As of last weekend, the Gold Cup had come to an end and Uganda’s position had been confirmed; third. The Cranes came third behind Namibia (the champions) and Kenya (runners-up). Right below the Cranes were Tunisia, Zimbabwe, and Morocco who were relegated despite having been promoted only a year ago.
The 2018 campaign will be etched in memory as a ragged one as the Cranes saw mixed results, endured humiliating defeats but also put up beautiful showcases and played some beautiful rugby.
Statistically, Uganda went on a downward spiral from last year despite finishing in the same position. The Cranes scored 5 less tries(20), and conceded ten more tries (26) than last year. The Cranes only lost once last year (24-48) to Namibia, a draw (33-33) against Kenya, and three wins: one away at Senegal, two at home – 78-17 against Tunisia and 38-12 against Zimbabwe. Against the same opponents this year, Uganda lost to three i.e 38-18 to Zimbabwe in Kampala, 55-06 to Namibia away and 38-22 against Kenya in Nairobi.
It probably went wrong even before it started. Owing to the victory over the Cheetahs in October 2017 at the Africa 7s, Uganda were to participate at the Sevens Rugby World Cup in July 2018 and putting weight into the mathematics, the Guinness 7s contract seemed more desirable than the 15s engagements of the Gold Cup.
Uganda sent a weakened side to Windhoek to face off with now defending champions of the Gold Cup in June and the result was no surprise. The Cranes were left chasing shadows in a 55-06 humiliation managing only two penalties, thanks to the boot of James Ijongat. The home side crossed the try-line nine times in the process. There was literally nothing to write home about from that trip.
The next game for the Cranes was the return leg of the Elgon Cup, the East African derby against Kenya. As has been the case before, the Cranes were slow at the start and conceded early. It being a derby, that wasn’t going to be the last thing the Cranes would be getting known for. They were soon on the attack and managed a reply with a try from Ivan Magomu. The Cranes went AWOL for the rest of the first half and Kenya squeezed through three more tires before the break. After the break, the “comeback” was purportedly on as the Cranes managed three tries before the hosts could get in on the action again but failure to convert and a late nail from Amusala meant the Cranes would lose their second game (38-22) out of two; before the 7s stars would be on their way to San Francisco, with many of them hailing form this crop.
With Sevens World Cup a memory, the Cranes returned to action, at home, to turn their season around and put away all allegations of possible relegation. A slow start greeted revelers at Kyadondo rugby but the boys recovered and washed away Tunisia with ease, winning 67-12 and imminently jumping from bottom of the table to third.
The next game saw Morocco, the newly promoted side visit the Cranes at Kyadondo and this game too, had its own script. Uganda opened fire straight from the word go and ended the first half with a commanding 30-07 lead. The second was a tumultuous affair however. The Moroccans pack came to life, denied Uganda any access to the ball and got three tries in before Uganda could even get the half time team talk to sink. It was a late surge of efforts through Pius Ogena and Solomon Okia that put the game beyond reprieve for the North Africans. Uganda won 47-29 at Full time.
With third place more or less confirmed, Uganda were left with one test against the hungry Zimbabwe sables. Coach Peter De Villiers’s boys were without a win and anything other than that would mean relegation. Playing like the home teams, they were quick on the attack, scored two quick tries and silenced the full pitch at Kyadondo. Byron Oketayot got Uganda’s first try of the day but Mandivenga made sure it counted less as he went on ther end to score again for the Sables. The sables scored three tries in each half, with Uganda getting one in each half. With that bonus point win, Zimbabwe were safe from relegation.
Going to Namibia, the Cranes had a depleted stars, lacking of many household performers and names i.e Phillip and Michael Wokorach, Pius Ogena, Ivan Magomu and Solomon Okia. As if that was not enough, the Cranes lost Lawrence Ssebuliba to an arm injury. It was downhill from there. The absence of Michael and Pius exposed Uganda’s ineptitude thus far to find a solid center pairing to step in and fill the void left by Pius and Michael. The game was a bit too much too chew for Ian Munyani and Eric Mula. That showed when the coaches kept tinkering on who would come off the bench in which game. In the second game against Kenya, the reinforcements came through but the Kenyans were more prepared and clearly meant more business.
The first home game was what bookies would call a perfect game. The team shook off early nerves and blitzed past a hapless Tunisian outfit. The forwards were on point. The back-line was outright immaculate. After Tunisia, another North African opponent in Morocco awaited Uganda. The first half reminded the crowd of Tunisia but the second half had its script rewritten. It tested the resolve of the Cranes, and the fans alike. In the build-up to the Zimbabwe game, it came to light that the players’ allowance had not been paid and they were planning on boycotting the game but after a few talks, the players allowed to play. Zimbabwe made easy work of Uganda, playing like the home team and despite of the fact that the Cranes had nothing major to break sweat for, the body language was lacking.
Pius Ogena went from Man Of The Match against Morocco, to invisible man of the match. Ivan Magomu went from architect against Morocco, to bench warming against Zimbabwe. Our backline went from line breaks and thunderous phases to missing tackles.
It is good that the lads dug from deep to ensure that Uganda stays in the elite circle of African rugby but anyone that knows the potential of this crop understands just how much they can achieve and dominate. With all that said, we can only hope for a better show next year and a placement higher.