"If you asked why the results are not coming, I really don't know what to tell you," Impis Rugby Club head coach Emmanuel Katuntu says to me.
It is a slow Monday evening characterised by slow Kampala traffic, grumbling grey skies and an impending downpour that didn’t fall until later that night. We are sitting on the second level of the red-painted steps behind the uprights at The Graveyard (Makerere University’s Rugby Ground) watching, on the near side, his team goes through a gruelling session with S&C coach Arnold Mataze, and on the far end, his next opponent in six days, Rams RUFC, running through their structure.
The men’s premier league is making the final bend towards the climax of the 2022 season and Impis currently lie at the bottom of the table, winless with 6 points – two from the draw against Buffaloes plus four losing bonus points against Rhinos, Black Pirates, Warriors, and Rams – from 12 matches played.
Katuntu cannot pinpoint exactly why wins have eluded him and his charges this season, especially in matches against opponents he feels they surely deserved to win.
“A bit of luck here and there like [against] Buffaloes, decision making… [pauses to think deeply] which are things we say we are going to fix but in the end, the decision-makers are on the pitch. When you send them with instructions and they don’t execute them, then you also can’t evaluate yourself. When they execute, it actually works.”
DURING THE BUFFALOES MATCH, there were multiple opportunities where Impis turned away possession easily due to the wrong decision on interpretation of the laws of the game. And on a day when the ball was unplayable due to the wet Kyadondo surface and the kickers had woken up on the wrong side of the bed, luck was not on their side either despite playing with a man-advantage at some point. Three of their tries were cancelled – one for a forward pass leading up to the touchdown and two for “held up” calls by center referee Gonzaga Mayanja – and the game ended 14-all.
But Katuntu has an idea of what has placed them in this undesirable situation, one that has stuck from three years ago when the team returned to top-flight rugby after a season down under in the championship.
I think it is just a team that is in a difficult period of transition. When I look at it, myself, I feel like the team is still struggling to break that duck of being the underdog and I think they enjoy it. Because, when you are in a phase for long, you get too used to it that something beside that seems wrong, or you’re not prepared for it.
“You’ve watched very many of our games and you really see that this team is in control but at a certain point, they feel like ‘but no this is not where we are supposed to be. We are supposed to be chasing the game.‘ So when you have control in a game and you give it away, you will lose the game.”
He cites examples of matches he describes as the ones that got away. Buffaloes, Mongers, Warriors, Rams, and even the first-round cracker away against Black Pirates.
“The game against Mongers here (at The Graveyard). These are games I feel we should be winning. You’re leading at halftime, it’s 05-03. Then you go into the second half and you’re like ‘I think this is not what we are supposed to be doing,‘ so you give that one away. Rams, same story. First 20 minutes everything is working. You’ve put the team to the sword, all you’re left with is cutting off the head and it refuses. The other person wrestles the sword away from you and instead cuts your neck off. Same story with Warriors. All those are games that you feel we could win.”
“And clearly, when you watch the game, these guys put their people away in every department – set piece, defence… everything! In terms of discipline, everything is working. But it just doesn’t show at the end of it so yeah and that’s where we are.”
HOWEVER, THAT IS NOT THE CASE every time Impis run onto the pitch. “Rhinos! At least that one I can say they came out of the blocks very quickly and never even gave us a sniff of that control. So that one was very well done by them, and we were struggling to get that control but it failed,” Katuntu says.
It is actually against the top teams that Impis play their best rugby, despite the scores telling a rather different story. In the first round, Kobs posted 46-05 points against them on the opening weekend at Legends, then there was that 15-06 arm wrestle with Black Pirates midweek three weeks later, and also a 29-13 exchange against leaders Heathens two days before Valentine’s Day.
“You see when we play against Heathens for example, or Pirates or Kobs, the boys go all out. They fight. [But] then in the game where you feel they should be winning it…” he is lost for words.
