Heathens, KOBs, and Pirates have been the dominant force hence synonymous with Uganda Rugby due to their unprecedented success, until recently when a ‘Small Club from the East’ shocked the status quo with what is arguably the most unlikely triumph in the country’s sports history ever.
The fairytale rather shocking story of Jinja Hippos winning the National 7s title this year is difficult to express just in words, especially for a team persevering on a shoestring budget at a time when only the richest clubs stand a chance of winning.
History will have them as the first upcountry team to lift the National 7s title and with a squad of peripherals and no-bodies.
But even Hippos’ most passionate fans and ambitious bosses could not have dreamed of anything closer to this before the season started, and that highlights how they defied odds for the success that not only seemed remote but impossible. Hippos’ unlikely rise to the summit is Hollywood script well-written, and one that can win an Oscar for its fascinating threads it weaves in.
The Hippos’ Humble Beginnings
Jonan Manzi, who got inspired to join Rugby by his elder Brother Allan (a Buddo SS captain then), is the brain behind Hippos – a team he started around 2013 a year after he retired from the game having played for Heathens, Buffaloes and Rwanda.
“I heard of the collapse of Nile Rugby football club, and thought Jinja had no rugby team (I was wrong obviously),” Manzi opened up to The-SportsNation. “This made me decide to move and spend more time in Jinja to reignite what used to be a Rugby powerhouse – Nile Rugby. The beginning was tough and at times very discouraging.”
“I met a young man called Isa who said he would get me young boys who played tag rugby, among the beginning 3 was OJ Maxwell Ebonga, I recall times I would go to Jinja spend a week or two in a hotel and boys would not turn up for training and at times come very late, a few times we played 2 on 2 touch rugby, I was the coach, team manager, physio, sponsor, medic, chairman, trustee, secretary.”
Despite all those struggles, Manzi says that he believed in the Boys because they were young, passionate and very talented and they just needed polishing in different areas.
The boys too called their friends and brothers and numbers started to grow. The team went on to win their first major championship, the Rwanda memorial 7s which they won for more two years in row. But their first show in the Uganda 7s was by luck after they took Rhinos slot who had pulled out.
These boys were living without hope and Rugby was a safe haven. And it gave them the opportunity to receive bursaries at jinja SS. the boys Rugby gave them an opportunity
Manzi remembers: “By then, Andrew Owor was the Uganda Rugby Union chairman and gave us much needed moral support together with the URU secretariat and availed us with some balls.”
The team was named Jinja Hippos after a meeting between Manzi and the then Mayor of Jinja who explained of how many years back Hippos (animals) were so many in Jinja and would at times walk even to the town and was a symbol of the town.
Manzi adds: “Without telling him, I knew in my heart Hippos was the best name for the team, but because we attended tournaments and people would always ask who and where we were from we added Jinja to the name, thus Jinja Hippos Rugby Club.”
The team started to gather momentum, but we’re always constrained by numbers still. “I recall us playing some of our first 15s games and we would win yet playing 13 or 14 players without substitutes.”
The team’s first coach was Joseph Bugabo, but due to work in Kampala he wouldn’t make it, so after almost 2 years with much pursuance, they acquired Saidi Atibu, who by then was playing for Buffaloes.
Manzi admits that Atibu later became of great help to the Hippos as a team, both as coach and administratively.
Manzi later appointed Robert Bwali and Meddy as Chairman and Vice respectively. “Special mentions would go to Timothy Byaruhanga, Meddy R, Dave Haddock and many others who helped a lot especially from 2014 onwards.”
These new appointments gave the team a semblance of structures and lifted some burden off Manzi’s shoulders. In 2 years (2013 to 2014), Manzi says that they had sunk Sh188m, and recovered just over 85m.
The evolution at the club continued, and later they had great support in the committee from Tim Groover, David Spencer and William Mwijuka and Coach Sean and his wife.
