York Valkyrie venture into Africa

Playing rugby league in Uganda

York Valkyrie recently spent a week in Uganda with the aim of boosting interest in rugby league and making a positive impact on the lives of those who play. Sebastian Sternik reports for Rugby League World.

When embarking on a rugby mission to the heart of Africa, it’s easy for outsiders to judge. ‘Why are you not building wells’, they might say. ‘Why are you not building houses’, other may add.

‘People need food, not rugby’, some may denounce.

On one hand, rugby league is just a game. Twenty-six players chasing after an egg-shaped ball, trying to ground it at the end of the field. What many may not realise, is that rugby – or any sport for that matter – is a lot more than just a game in certain parts of the developing world.

Daily life in Uganda is full of hardships. This is a nation where 41% of its population live on less than $1.90 per day. Poverty, AIDS, early marriage, teenage pregnancy, and a bleak economic outlook are just some of the many challenges which prevent young people from achieving their full potential.

With that in mind, let’s go back to rugby. For a couple of hours, all those challenges go out of the window. Instead of pondering about your next difficulty, rugby offers a rare escape. A chance to socialise, to have fun, to build relationships and forge new skills.

York’s newly formed partnership with Uganda Rugby League is not just about donations or making a short-term impact. The grand ambition of the project is to create a sustainable model in which the sport can thrive. A strategy which not only grows the game, but also changes lives.

When asked whether ‘Mission Uganda’ was a success, York Valkyrie’s Director of Rugby Lindsay Anfield – who organised the visit and the partnership – said: “It far exceeded the expectations that we had for the trip. We organised it within eight weeks and managed to make it work.

“We managed to train with the players, train the coaches, get the refereeing workshops done, run through medical provisions. We did a lot in a very short space of time.

No sports in Uganda are really sustainable without the players contributing a lot of money to allow it to go ahead. The next step is to continue with what we’re doing, but with one eye on sustainability. To make the partnership really successful, we would have to try and find a base out there.

“We’ve been talking about getting a field and potentially using that as a base that we could use for all the players to go through.

“If we could mirror what Manchester City and Manchester United are doing with their academies down there, we would be the first rugby league club to create something in that part of the world. It’s something we’re looking to do.”

In order for the sport to grow, having a group of coaches is pivotal. As things stand, the woman driving rugby league forward in Uganda is Fortunate Irankunda – also known as Fort.

While she alone has done wonders for the sport in her country, there is a need for more coaches – something she has been working on by schooling some of her brightest talents.

“What Fort is doing is brilliant,” said Anfield. “She uses the young leaders’ programmes to work with the youth. She’s not bringing in external coaches, she’s using the players to coach which is a great strategy.

“There are coaches in different clubs that are far in the west and the east of the country, but obviously Fort is the main one. Sharing her is vital.”
One question which many may ponder is whether we could ever get a Super League talent to come out of Uganda. After just one week in Entebbe, Anfield has no doubts.

“If you look at the standard of the rugby league with very very minimal coaching, no strength & conditioning, no physio, no facilities, yet they’re playing at such a high standard. It far exceeded anything we were expecting.

“We thought the rules would be very sketchy, they’d be all sorts going on, but in truth it was a really good brand of rugby league.

“It was exciting to watch, they moved the ball around. Many of them used their skills from rugby union and rugby 7s.”

York Valkyrie forward Daisy Sanderson, who was one of the players on the trip, was similarly impressed. She said: “They had no struggles when we joined in. Even at the start, during a touch and pass game, they happily played alongside us.

“They were very quick at learning, very adaptable. Some of them wouldn’t struggle at all [playing in England], they looked like they were part of a team for seasons on end. They could definitely slot it. Definitely in Championship, but also in Super League. Being around that level would develop them even more.

“Some of them were wearing trainers or even bare foot. They didn’t have rugby boots, some didn’t have rugby kit. Some of them were playing in school uniforms. The open age teams did have a bit of kit, but it’s incredible how far they’ve come especially knowing they were union based, yet they picked up league so quickly.

“Some of the skills that you try to teach athletes back home for years, some of them just don’t get it and it doesn’t come naturally. Different story over there. Even the forwards had great footwork. Even their passing range, it’s quite incredible how much skill they have.”

Joining players on the trip to Uganda was Welsh national team doctor Richard Lawrance who was determined to pass his knowledge and expertise.

“The expectations were very minimal,” he said. “I expected a qualified first aider and they did have somebody doing first aid but I’m not sure if he had any qualifications. The knowledge base was quite small, but the will was there.

“They had some basic medical kit, some bandages, some plasters. But I don’t think they regularly attend training sessions. There was really only one person and a few coaching staff and some players that had any involvement in first aid. The provision was minimal, the knowledge was small, but the willingness to learn was good.”

Concussion was a big part of the medical workshop which Lawrance offered to the Ugandan staff.

He said: “We talked a lot about player welfare issues, largely centred around recognition of concussion and the different signs, different symptoms that can identify concussions.

“We also talked about assessment of concussions after potentially being recognised. Various tests and questions that we ask, questions about symptoms and tests about how the brain works, memory, coordination. The general aspects of balance, coordination and memory which form our standard concussion assessments. We talked about all of that.

“We talked about basic cardiac arrest management, jumping up and down but bearing in mind we don’t have defibrillators. We talked about some basic injury management and talked through strapping of the ankle in particular. That was the main strapping they wanted to know about.

“We went through things in great detail, we had a question-and-answer session. To be fair, especially from a concussion point of view, they demonstrated a pretty good understanding beforehand. Some of their questions were quite good.

“With the amount of knowledge they already had, coupled with the bits and pieces we talked about, they should be in a good place to be able to do the right thing for their players.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 486 (July 2023)

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