KATUNTU BELIEVES it is a sign of progress and improvement at the Makerere-based club from the days when they flirted regularly with regulation, eventually succumbing to it and finally rising from the ashes like a phoenix.
“It really shows the level where we have reached. Before, these teams were really quite ahead of us. So when you see the scores and margins becoming smaller, it means you’ve done your work to get to their level or even surpass them. So it shows that what we are doing is working and it’s not for nothing.”
That has been inspired by an adjustment in the operations and administration at The Graveyard, one that was understood and accepted by everyone at the club.
“First of all, we changed things here as far as management is concerned. We are having different people jumping on board as coaches as well such that the work is spread and boys get to see new faces so that there is no monotony. Also, it helps us to share the work.”
There is a head coach, S&C coach, and an analyst in addition to the already-existing team manager’s support staff. And more members are volunteering to take up roles at the club and doing certification courses offered by Uganda Rugby Union.
“As far as conditioning is concerned, we took it really serious just like everybody has been doing in Ugandan rugby, to send people over there to do the courses and then come and transfer that knowledge to the boys. That is what made us play better than what we’ve been doing.”
But it was not an overhaul in the works department. Katuntu reveals that it is still the same philosophy and the same faces in the thick of things at Impis.
“The core group of this team has been with me since 2018. A few of them I played with (and) I’m still coaching right now.”
This core group has now-captain Kennedy Muhumuza, his back row partners Pius Mpoza and Emmanuel Ssedyabane, speedster Jonathan Luhoni, Amos Asiimire, and Keith Weraga. These are the men in green you will be sure to notice at any one time when Impis are on the pitch.
“The core group are the people working the most and the result of their hard work shows. So the hard work pays off for them while they lift the rest of the team. But then you know rugby is a team sport, even if you have such a good back row and kicker, those are four people, what happens to the eleven plus the reserves? So everybody has to show up and do their work and that’s when you’ll find a fully functioning team and that’s what we are still struggling with. We need everybody else to get up to that level.”
That’s where the likes of Derrick Beijuka, Henry Nsekuye, Happy Asiimwe, Ivan Otai, and Gabriel Mugabi who never left but were not available regularly come in. To provide support to this core group and soft landing for the fresh talent coming through the never-stopping conveyor belt at the university.
IMPIS’ STRUCTURE HAS NOT BEEN CLEAR to see on the pitch but, according to Katuntu, that is not evidence of its non-existence. They have played nearly the same way since gaining promotion to the top tier, and much as it has not clicked yet, there are flashes of this structure sometimes.
“You realise almost everybody else right now sets up in a 1-3-3-1 formation. For us we are not doing that, we are setting up in a 2-4-2. We have a big group of 4 forwards in the middle and then two in both outside channels.”
The 2-4-2 formation is more demanding in terms of skill required of the pack but it is a safer strategy since they will always be in pods of at least three to secure the ball. And for Katuntu’s small and lighter forwards, this is ideal.
“I’m using that [formation] because you need to study the group of people you have and what works best for them. When I look at them, they are not small but they are quick. Most of them are very mobile, not so big like their counterparts, so you need to put them in a situation where they can use what they have.”
We then talked about some of the reasons that could be causing the delay in the perfection of this strategy. And straightaway, Katuntu highlights the challenge of players not being available more regularly.
“The biggest factor is actually [players] being unavailable. For one reason or another, there is always going to be more important things than rugby; maybe books, work, life commitments.”
He admits that he has to be understanding of the situation his players are in because they are primarily putting their bodies on the line at no cost.
“That’s why, if you look at those lineups, they are changing every now and then. And that is not good for performance,” he adds.
This remains a significant factor that has stagnated the growth of rugby not just for Impis but Uganda in general. Players hung up their boots to focus on other priorities in their lives which leads the country to lose valuable talent and experience under their belts.
“But we are still working on all those things and hopefully, we get those much-needed points to ensure safety, and also get at least what our hard work deserves,” Katuntu concludes.
