The Uganda Rugby Cranes squad for the 2021 Rugby Africa Cup has been named as Uganda begins her bid for the first appearance at the Rugby World Cup.

In this two-part series, Ernest Akorebirungi takes a look at the midfield combination. Part I describes Uganda’s style of play and looks back into the archives for the Rugby Cranes’ top combinations. Part II attempts to predict how the team will line up for their first tournament in the post-COVID era.

PART I: What is Uganda Rugby Cranes’ Greatest Midfield Combination?

First, what is the midfield in rugby? The midfield refers to the two center positions; number 12 known as first/inside center and number 13 as second/outside center or sometimes as second five-eighth and center three-quarter respectively.

These two positions do not form part of the spine of a rugby team but they are as vital as the rib cage that protects key organs in the chest. Simply put, the pair are responsible for gaining ground in open space by running with the ball on attack and are also tasked with keeping the opposition behind the gainline during defense.

But to start with, it is be important to try and understand the style with which Uganda Rugby Cranes has played over the years, specifically in the midfield.

On attack, the Rugby Cranes have typically used the number 12 as a crashing center. A battering ram whose job is to carry the ball into contact aiming for the opposite flyhalf but also able to force his way through the loose forwards protecting him. Over the years, we have observed this trend with Yayiro Kasasa, John Musoke, Livingstone “Stone” Luggya, Felix Lubega and Oscar Kalyango. And most recently with Pius Ogena who juggles the position with being a looseforward almost effortlessly.

Pius Ogena

The need for an inside center to be bulky and strong became even more critical to Uganda’s style of play around 2006 when the “pods” system was introduced by head coach Chester Williams. Because Uganda is not a country that has sizeable players at test level, the technical teams over the years had to deploy forwards in that position who either match the opposition in size or toughness. This is how prominent loose forwards like Scott Oluoch, Peter Magona recorded some caps in the position. Heck, even the rock-solid Seguya played at inside center because of this need.

The number 13 is an equally strong ball carrier but is more suited for playing wide, running into open space and breaking tackles. The first names that come to mind for this position are David Bukenya, Nathan Wasolo, Timothy Mudoola and Michael Wokorach. In the latest tests, Ian Munyani has taken over the mantle from these two great servicemen.

On defence, the midfield pairing is ruthless or is at least expected to be, with quick line speed and sharp tackles. The objective of this strategy is to keep the opposition behind the gainline and allow for the forwards to fold or realign much more easily after the phase.

In summary, the inside center assumes the role of leader of defence while his outside partner is in charge of the attack. But the two positions are so intertwined in their roles that one cannot be sacrificed for the other.

So… who makes Uganda Rugby Cranes’ greatest midfield combination?

From the early days in 1997 when Uganda Rugby Cranes started playing test rugby with the group that are known as the “Vets” (veterans), Uganda has had quite an impressive midfield pairing.

The different generations of fans may agree to disagree on who made up the greatest midfield combination for the Uganda Rugby Cranes. Their choices however converge towards a combination that had Musoke or Luggya and Bukenya, Mudoola or Wokorach.

What influences the choice for who makes the greatest combination is how good they were on defense. “Defense in the midfield is what stands out for me as I am looking to choose a center combination,” Mudoola said to Kawowo Sports.

Mudoola selects Lucas Ochieng and Nathan Wasolo who played around the early 2000s as his greatest midfield combination. He says that the pair perfectly fit the bill for a center pairing, Ochieng always went past the gainline on the first phase play while Wasolo complemented his ball handling skills with good kicking abilities. Magona, who is former national team captain and head coach, is spoilt for choice for the greatest combination but his dream combination is John Musoke and Michael Wokorach at their prime.

Timothy Mudoola

Mudoola played for the Rugby Cranes for more than a decade since 2002 when he made his debut against Cameroon and is regarded as one of the greatest outside centers the country has ever had. So when asked who was his favourite inside center during his playing days, Mudoola does not hesitate to mention Kobs Rugby Club teammate Stone Luggya.

“We knew each other so well because we played together at the club. So when we went to the national team, everything clicked and I enjoyed playing with Stone,” Mudoola recollects.

Rather sadly, since the Mudoola era, Uganda has not had a strong and consistent midfield combination for the Rugby Cranes. Oscar Kalyango and Michael Wokorach had brought back the iconic days but it was not for long as Kalyango would be sent to the sidelines by an unfortunate knee injury he has never fully recovered from. Wokorach announced his retirement from the game at the end of the 2018 season to focus on the sevens variation of the game.

However, it is important to note that both were outside centers for their clubs and it is, again, the need for a heavy ball carrier and powerful defender at the inside center position that forced Kalyango to don the number 12 jersey. Which he excelled at rather surprisingly.

Rugby has since evolved from the old days, and now all players have to be as skilled as they are stronger. The need for centers to be technically gifted with an extended skillset and strong as a loose forward has increased greatly and at international level, we have seen test teams go for varying styles of play and utilisation of their centers.

Unfortunately, Uganda has not evolved much and has since been left behind by the teams they are chasing (Kenya and Namibia) with those chasing them (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Senegal among others) nearly catching up.

On the local scene in the top tier rugby premier league, some players have raised their hand for an opportunity to wear the 12 and 13 jerseys for the country. The past three or so international seasons have been generally more of experimental and transitional for Rugby Cranes.

Pius Ogena, when deployed as center, has by far been the best available option. Eric Mulamula blew hot and cold leaving fans yearning for more. Gerald “Kasoto” Ssewankambo, fortunately or rather unfortunately, finds himself between two generations and has thus most times played second fiddle to whoever is preferred. Jordan Bongomin had his stint too but it was not enough to cement his place at inside center for a long time. Ian Munyani is the crown prince for the outside center expressing himself with good ball-handling skills and the height of a second-rower that comes in handy when chasing kick restarts.

For whichever reason, there are players who never or have not yet got the chance to play for the Rugby Cranes. The likes of Adrian Wasswa, David Otwi, Charles Onen, Alfred Karekaho, to mention but a few.

Wondering who in the 2021 Nile Special Stout Rugby Premier League stood out and could be the next national team center? Me too. Especially considering that we were mostly without the national sevens players. The top centers included Innocent Gwokto, Timothy Mugisha and Tawfik Bagalana. We also had wingers deployed as centers like Justin Kimono, Jordan Bongomin. And finally, forwards as centers like Wilfred Seguya, Alhajj Manano and Isaac Rujjumba.

The just-announced 28-man Rugby Africa Cup squad has Pius Ogena, Justin Kimono and Alhajj Manano listed among the backs while Isaac Rujjumba is among the backs.

Two of these gentlemen could lead the charge in Uganda Rugby Cranes’ first test since the 2019 Elgon Cup and begin a fresh chapter for the country’s next greatest midfield combination.

Read Part II of this series here.

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

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