KAMPALA- Helen Koyokoyo Buteme is the most recognizable face in women’s rugby in Uganda. In 2009, she captained the Lady Cranes at the 7s World Cup in Dubai. Currently, she is the interim coach. She is still playing with Jinja’s Walukuba Titans and has founded a number of teams across the nation.

In 2009, women’s rugby was on a high and many thought the Lady Cranes will go on to regularly play in such tournaments. How mistaken they were!
“It (playing at the World Cup) is every player’s dream. When we qualified, we were thrilled and thought it was to be the beginning. But after the tournament, somehow women’s rugby kind of died off and we are only trying to resurrect it,” Buteme once said.

Post 2009, the sport has faced more challenges than opportunities. 2016 has been a year of testing its recovery from the ashes.

Positive strides
Rugby Tackling Life (RTL), an organization founded by Buteme alongside Annekatrin Els, Irene Bunihizi Namapii, Anne Alan Sizomu and Kathryn Condon to empower girls through rugby, has embarked on a campaign to spread the game out of Kampala. And in 2016, the results have been impressive.

Unlike back in the day when almost all rugby activities were concentrated in Kampala, today, there are teams in Busia, Kitgum, Kisoro, Arua and Gulu, among other parts. Last month, Kitgum Queens’ Flavia Agenerwot was part of the Uganda Gazelles team at the Dubai 7s. She is just an example of the fresh blood from upcountry teams taking the sport by storm.

Walukuba Titan’s Grace Auma, Peace Wokorach, Gilder Azikuru, Entebbe Sharks’ Peace Mirembe and Juliet Nandawula are fully-fledged Lady Cranes players.
Currently, the 15s league consists of three teams; Thunderbirds, Black Panthers and Walukuba, which made its debut last season and finished above Black Panthers. Next year, Entebbe Sharks will field a senior team to bring the total to four.

Newcomers Mbale Eagles will join Jinja Police Teargas Rangers, Entebbe U-19, Kyadondo Eagles and Baby Panthers in the U-19 league. The new developments will undoubtedly widen the pool of players for national team selection.

Beyond the borders
There were some positives on the international scene. In July, two Ugandan select teams (Gazelles and Hippos) outclassed Kenyan opponents to reach the Masaku 7s finals in Machakos. Gazelles won 38-07.
Due to financial shortcomings, Hippos failed to go for the Prinsloo 7s in Nakuru, a month later. Gazelles whipped Kenya’s Nakuru Ladies 40-00 to lift the title. Thunderbirds’ Samiya Ayikoru emerged MVP at both tournaments.

In September, the Lady Cranes went into the Rugby Afrique 7s in Harare, Zimbabwe, lying in seventh position. Placed in Group B, they beat Madagascar and Tunisia but lost to Kenya. In semi-finals, they lost to South Africa. Zimbabwe beat them in the third place play-off.

For a team that travelled without any financial facilitation from the Uganda Rugby Union (URU), that was a commendable performance. Buteme and her charges came back proud of their performances. For players like Azikuru, Mirembe, Nandawula, who all impressed, it was not only their first time to don national colors, but also to board a plane!

Financial woes
The eternal ‘financial constraints’ song was again sounded into our eardrums Uganda failed to honor an invitation for the Roma 7s in June. At the start of this month, the trip to the Dubai 7s was only made possible by the fundraising campaigns of RTL, individual rugby enthusiasts and players.

It is no wonder that the team lost all their matches to superior and well facilitated opponents from Africa and Europe.

Challenges
Despite a generally rosy picture, especially on the international scene, challenges still abound, on and off the pitch. Last season, the 15s season witnessed two walkovers, mainly due to poor organisation.

Black Panthers failed to raise a team to face Thunderbirds, while Walukuba walked out on their home game against Thunderbirds because it had been postponed to an ‘unfavorable’ date.

“98 per cent of my players are schoolgirls. They (league organisers) have put the game on a date that is two days from their exams,” reasoned Buteme, back then. Despite a promising future, there is still a lot to be done.

WOMEN RUGBY 2016 HONOURS

Seniors League: Thunderbirds
7s Circuit: Thunderbirds
7s circuit MVP: Samiya Ayikoru (Thunderbirds)
RTL U-19 15s player of the year: Peace Lekuru (Entebbe Sharks)
RTL young player in 15s senior category: Emilly Lekuru (Walukuba Titans)

editorial@ug.nationmedia.com