He added: “A solid Excom and a Great fans group Led by their Hippos Fans Committee. I must also mention the great mental and physical strength of the old players who have inspired the younger players, such as Dennis Etwau, Timothy Mugisha, David Wako, Echeru John, Baiga Johnson, Silver, Grace, Tawfik Bagalana, Meddy Mapesa, and many others… without them sticking together, perhaps I would have given up.”
“Martha was our first club manager and helped run tag rugby because our focus was on the future of rugby in Jinja.
“I had people supporting and others fighting us, but in the end, we won the hearts of those who were against us and have come to help over the years.
“Hippos Rugby Club has grown in systems and procedures, in numbers, popularity, and support from fans, the player base has grown, and Crocs was formed as a second side, Ladies teams namely Nile Ripple’s and Rapids which are also 2 sides as a result of Hippos RC. We have a tag rugby team for the primary children.”
Soggy Rests In Peace, Atibu Returns on the Wheel
Atibu who was at the helm of their unlikely title success, came through the heavy ranks that brought most current Uganda Sevens National team players like Phillip Wokorach, Pius Ogena among others. He started at Saracens in 2007 and a pioneer member of Stallions shortly after before joining Buffaloes from 2010 to 2017.
Midway through his Buffaloes career, he was offered a coaching job at Hippos with the main objective of making sure that the Jinja boys get an opportunity to share the same skills as those in Kampala.
“I went to Jinja for University to further studies and that’s when I started coaching Hippos. I remember they had just started. I had a friend called Manzi, he requested me to go and help them up there skills in Rugby because at that time I was different level when compared with the boys there,” Atibu narrates
“So, joining the coaching team was something very special for me because I felt I was giving back something that someone gave to me when back then when I was still active.”
Hippos earned top flight promotion in 2017 when they won the Eastern Region Championship.
Due to work commitments, Atibu later stepped away from his coaching duties at Hippos in 2020 when coach Robert ‘Soggy’ Seguya came in. The two worked together for about a year.
“Soggy is someone I recommend personally to Hippos when we had just qualified to the Premiership back in 2018, after one season we finished number 7, and the following year we were number 9 midway, we wanted to have a change and I recommended that they appoint him to up their skills, inspire them, and he happily accepted. He came towards the end of that year.”
Atibu said that Soggy “exceeded our expectations” as he helped to form a good relationship with the players and also inspired them, brought out skills that they didn’t have.
“He was a strong pillar to everyone even me as a coach because I worked with him, I looked at him when I was still playing with him before in Buffaloes and even we worked together and I learnt a lot. Even the inspiration words and skills are still living within the players. He was a strong pillar in Hippos transformation.
During Soggy’s spell, Hippos established themselves as the likely candidate that could threaten the big three. But he could not see his dream come to fruition after he lost his fight against acute leukemia in December 2021.
Into 2022, Hippos looked to none other than Atibu for an adventure in Sevens. “I just came back on these Sevens on interim basis. I was not appointed on a permanent basis.”
“Personally, I came back at the time when I had just gotten a role in the Tanzanian National team in July, so coming back into Uganda, I promised myself that whichever team I was going to work with I had belief that they had to perform to their best because I had ambitions, I wanted to grow, I didn’t want a light CV. I wanted to win something.
“In fact, when I had just met with the team, I told them that I am here to complete a mission that I had not completed back then.
The Fairytale Run
In preparation for the new sevens season, the Hippos trusted their roster, with only one acquisition in Isaac Rujjumba. His impact in the Club’s title run can go unrecognized having played in one circuit before an injury.
The Hippos’ Sevens campaign started on a rather unconvincing note for any team chasing a title but fitting and okay for a team of their caliber – Lost 10-05 to Impis in the Quarters and went on to finish 5th, a position that comes with 13 points.
But reached the final in the next two circuits – Entebbe and Arua – losing both to Heathens. They came third at Rujumba 7s in Kings Park in Bweyogerere and could go top of the leaderboard despite losing to KOBs in Fort Portal 7s final. And it was at that point when many started to believe, that the unexpected might happen! Hippos were in a place they had never been before.
