Rhinos before the game against Rams Credit: Courtesy

Kevin Makmot placed the ball on his kicking tee about 45m away facing the restaurant and bar lounge at Legends Rugby Ground.

It was a clear blue sky on the Saturday afternoon of March 17, 2018. The score was still 0-0 in the second half against Black Pirates who needed just one more win to be declared champions of the 2017-18 season.

At that moment, Makmot held the keys that the Sea Robbers needed to unlock the door to their first-ever league title. As calm as ever, he struck the ball perfectly to split the uprights and sent the yellow camp into wild celebrations.

“They have played well this term and probably deserve it but we don’t want to be that side that gives it away with more games to play, and we can only do that by beating them,” Makmot told journalists before the match.

That penalty kick would go on to be the deciding factor of the game as Rhinos held on for a 03-00 victory and bragging rights for being the only team that, on the pitch, had beaten eventual champions that season.

Black Pirates weren’t the only big tree in the forest that was knocked down by the charging Rhinos that season.

The week before that, Rhinos had convincingly beaten Kobs, 13-03, and earlier in the first round, they had outsmarted struggling defending champions Heathens, 20-13, in their own backyard.

How Rhinos was founded

Rhinos is one of the oldest rugby clubs in Uganda. It was founded around 1993 by a group of rugby players; Paul Musoke, Roger Sebina, Paul Nyangabyaki, Paul Olok, and Andrew Byekwaso. Because most of these gentlemen were former Impis players, the history is strongly attached to the Makerere club but the information is not clear on how and when exactly this breakaway happened.

Rhinos is registered under the Rhino Athletics Club franchise, which is a sports club that comprises basketball, hockey and rugby clubs. It is managed by Alex Kalimugogo in the capacity of chairperson.

The club has been a competitive outfit in Ugandan rugby from the time they were founded. In 1998, 2006, and 2018, they were runners-up in the national league. What makes the 2018 season more unique, however, is how low the club sank almost immediately after that.

Rhinos were relegated from core status in the national sevens series in 2019 and in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, they narrowly survived relegation from the top tier fifteens premier league after it was declared that there would be no relegation or promotion.

But how did Rhinos move from challenging for the title to fighting for survival in less than two years?

Managerial Changes and Player Transfers

The rise of Rhinos Rugby Club to a strong competitive outfit in 2018 can be traced back to the appointment of Herbert Wafula in September 2015. John Musoke, citing a busy work schedule, had stepped aside and Wafula was brought in from Warriors Rugby Club. He won his first game as head coach, 44-00, against Jinja Hippos in the Uganda Cup and would go on to, for the next 10 months, steer the club to impressive progress.

Midway through the following year 2016, two important things that sparked off a sharp rise in the strength of Rhinos happened.

First, in May, taking over from Ezee Money, Vivo Energy through their brand Shell Rimula unveiled a UGX 74.4 million sponsorship package for Rhinos for a period of 18 months. This package included the cash, a brand new home and away playing kit, and some non-cash items. This sponsorship was exclusive of transfer fees, player wages and allowances, Legends rugby facility fees, and running the general club activities. The club and its growing fan base felt that was the beginning of a very bright future.

Rhinos Rugby Club and Shell Rimula unveil sponsorship deal

Secondly, Wafula was dropped as coach by the club’s executive committee and considered for an alternative role in the new structure. Having developed a five-year strategic plan for sustainable success on and off the pitch, the club was in a restructuring phase.

Credit: John Batanudde

And Brian Makalama, who had served six months leading up to the time as Director of Rugby at Bungoma Sharks RFC in Western Kenya, was chosen to spearhead these plans. Most importantly, Makalama was brought on board to meet the sponsor’s vision of winning trophies.

“We want to win everything from the Uganda Cup to the league. Things are going to be different and no one should take us lightly,” Makalama, speaking to Daily Monitor.

Brian Makalama

Immediately after unveiling the Shell Rimula sponsorship deal and Makalama as head coach, Rhinos signed star players Scott Oluoch and Mathias Ochwo. Sensational Stallone Arinaitwe was brought in from Impis RFC. Byron Oketayot left Gulu Elephants after catching everyone’s attention.

But this new philosophy would eventually lead to the club’s fall from grace not long from that time.

“I think Rhinos’ challenges began when money came in,” team manager Joseph Bugabo notes in hindsight.

Rhinos finished the first season under Brian Makalama in third place behind champions Kobs and Heathens. A half-back pairing of Ivan Kirabo and Jasper “Boskut” Onen joined Rhinos from across the border in Kenya. David Otwi crossed from Black Pirates, Saul Kivumbi from Buffaloes and Michael Amolo was added to the star-studded team from Kobs. Kenya Harlequins bought Daudi Semwami midway through the second season in January 2018. On the whole, it was the perfect recipe for success, and there was a growing belief that Rhinos would soon get their hands on a trophy.

Things were going on well for Rhinos in the 2017-18 season until around February 2018. Rhinos had not delivered on their promise of silverware to Vivo Energy, and their relationship was getting more strained each passing day.

At the time, Rhinos were in second place behind runaway leaders Pirates and enjoying an impressive run of form. Yet to face title challengers Kobs and Pirates, it was going to be a tough climax but Rhinos looked good both on paper and on the pitch.

Then they lost to Heathens and dropped to third place behind Kobs and Pirates. A few days later, Makalama was fired by the club management. And that is when, to observers, the walls came crumbling down in the camp.

First, the reality of a trophyless campaign was confirmed with five games left to play. The management needed to show that they were frustrated for going trophyless again. Someone had to pay the price for the disappointment, and Makalama was the unlucky one.

