have come.
“It’s a place where we have never been before so we are excited to see what will take place,” Onyango said.
“Just taking part, meeting the stars that you see on TV and sharing the same corridor and dining room, that means the world to us.”
Spain, Germany, Chile and Hong Kong were the most impressive teams on day one, winning two from two to progress to the quarter-finals.