Four years ago Helen Buteme was involved in a piece of Ugandan sporting history as the Lady Cranes took part in the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai, the first sports team from her country to qualify for a World Cup.
That qualification raised the popularity of women’s rugby in Uganda and now Buteme is hoping to give the continuing growth another boost with another piece of history – helping Uganda qualify for a first Women’s Rugby World Cup by beating South Africa on Saturday.
Buteme, Uganda’s vice captain, is under no illusions as to the size of the task that awaits her team at Buffalo City Municipal Stadium in East London, but insists they have done all they can to try and counteract the odds that are stacked in South Africa’s favour.
“We know that this is going to be the hardest game of our lives,” admitted Buteme. “Are we nervous? Yes, which is a good thing because it means that we don’t just want to play but we want to win and we know that is not going to be easy.
“However, we are upbeat and we are excited and ready to die a little for each other.
“We had the Elgon Cup this year (against Kenya) while South Africa played four games against countries who are in the top six in the world. That is a huge difference in terms of experience and exposure, but instead of despairing about that we worked with what we have.
“Our men are very anxious to help us qualify for the World Cup so we had no shortage of men’s teams or individual players requesting to be our opponents for our build-up games.
Odds are against us
“We had three games against men’s teams and also had training games against our Under 19 boy’s team, and although the men did not play at 100 per cent intensity for obvious reasons, it was still full contact with contested set pieces and the pace and physicality of the men forced us to think outside the box and they gave us lots of feedback both during and after the games.
“We lost all our games but managed to score points in all except one and improved in each game that we played and our opponents came off the pitch sufficiently battered and bruised and we are a much better team now than we were two months.”
Buteme is familiar with a number of the South African players have come across them a lot in Sevens and hopes the Lady Cranes’ “never say die attitude” will stand them in good stead against their physically bigger opponents.
“Truthfully, the odds are pretty much stacked against us. The qualifier is on South Africa’s home turf and we don’t get a second chance at home like we did in the Elgon Cup as it is only one leg,” admitted Buteme.
“Everyone expects South Africa to win and they have always gone through to the World Cup directly so have never had to qualify for Africa’s slot before so I’m pretty sure they will come out with guns blazing to prove a point.
“However, this is the first and last opportunity for a number of our players as they will have retired by the time the next qualifier comes around, so the girls will be all fired up.
“It’s also our chance to show that South Africa is not the only country in Africa that has 15-a-side Women’s Rugby.
Buteme has already seen what RWC Sevens qualification has done for women’s rugby in her country with more players and more coaches interested in starting women’s teams with the women’s game now played outside Central Uganda.
This year has already seen the biggest ever crowd attend a women’s match when Kenya visited in the Elgon Cup second leg in June, a match which was televised live on a local TV network.
“Ugandans are becoming more interested in watching women play rugby and if we qualify for WRWC 2014 we’ll get more fans, more sponsors coming in to support us and, of course, more female players getting attracted to the game.”
“Uganda’s first women’s international was in 2005 against Rwanda. Since them we’ve played Rwanda twice and Kenya 16 times. It’s pretty boring playing the same team over and over so playing South Africa will be a new experience and will help us gauge where we stand in the world.
“Hopefully unions outside will learn that we do have 15-a-side rugby in Uganda and we will get teams such as the Nomads stopping over in Uganda to play us and other teams doing tours to Uganda or even our traditional rivals Kenya.
“Actually having a qualification process and seeing Uganda play South Africa might also motivate other African countries to start 15-a-side programmes so that we can have a CAR (Confédération Africaine de Rugby) competition in Africa similar to the CAR Sevens.”
So what then will it take for Uganda to create another piece of rugby history?
“Belief and putting our bodies on the line over and over again!”