September 2008. On a bright sunny day at Kyadondo Rugby Grounds, one of the most underrated milestones in the history of Ugandan sports was achieved.
It was the Confederation of Africa Rugby CAR (now Rugby Afrique) Africa Women’s Sevens Cup.
The stakes were high. Of the seven nations taking part, only the finalists would qualify for the first-ever International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens to be held the following year at The Sevens Stadium in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Before then, for Uganda, not many had had the honour of being at the biggest international stage in their various sports.
The Netball She Cranes had been at the Netball World Championships (which was later renamed the Netball World Cup) in 1979 and the Cricket youngsters made it to the U19 Cricket World Cup twice in a row in 2004 and 2006.
For rugby, this would be the first time a Ugandan national team of any kind – fifteens or sevens, men or women – in the sport would qualify for the World Cup.
With only four teams leSouth Africa had just beaten Kenya to the first slot in the final and awaited the winner between hosts Uganda and North African side Tunisia.
The second semifinal was as tense as they come. The Lady Rugby Cranes edged out Tunisia by a slim 07-00 victory in a game that went to the last play of the ball.
When the final whistle was blown, it didn’t matter much what the result was to be in the final (24-00 to South Africa) that evening as both teams, especially the hosts were already in a jovial mood celebrating their glory.
The national heroes of the moment were Mary Kyoita, Winnie Atyang, Christine Kizito (the captain), Prossy Nakakande, Brenda Kayiyi, Fortunate Irankunda, Charlotte Mudoola, Josephine Namayega, Aaliya Adania, Harriet Kayonjo, Rosenburg Kanyunyuzi and Helen Buteme.
The technical bench had David Mutaka and Robert Seguya as the coaches, among others that included Jeroline Akubu as the team manager.
However, with only four months until the Rugby World Cup kicked off, the ladies did not have much time to relax and celebrate their success. They had to get back to work almost immediately as the clock had already started ticking.
To prepare for the World Cup, a training squad of twelve players flew to Port Elizabeth, South Africa in December 2018 to play in the Nelson Mandela Bay Sevens.
There, the Lady Rugby Cranes were, again, losing finalists against South Africa, playing a total of 5 games, including a friendly against the Springbok Women, in which they won 3 and lost 2 games.
The major highlight of this tour, however, was the training sessions after the tournament in which they worked with the legendary Norman Mbiko.
Fast forward to a few weeks before flying to Dubai with all preparations done and dusted, the final twelve-strong squad was named. Mary Kyoita, Fortunate Irankunda and Josephine Namayega had been dropped.
Helen Buteme (captain), Rosenburg Kanyunyuzi, Charlotte Mudoola, Prossy Nakakande, Winnie Atyang, Rachel Kakaire, Brenda Kayiyi, Aaliya Adania, Agnes Nantongo, Harriet Kayonjo, Justine Bayiga and Christine Kizito would be the players to fly Uganda’s flag high at the first-ever Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens.
When the action eventually got underway at the Rugby World Cup on March 5, Uganda would lose 50-00 to New Zealand in the Pool D opening match followed by an agonising 26-00 defeat at the hands of South Africa – a game in which the Lady Rugby Cranes dominated possession but nothing they did could see them across the whitewash.
In the final pool game, despite losing 12-07 to Italy, Justine Bayiga would take credit for having scored Uganda’s first-ever try (converted by Kakaire) at the World Cup. The loss meant that they would face Brazil in the bowl quarterfinals.
It was yet another game where the Lady Rugby Cranes felt they should have won. In addition to an unfortunate Brenda Kayiyi knee injury, Brazil capitalised on Uganda’s discipline, or lack thereof, to score a try in each half and win 12-07.
Justine Bayiga was the hitman again, touching down for the Rugby Cranes before Rachel Kakaire converted successfully.
Summary of Uganda matches at the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens.
- New Zealand 54-00 Uganda
- South Africa 24-00 Uganda
- Italy 12-07 Uganda
- Brazil 12-07 Uganda
Uganda could only manage an overall 13th place finish out of the 16 nations that took part in the tournament with Australia emerging as the champions.
Despite the disappointment of falling short of their initial top 8 finish objective, the Lady Rugby Cranes were proud of their performance at the big stage.
Rather sadly, more than a decade and three World Cups later, Uganda has not been able to replicate that performance. This is still the only time the Lady Rugby Cranes have been to the Rugby World Cup.
After the tournament in Dubai, it is said that each member of the Lady Rugby Cranes received USD 100 (approx. 200,000 at the time) which was delivered personally by then minister Charles Bakkabulindi.
Some sources say there wasn’t much more support than that from the government to the ladies and the team in their preparations, or after in form of appreciation for the achievement.
Nonetheless, being at the Rugby World Cup is an experience like no other, and in 2009, the Lady Rugby Cranes etched their names in the history books as the first rugby national team to know what it feels like.