Credit: John Batanudde

Uganda’s top-flight men’s XVs rugby premier league has enjoyed a rather relaxed environment at its tail end for the past two seasons. The 2019-20 season was concluded prematurely in the boardroom after thirteen match days following the COVID-19 outbreak while the 2021 season, as the sport moved on from the pandemic, was played in a single-leg round-robin format of nine match days.

For both seasons, a decision was taken that there would be no relegation from the top flight and promotion from the regional championships. For the first, Rhinos could finally breathe after five months of waiting for URU’s decision while Rams walked away scot-free at the end of the second.

Now, this 2022 season, while the objectives and participants may be different, there is as intense a battle in the air for the trophy as there is in the trenches to stay in the top flight.

And unless another pandemic or boardroom decision overrules the current season’s running, the undesirable spot of doom is very much available for the taking at the end.

Only two teams, Warriors and Impis, have a seat at the round table where this relegation roulette is being played. And they face each other for one shot at survival this weekend, with the potential to cause concern for Rhinos who are in eighth place above them. (I will explain how at the bottom)

The match will be played at Legends Rugby Club in the late 4p.m. kickoff.

While Impis are yet to bag their first win of the season, Warriors are on a six-match winless streak. Their run of form, or lack of it, in the second round thus far, has been similar. Both have earned just a single losing bonus point; from the same opponent – Rams at the same venue – Makerere University’s The Graveyard.

And they are even much closer when you probe deeper into the season statistics. In attack, Warriors have scored the least number of points (108) amongst all teams this season, just five less than Impis but separated by one team (Rams). Similarly in defence, the former have conceded the most number of points (540) amongst all teams and although the latter have conceded nearly 1/4 fewer points (343), they are still separated by one team (Mongers).

Impis have scored a total of 17 tries but utility back Ivan Otai’s wheels have contributed a dozen of those. Henry Nsekuye, who started the season with a more reliable boot off the tee but has since fallen off, has kicked 4 conversions, 10 penalties and a drop goal.

Warriors, with just 8 tries all season thus far, have a wider distribution of scorers. And have more options off the tee in Gabriel Aredo (3 conversions, 4 penalties) and Richard Kinyai (2 conversions, 10 penalties and a drop goal) whose season has been affected by injury.

That could provide a hint that Warriors have more potential candidates to carry them over the line than Impis, which is what delivered the 14-10 win in the first round. But the latter have, overall, been the better team although the most important metric – position on the table – tells a different story.

Now, the perfect opportunity to remove these doubts has presented itself as the two meet in the return leg at a time when the stakes couldn’t have been any higher.

The final bend

With five matches left to play, many have labelled this weekend’s encounter as the decider – not for the title but for relegation. While I agree that it will play a significant role in determining who drops from the top tier, I strongly believe that the battle for survival will go on until the final matchday.

Impis will end the season similar to how they started it, with three consecutive away games against Rhinos, Buffaloes and Kobs. They earned a draw against Buffaloes and a losing bonus point against Rhinos.

Similarly, Warriors will face Rhinos, Hippos and Mongers who they started the season against. Unlike Impis, they did not collect a single point from those three opening matches.

More interestingly, minus themselves, in the final bend of what has been this lukewarm season, the two teams facing the chop will play for survival against three common opponents. This is where Rhinos, whose final five fixtures are Rams, Kobs, Impis, Warriors and Mongers in that order, will need to be cautious to avoid being pulled into the relegation roulette.

All said and done, it promises to be a neck and neck race for the finish line from here onwards, and the starter gun is going to be fired tomorrow afternoon.

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

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