This caused a feeling of despair to raise within the players. They were not sure of their future at the club having seen how ruthlessly the coach had been dismissed. Also, they felt they still had a fighting chance for the trophy with 5 games yet to be played.

Management then announced loyal Rhinos veterans John Musoke and Mathias Ochwo as interim head coach and assistant for the remainder of the season. Musoke and Ochwo’s first challenge was Kobs who they beat, 13-03, in the Legends derby. The pair followed this up with that 03-00 thrilling win over Pirates at the same venue.

Musoke used a hands-on approach in his style of management. When the need arose, he put on his boots and got the work done with his own hands. Like during the 27-21 home win over Buffaloes later in March where he scored a hat trick of tries and rescued Rhinos from the horns of the youthful Kyadondo outfit.

Musoke and Ochwo simply started off where Makalama had stopped. And they did really well. Rhinos finished the season in second place with plaudits of being the only team that beat the champions. But the damage had already been done.

The first glaring sign of this damage was the player exodus the following season.

Scott Oluoch, who had been the headline signing at the start of the project, signed for Kenya Harlequins. He wasn’t the only player that crossed the border to Kenya; Jasper Onen joined Harlequins too. Kirabo returned to Kabras while Saul Kivumbi joined Impala Saracens.

Domestically, Rhinos were stripped naked. Eric Mulamula was signed by Black Pirates as Michael Amolo continued his tour of Legends clubs leaving for Warriors. Kevin Makmot took the same route out of Rhinos as Amolo and was unveiled as head coach (part-player) for the season that followed. Club veterans like Abel Ssozi, John Musoke and Jimmy Musoke retired from active rugby in the same period.

In total, Rhinos lost up to 15 players, some to their local league rivals at no fee.

That season saw Rhinos drop from second place to eighth out of ten. Despite all the efforts from the technical bench, they were still on their way down.

The player exit was so dramatic that Rhinos had a completely new starting lineup at the start of the 2016 season from that three years later at the start of the 2019 season.

Currently, there are only 6 players from that team still at Rhinos. That is; Byron Oketayot, James Okello, Byron Atubikire, Tadeo Kasirimbi, Mahad Kasumba, and Reuben Nuwe. The rest of the team that played this season graduated from Kifaru while others like Pool Kalungi were signed.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Back in early 2018, Rhinos was strongly chasing the league title but was struggling financially. The club was and still is, in debt and the sponsor’s fund was predominantly being used to pay the debt bills. The cost of keeping Makalama, who was probably the only coach receiving a paycheck at the time, was getting tougher and his salary was being paid late.

“We were not going to receive money from the sponsor until November. At that point, the club’s bills were being footed by myself or Legends, both of whom were struggling,” club chairperson Kalimugogo revealed to Kawowo Sports.

So when the trophyless campaign was confirmed, Rhinos were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Management had finally realized that the philosophy adapted in 2015 was not sustainable for the long term.

And that’s when in an executive committee meeting, the members opted to go back to the drawing board. Makalama was fired from the head coach role but his contract royalties were paid. Similarly, players who had special paid contracts were let go because the club could not afford to keep them.

Essentially, the journey for a fresh start had begun at Rhinos, but the club was already in free fall.

What does the future look like for Rhinos?

From the outside, it looks like Vivo Energy is still actively sponsoring Rhinos through Shell Rimula. Rhinos still wears the yellow and black Shell Rimula branded kit and is still referred to as Rimula Rhinos in the media. Even their own social media accounts are still attached to the Rimula brand.

The fact of the matter is that the sponsorship effectively ended in November 2019. But Rhinos didn’t have the capacity to rebrand and that’s why the club still wears that kit.

Rhinos are currently in the search of a sustainable source of funds for the club, and a potential sponsor with whom they hope to be on the same page regarding the future of the club.

There are ongoing efforts to revive the Rhino Athletics Club as a professional sports club and facility. A partnership with Rotary Uganda has been signed through which the club is fundraising for land to set up an academy facility. This partnership will also help to establish the club as a platform for players to learn skills for life outside rugby.

“The reason why we are partnering with Rotary is that we want to set up community clubs that are run by the community, and it is from those community clubs that we plan to set up an elite team. We are going to pilot this program first in Bulindo,” Kalimugogo tells Kawowo Sports.

Specifically for Rhinos Rugby Club, a new executive committee will be elected at an Annual General Meeting in January 2021 where the team’s technical bench will be named officially.

Martial Tchumkam Credit: John Batanudde / Kawowo Sports

Martial Tchumkam, who took over as head coach from mid last year, is expected to be maintained for that role. Jasper Onen is his assistant and also backs coach while Abel Ssozi will handle the S&C department. The team managers include Joseph Bugabo and Jimmy Musiitwa who will manage the development side Kifaru.

Building a strong player base for the main team through Kifaru is going to be one of the immediate priorities when rugby restarts. Like the other clubs who have had success in the country, a second-team is necessary for building squad depth and giving the players competitive game time.

“We have resumed the good work Helen (Koyokoyo Buteme) did with Kifaru. As you saw last season, we had graduates from there at Rhinos, and we were still honouring all our fixtures in the championship,” Tchumkam told Kawowo Sports.

Admittedly, there is a huge feeling of relief that swept through the Rhinos ranks after surviving relegation from the fifteens league. It would have been a disaster.

The story of Rhinos’ swift rise and fall gives Ugandan rugby a Déjà vu feeling, even on the national team level where we always throwback to the good old days. But for a club of Rhino’s historic calibre, there aren’t any significantly remarkable old days. We can only hope that they, and other clubs, have witnessed how pages can turn so quickly.

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Ernest Akorebirungi is an amateur rugby player and a keen follower of local Ugandan rugby.

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