And that leads us to the upcoming Makerere Derby.
The youngest coach in the top tier chuckles when I tell him the Makerere Derby is the biggest game in the country. “So you keep claiming,” he says as we burst into laughter.
So I support my ‘claims’ by saying that there will certainly be more people at The Graveyard on Saturday evening than any other rugby venue. And then the laughter continues.
“Because, guess what, when you lose and you have nowhere to go, you will now be talking and laughing and doing everything with people you have just lost to. So we liked to be in the position where we were the happy ones while we were talking to the sad ones and being on the other side is always very ugly.”
From the start of the season, Rams have been the happy ones. They have won four and drawn one of the dozen matches played, and currently sit in seventh place with nineteen points.
It is more important than ever for Impis to win this derby and hop off the bottom of the log, but Katuntu is well aware that Rams are not going to hand them the four points on a silver platter.
“For us, it is more important than it is for them because right now, they are the ones laughing and we are not. But they are not going to just hand it to us… no, no! We have to go out there and fight for it because winning that game turns our fortunes around and sets us on a better path than we already are,” he says.
We both try to recall the biggest margin we have seen at the end of this derby in vain as it has been really close in the recent past.
“I don’t remember the biggest margin that has been ever scored here but the ones I remember vividly have been very tight and I imagine this one will also be very tight.”
He hesitates a little when I ask him what the strategy is going to be when the whistle is blown on Saturday.
“I can’t say there is anything special that we are going to do. What we are going to do is approach it like we would any other game. No added pressure. It will just be a normal game… of course, one we want to win because we set out to win every other game.”
He then reveals one event about the relationship Impis experiences with Rams that surprised me and will do so, I believe, for many others.
“Both of us (Rams and Impis) sat down, maybe not officially, and said we need to put Makerere rugby at a different level, and agreed that there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be up there with those people,” he intimates to me.
By “those people”, Katuntu is talking of perennial champions Heathens and Kobs, their newest challenger Black Pirates, and perhaps the midfield teams of Buffaloes, Mongers and Jinja Hippos.
He acknowledges that Rams have done better than them this season and is proud that the common goal they share together is still within touching distance.
“I think what they have done better than us is to take their chances and collect those points. And that’s why they are in a better position. They are doing everything they can for our common goal which is to put Makerere rugby on the map. Credit to them that they are doing their work and the results are showing,” he concludes, leaving me in awe and admiration of such honesty.
The conversation went on until there wasn’t much daylight and we had to depart for our homes. In the quarter-hour in which we are joined by some of his players taking a break after the S&C session, we drift away into how significant the revival of Intangas in the Central Region championship will be in the near future, the survival of his club with little to no resources, and our thoughts on different topics in Ugandan rugby at the moment.
Before leaving, I ask Katuntu if there is a scare within Impis about the threat of relegation. With shock on his face and alarm in his voice, he responds: “Scare? Hahaha!”
“I wouldn’t call it a scare but as things stand, the possibility is there. But clearly, we all know if it came to that, we will not be the ones to deserve that. But you can’t tell that to anybody and they understand it when the log is still like that.”
Impis are just two points behind Warriors but have a 139 points difference advantage on them, which shows that they have not had the leakiest defence this year. Katuntu and his charges still have a belief that they have everything it takes to survive the drop at the end of the season although they are not focusing on that yet.
“So we are not yet thinking about that (relegation). Of course, the possibility is there and it is staring right at us but we believe we have everything it takes to leave that uncomfortable position,” he says.
Katuntu however says that everyone at the club needs to be honest in the face of these challenges and when setting targets.
“In the face of all our problems, sometimes we need to be honest and we are like this is what we have to work with. I remember we went to Jinja and I didn’t have a single prop on the team but you have to fix people here and there.”
Nonetheless, he is at peace in knowing that all the members on deck are striving to do the best they can with the meagre resources available.
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