Craning for Success: Uganda the Latest Nation to Show African Rugby Is on the Rise

A quick glance at the competing nations in the 2017 HSBC World Series Sevens reveals few shocks; South Africa, England, Fiji, Australia – the traditional powerhouses of Sevens Rugby – are well represented as are the burgeoning nations who have become consistent fixtures of world rugby in recent years; Argentina, the USA, Canada, Russia and Japan.

Even Kenya, a relatively minor national side in the global picture are unsurprising competitors given their unique, almost exclusive affinity for the seven-man code. But it is team sixteen that have raised a few eyebrows over the course of the opening two rounds of the season and for whom the 2017 Series represents the latest marker of the flourishing rugby market in Africa, especially for Sevens – Uganda.

For The Rugby Cranes, to even qualify for the 2017 Series was a remarkable but arduous achievement. By virtue of topping their Pool in the 2016 Rugby Africa’s Sevens Championships, Uganda then overcome Kenya (who had already qualified by virtue of their previous participation in the World Series as a ‘core’ team) in the semi-final 17-13 before thumping heavily-favoured Namibia 38-19 to win the chance to be the second African representative in the 2017 circuit.

It would be easy to see Uganda – whose full union side rank 44th in the world sandwiched between Colombia and Malta – as a novelty, the latest touring side to be there simply to ‘make up the numbers’ and prop up the bottom of the sixteen-team table. But whilst The Cranes have not – or indeed expect to – challenge the aforementioned South Africa, England, Fiji for tournament titles in either Dubai or Cape Town yet, Uganda are following the path treaded previously by Kenya and have shown that rugby, in particular Sevens, has grown to encompass the entirety of the African continent and is no longer relegated only to the southern tip of Africa.

For, despite their minnow status in rugby as a whole (the 2017 Series being the first international Sevens tournament they have qualified for), Uganda have proven to be far from the easy out most were expecting them to be.

Dubai proved to be a difficult start as Uganda lost all three of their pool games to South Africa, Scotland and the United States respectively ensuring their participation in the Challenge Trophy bracket which they were thus promptly eliminated from via a 27-19 defeat to Samoa.

However their second drop-down, this time to compete for 13th overall tournament place, gave The Cranes the platform to secure a historic first tournament sevens victory, the talismanic Philip Wokorach bagging a pair of tries and conversions with further touchdowns from Lawrence Sebuliba and Byron Oketayot giving Uganda a 26-19 win over Japan; a momentous result which will go down in the annals of Ugandan rugby history.

And although they were subsequently beaten 20-17 by Canada in a thrilling contest to conclude their day ensuring they finished 14th overall, it did mean The Cranes left their first ever international tournament with two valuable points in the standings.

Buoyed by the relative success from Dubai, Ugandans were to continue their upstart form in Cape Town last weekend with an almost identical run of results. A winless pool stage (this time at the hands of Scotland, Wales and Samoa) was followed by a comprehensive 42-12 defeat by Australia in quarter finals of the ancillary Challenge Trophy.

Uganda then once again faced off with Japan, triumphing for the second time in two attempts over the Brave Blossoms, this time 21-17 by virtue of a third tournament touchdown from Wokorach and a further two conversions, a score from Pius Ogena and a penalty try. The momentum from that second consecutive win over Japan was not enough, however, to prevent a second consecutive defeat to Canada in the 13th place play-off final, again meaning Uganda ended the tournament the recipients of another two standing points.

With only two rounds of the ten-stop circuit completed, there is of course no way to predict how Uganda will ultimately fare in their World Series debut. But even sitting in 15th place (two points ahead of Japan and two behind both Russia and Canada) after two rounds is an outstanding achievement for the latest competitive rugby nation to emerge from the nascent continental powerhouse that is Africa. Uganda have brought an exciting and original dynamic to rugby sevens, one that will continue