The Uganda-Kenya rugby relationship, or rather rivalry, goes way back in 1958 when the first international match between the two neighbouring East African countries was played.
Barely three years after the Uganda Rugby Football Union (now known as Uganda Rugby Union) was formed, Uganda was to play an international match against a more experienced and seasoned opponent who had played competitive rugby from as far back as the 1920s.
However, that did not blow any steam out of this historic match as it would set the stage for what has gone on to become arguably the greatest rivalry between two countries in African rugby.
Stories are told of that match which was played at the lakeside peninsula in Entebbe, 32km away from the capital Kampala. It is narrated that both countries turned up with matching white kits.
Being the home side, Uganda had to dip their jerseys in a bucket of water laced with the team doctor’s iodine to give them a shade of black. By the close of eighty minutes of breathtaking action, when Kenya were victorious, 21-11, over their hosts, the only way of telling the Kenyans from the Ugandans was by their smiles and celebrations.
Fast forward to the current days in 2020, both teams have defined their colours – Uganda predominantly in black & red with some yellow panels and Kenya in the fire red or sometimes green.
Starting 2004, this rugby rivalry was to be known as the Elgon Cup naming it after the 4321m high volcanic mountain located at the border between the two countries.
It is obvious to see how dominant Kenya have been over their neighbours, boasting of a humongous win percentage. And dominate, they continue to do, as they have won the past 4 Elgon Cup titles.
As much as winning the Elgon Cup (again) would be such a momentous achievement for Uganda, beating Kenya in Kenya could still be the ultimate dream for any Rugby Cranes team.
Not many Ugandan teams have made the agonisingly long bus trip across the Eastern border or in recent times, the short flight over the great Victoria lake and come back victorious.
In fact, from the turn of the past 2010s decade, with at least a match played against Kenya in Kenya each year, Uganda has only won twice – 2013 in Nairobi and most recently, 2019 in Kisumu.
Despite being eventual Elgon Cup champions in 2015 – the last time Uganda won the Elgon Cup, not even the star-studded squad captained by Brian Odong achieved this feat. That’s how hard and elusive a victory against Kenya in Kenya has been for Uganda.
Herbert Wafula describes beating Kenya in Kenya as one of the defining traits of a Uganda Rugby Cranes squad. It goes beyond just the result and speaks tons of the team’s character.
“The ultimate test for any team is to win away from their comfort zone. When you beat a team at their home in international matches, it shows you are clearly head and shoulders above them,” Wafula says.
Wafula was the first captain to beat Kenya in Kenya. He was a fullback whose national team career spanned from 1997 to 2002 when he announced his retirement.
“I am honoured to have led a great team in 2002 when Uganda won their first-ever game away from home,” he adds.
Wafula is proud not only of being the first captain to lead Uganda to victory against Kenya in Kenya, but also of having been part of ‘The Originals’ – the squad that played Uganda’s first test match at KRUFC against Kenya in 1997.
Four days to Uganda’s independence celebrations in 2002 with fully packed stands at the RFUEA Grounds on Ngong Road, Nairobi, history was written.
The Rugby Cranes had kept the Simbas scoreless in the first half, leading 15-00 after converting 5 penalties. Second-half tries from Timothy Mudoola & David Bukenya were enough to halt a strong comeback from Kenya who scored 3 tries after the break as the Rugby Cranes cruised to a 29-21 victory against the Simbas.
Uganda had finally beaten Kenya in Kenya & for the rugby fraternity, there couldn’t have been a better way to celebrate Independence that year.
One of the most memorable moments of a victory on Kenyan soil is from 2006. With Chester William (RIP) as head coach and Peter Magona (currently Uganda Rugby Union Vice President Commercial) as captain, the Rugby Cranes bagged a narrow 22-20 victory over the Simbas, and with it, their first Elgon Cup title.
Noteworthy, Simon Wakabi in fullback put up what many have described as his best performance on national duty, and probably for his entire rugby career too.
This could be the game that marked the start of the Rugby Cranes’ march to the Africa Cup triumph in Madagascar a year later as they proved to be unstoppable from that time with the best combination of players the country has ever seen.
Certainly, for a country that has never been to the Rugby World Cup (suffered a near-miss during the France 2007 qualification campaign), this would seem like the ultimate dream for both the players and the country.
The sevens teams, both men & women, have graced the world stage before – the women in 2009 & the men in 2018. The fifteens are yet to make it but with competition getting stiffer every year, it continues to be so big a mountain for them to conquer.
There are not many feelings that would better seeing your own country at the World Cup but I believe, beating Kenya in Kenya comes pretty close.