Black Pirates loosie Alex Aturinda carries as Heathens utility back Innocent Gwoktho draws close for a tackle | Credit: John Batanudde

The thirty-third edition of the men’s top-flight Rugby League in Uganda will kick off on Saturday, January 14, 2023. The championship has been held every year since 1990- apart from 1994 – during which Heathens (16) and Kobs (14) have enjoyed the lion’s share of championship victories. Impis, in 1996, and Black Pirates, in 2018, only just temporarily broke the duopoly.

Having seen a new champion in the Sevens Series last year, is this the season when a new name will be added to the roll of champions in the league?

I have split my preview into three segments according to last season’s final standings; the top three, the mid-table, and the relegation zone. Therein, are some predictions to spice things up a little bit.

THE TOP THREE

To win titles, a team needs to be as equally good as it is lucky. Last year’s Uganda Cup, won by Heathens in Entebbe, showed us just that. Heathens were lucky against Kobs in the semifinal, winning by a coin toss after extra time, and kept Pirates from scoring in extra time during the final. They were second-best in both matches but still managed to emerge champions.

The league, however, is like a marathon. Eighteen weeks of gruelling tests of patience, physical fitness, and mental fortitude. And still, no team knows more – frequently and recently – how to do it than Heathens. Every Heathens player knows what it feels to win, and what it takes.

In 2018, Pirates were a bunch of exciting youngsters who took everything and gave nothing back. They have since come of age and with every year that passes, one wonders if they will repeat that feat. There is no doubt about the skillset they possess to make it but one tiny ingredient is missing. Perhaps, allow me to push my agenda one more time, luck?

Heathens winger Lawrence Ssebuliba looks to go past James Ijongat of KOBs | Credit: John Batanudde

Like Heathens, the Kampala Old Boys also possess the winning DNA. But until the boardroom issues that plagued their camp last year cease, KOBs may continue to fail by their own undoing. Although administrative tensions still linger in the air at Legends, some good news to report is how Coach Brian Makalama, whom the players respect, has steadied their immaculate gait on the pitch.

One more thing to consider. The team that has learnt to not just survive but thrive without their national team players will be a step ahead of the rest.

THE MID-TABLE

Hippos are coming of age. The Jinja boys have been in the trenches of Ugandan rugby and come out alive. Matter of fact, they came out victorious; the Sevens Series trophy is in Jinja City, outside Kampala for the first time in the history of the series.

In the XVs format, a trip to Jinja has become tougher with each passing season. Heathens and Kobs picked near identical 38-05 and 34-10 tough wins across the Nile but Pirates had to fight harder for a 36-33 win. The aforementioned Sevens Series triumph has given Hippos a psychological boost which I believe will inspire them to a heroic first victory against at least one of the top three sides. But it could also hurt them if Tolbert Onyango comes calling with all-expenses paid World Rugby Sevens tours. Outside the top three, only Buffaloes were able to win in Jinja.

Speaking of, Buffaloes and Mongers are the most lukewarm rugby clubs I’ve ever seen. Not challenging for the title and not threatened by relegation. With Mongers being the lone club in Entebbe and Buffaloes slowly accepting their role as Heathens’ feeder side, the stability from this status quo will continue this year, and perhaps long into the future.

No sooner had the Rams project started taking shape than the transfer window came in like a wrecking ball. Top performers like Ryan Mwadhegu and Karl Edo joined other projects, leaving Rams sheared in the winter. Coach Lumu, whose favourite quote is “It isn’t about the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog,” will fight for survival from start to end.

THE RELEGATION ZONE

Rhinos are on their way back to the top where they belong. Coach Martial Tchumkam’s patience to build from the ground up has not been in vain, and his young squad have not disappointed either. Last year, Rhinos regained their core status on the sevens series and will continue that upward trajectory in this one.

For two years and counting, Impis have not just survived relegation but rather, they have shown they deserve their spot in the top flight. That will not change going into this season. The Makerere boys have built their squad around a hardworking backrow combination of captain Muhumuza, Sedyabane and Mpoza, and their backline of veterans Henry Nsekuye, Stallone Arinaitwe, and youngster Roy Kizito have made effort to match their level.

Walukuba Barbarians were gifted a ticket back to the premiership after promotional playoff champions Boks failed to satisfy the requirements needed to compete at the top level. As witnessed during the sevens series, despite playing competitively, Walukuba lacked the final touch needed to register wins when it mattered, and they were relegated. Unfortunately, to make matters more complicated for Coach Leo Lubambula, the fifteen-a-side format of the game has more variables to manage.

My wish for the upcoming season is to see more innovation from the coaches and players showing a better understanding of the laws of the game across the board.

Ernest Akorebirungi is Uganda's top rugby writer and commentator with experience in local tournaments like the national XVs competitions and sevens series. He has also reported at international tournaments...

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