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Rugby Cranes chase fourth African title

Uganda’s Sevens rugby men’s national team travel to Zimbabwe for the Africa championship.

It runs this weekend from September 16 to 17. The Nile Special-sponsored Uganda Rugby Cranes will be seeking a fourth African title, after winning this cup in 2016, 2017 and in 2022. Pooled in group ‘C’ alongside Burkina Faso, Algeria and Zimbabwe, this year’s championship also doubles as a qualifier for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

As such, it is also expected to be the toughest for Uganda. For the first time since Uganda started winning this cup, they have not had South Africa to worry about as is going to be the case this time.

South Africa is one of the leading sevens rugby-playing teams in the world. They are ranked seventh and are the best from Africa. Uganda is ranked nineteenth. Yet, coach Tolbert Onyango is unfazed.

He said: “Although we have lost to South Africa in the other tournaments we have met in, we are not fazed by the fact that we may face them. We have prepared well, and are ready for anyone.”

The stakes unlike before, could not be higher this time. Among the 12 African teams that are going to be down in Zimbabwe, only the winner will qualify for the Olympics next year. The silver and bronze medalists will proceed to another pre-olympics qualifier known as the repechage due in June 2024.

In the worst case scenario, Onyango and his charges will be hoping to make it to the Olympics repechage. Yet, for some observers, seeing that the Rugby Cranes is without the experience of players like Byron Oketayot, Michael Wokorach, the former captain and the plucky finisher in Timothy Kisiga has raised a bit of concern on whether the team is good or solid enough to defend its title.

Remember, this team does not also have Kelvin Balagadde, who was instrumental in last year’s success. Well, in light of that, Onyango calmed the fears when he said that Uganda now has more squad depth built at the domestic clubs. This was not the case three or four years ago. That has left him with many players to call on.

In fact, one must not forget that a player like Pius Ogena, who is part of the party travelling on September 14, has not been on this team for the last two years. That is despite the numerous calls to have him on it. Competition for places has proved so stiff, a pointer also to how good Uganda has become.

While speaking to BBC Sport recently, Herbert Mensah, the president of Africa Rugby, spoke of how Uganda’s rugby was on the rise. But he noted that Uganda needed more international funding to realize more milestones like consistent appearance in global tournaments. Davis Shimwa, 22, is the one player on the Rugby Cranes squad that will be hoping for a debut.

In fact, he is the one player that is a surprise pick for many rugby fans, considering those players left out for him. Shimwa, a 6ft 2” tall athlete, has been playing in the top flight for Rhinos since 2019. But his performances this year both in the 15s and 7s for his club did not go unnoticed.

According to Onyango, everyone on the team has earned his place. It has been a case of current form. Yet, as far as Shimwa is concerned specifically, Onyango said: “Shimwa is not just hungry for success. But he also has good aerial skills. We also need an understudy for the captain Ian Munyani.”

In addition, Shimwa, who is a former student at Ntare School, St Joseph Naggalama, and St Mary’s College Kisubi, has had the test of success as a rugby player. He wants to feel the same with the Rugby Cranes. Markedly a centre (a 12 and number 13), Shimwa is a good ball carrier, distributor and jumper.

Shimwa also fits in well in the role Wokorach played on the defensive side because of his good tackling. He has shown that domestically. But international rugby is a different ball game. Shimwa is not oblivious to that fact. And while, he admits to feeling the butterflies; he is geared up to repay the faith put in him!

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