Playing at home in the Kyabazinga 7s, the Hippos lived to the billing as they extended their lead in the penultimate circuit they hosted in Jinja, which they went on to win, beating KOBs 07-00 in the final, try by Denis Etwau, to move seven points clear. Their win was marred by an infamous brawl between New Vision journalist Johnson Were and Warriors player Gabriel Aredo, and that was followed by a media blackout in response to a USPA statement. But it was at this very point when the possibility of Hippos title surge garnered credence.
Before then, Hippos were just a good team, praised in the media for their consistency, not a title challenger but rather a stumbling block for the big three who played most circuits without some of their top players due to National team engagements. They were playing with agility and speed, very adventurous going forward and solid in equal measures – a Fijian style as passionately described by Manzi. But earlier in their title run,
And going to Buffaloes 7s, the last circuit, they needed to finish third to take the overall title. The mood was tense. They reached the quarters after coming out of a rather soft group that had Warriors, Jaguars and Rhinos. And in the quarters, they dispatched Mongers 10-00 to set up a mouthwatering semifinal clash with Heathens.
Tries from Taufik Bagalana and Timothy Mugisha handed them a win over Heathens, that handed them the title and a trip to the Buffaloes 7s final. History had been written.
In the final, they lost to Pirates 07-00 with Timothy Odong scoring a converted try for the Sea Robbers, but the Hippos had already accumulated enough points.
Finally, a team with a band of outsiders who had failed to make the national team grade grabbed the headlines.
Hippos player Maxwell Ebonga, a pioneer member of the team, says they benefited from that under-dog status, and had learned a lot from their past mistakes
“It had reached when the so-called underdog had matured, the Heathens and so on had beaten us on so many occasions but you only learn from defeats,” Ebonga opened up.
“We learned from our mistakes, rectified them, and regrouped and this is the weapon that we have been using throughout. We played with a mindset that ‘it’s our time – we can do this’/and that is why the boys have been putting in a good shift week in and week out while putting their bodies on the line.
“We knew how they were playing, and we backed ourselves that we can take the game to them. We realized that Kobs for them they wanted to open the defense so we had to train to defend the open play. Heathens, we knew that they always used their big guys to hit so we prepared to tackle one on one.”
Ebonga’s story is a subplot of Hippos’ fairytale success given that he had earlier contemplated retiring after that career-threatening injury before the new season started.
“The knee injury disorganized me, we lost Soggy then, and I almost quit at one stage. I remember when I went for the surgery, the following three weeks, I felt the pain that was tantamount to death. I reached the point when I convinced myself that I was not going to play again after I recover.”
Jinja Hippos Squad used in final circuit (Buffaloes 7s) – Jacob Ochen, David Weko, Tawfik Bagalana, Makita Gracious, Maxwell Ebonga, Dennis Etwau, Yasin Waiswa, Timothy Mugisha, Aziz Bagalana, John Echeru, Owen Mugogo, Sylver Kenyi
Officials – Fahad Maido (Team Manager), Saidi Atibu (Coach), Joel Muyambi (Physio)
Atibu won the title without being under a contract, and he expects to have his job secured in the few coming days: “We are working on paper work, may be that will be finalised before the Uganda Cup. I came back on interim. With this victory, and hopefully we will reach an agreement I will be the coach for 15s season. I have worked with a good coaching team, we did assessment and video analysis of all the circuits we had played, plus, like I said before, my boys believed in themselves. We had good depth in our squad, a blend of youth and experienced.”
Manzi, on the other hand, thanked the media for the publicity, God, sponsors and well wishers, fans, Executive Committee and the players for working tirelessly.
National 7s Past Winners
2006 – KOBs
2007 – Heathens
2008 – Heathens
2009 – Heathens
2010 – Impis
2011 – Heathens
2012 – Heathens
2013 – Heathens
2014 – Buffaloes
2015 – KOBs
2016 – KOBs
2017 – KOBs
2018 – Pirates
2019 – KOBs
2020 – N/A (Covid19l
2021 – KOBs
2022 – Jinja Hippos