It is make or break for Ugandan rugby, when a 12-man rugby Cranes squad travels down to Johannesburg, South Africa for the Africa Sevens Cup this weekend from November 8 to 9.
A berth to the 2020 Olympics is up for grabs, as Uganda will be up against 13 other nations, including: Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mauritius, Madagascar, Botswana, Namibia, Senegal, Tunisia, Nigeria, Morocco and Zambia.
Only the winner of the cup, which Uganda won in 2016 and 2017, only to lose to Zimbabwe in the 2018 final, will automatically qualify for the 2020 Olympics. The runner-up will have to contend with another global qualifier, slated for June 2020.
Such is how high the stakes are. In fact, it is evident that rugby Cranes sevens coach Tolbert Onyango is banking on experience more than youth, to deliver Uganda the coveted prize of being at the Olympics in Japan next year.
Both James Odongo and Lawrence Ssebuliba are part of Onyango’s side, after being away from it for over a year, because of injury. The duo were instrumental in Uganda’s success in this cup in 2016 and 2017, yet, when they missed out last year, the team came short.
The cliché is that experience wins you cups. And the return of Ssebuliba and Odongo is handy. Onyango said, “I am positive about the team, because we have almost every good player we needed. And undoubtedly, Ssebuliba and Odongo have always performed well for the team.”
Before Ssebuliba and Odongo got injured, they were key outlets for Uganda scoring tries, and that is essential, if an Olympics berth is to be realized. Added to the aforementioned duo, Michael Wokorach, Phillip Wokorach, Pius Ogena, Joseph Aredo, Isaac Massa and Adrian Kasito complete the array of experience Onyango will be relying on to inspire the team.
However, the return of Ssebuliba and Odongo is not without cost. At the Kenya Safari Sevens last month, Uganda finished twelfth out of 16 teams. And to many observers, that was the wake-up call for Onyango. He needed a stronger side, to challenge at the top level.
As such, the youthful and inexperienced lot of Norbert Okeny, Paul Epilo, William Nkore and Timothy Odongo, all of whom featured at the Kenya Safari Sevens, were dropped from the Africa Sevens Cup team. Not that former rugby Cranes scrum-half, Kevin Makmot, was really amused.
“I felt a player like Okeny, his inexperience aside, ought to have been on the plane to South Africa, because his performance in the Safari Sevens was impressive. He scored the most tries (8) for the team. Even in the national sevens championships, he was instrumental for the Betway Kobs winning. He is a player in form,” Makmot said.
During last year’s Africa Sevens final, Ofoyrwoth’s red card, coming at a time Uganda were leading Zimbabwe 17-0, resulted in a loss to Uganda. Hopefully, Onyango has a contingency plan, to make up for any eventuality, especially the case of Ofoyrwoth, which could be the difference between an Olympics berth and failure.