When I visited the residential training camp of Uganda’s national netball team, the She Cranes, at the AVRS Secondary School indoor sports stadium in Mpigi District, the players were full of energy and confidence.
The netballers were going through their routine training — drills, pacing, ball work, warm-ups, stretching, attack and defending, team talks and morale-boosting — in preparation for the prestigious Vitality Netball World Cup 2019 scheduled for July 12 to 21 in Liverpool, England, organised by the International Netball Federation (INF).
The coach’s whistle dominated the training session, with occasional loud groans from those who had been fouled or injured.
The She Cranes were divided into two teams, Red and Black, for a full normal game. The Blacks won 69-52. They ended the day’s training session by stretching under the watchful eyes of their coaches, headed by Kawooya Vincent Kiwanuka.
“So far the players are responding well and they are keeping time. The netball federation is seeking funds so that training is not disrupted,” Kiwanuka said.
On the team’s tactics for the global competition, he said, “We are trying to change our movements and passes from the old to new styles and to get new skills. We have improved our speed, body resistance and physique. We have worked on our reaction to marking.”
Uganda is among the top 16 teams from across the world who are competing in Liverpool for netball’s ultimate prize — the Vitality Netball World Cup. Teams were selected through both INF world rankings and regional qualifying tournaments.
As the host nation, England automatically qualified for the tournament along with the top five ranked teams — Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, South Africa, and Malawi.
These six teams were joined in Liverpool by countries that qualified through their respective Regional Qualifier events in 2018.
Five Regional Qualifier events took place throughout 2018, with two teams from each of the INF regions — Africa (Uganda and Zimbabwe), Americas (Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados), Asia (Sri Lanka and Singapore), Europe (Northern Ireland and Scotland) and Oceania (Fiji and Samoa), qualifying to make up the remaining 10 teams contesting the World Cup.
The She Cranes beat Zambia 64-56 on the penultimate day of their regional qualifier to secure their place in Liverpool.
There will be 60 matches played at the M&S Bank Arena Liverpool throughout the 10-day tournament.
The INF has developed a new World Cup competition format for 2019, which will see teams go head-to-head in three stages at the tournament: the Preliminaries Stage One from July 12-14, the Preliminaries Stage Two from July 15-18 and the Play-offs and Placings matches from July 19-21.
Uganda opened its challenge for the world title against the England Roses on July 12. Uganda plays Samoa on July 13 before facing the Scottish Thistles on July 14.
The She Cranes have developed rapidly over the past few years, rising from 15th (August 2014) in the INF’s world rankings to sixth (June 2019).
They first appeared at the 1979 edition of the Netball World Cup where they drew at 13th with St Lucia; their best finish came at the 2015 edition where they finished eighth.
The 12-member She Cranes World Cup team is made up of Peace Proscovia Drajole (captain), Lilian Ajio (assistant captain), Stella Oyella (goal attacker/goal-shooter), Racheal Nanyonga (goal attacker/wing attacker), Ruth Meeme (wing attacker), Betty Kizza (centre), Jessica Achan (wing attacker/wing defender), Sylvia Nanyonga (goal defender/wing defender), Joan Nampungu (goalkeeper/goal defender), Stella Nanfuka (goalkeeper), Muhaimina Namuwaya (goalkeeper) and Mary Nuba (goal-shooter).
Players to watch
The Ugandan players to watch at the world cup are Drajole and Ajio.
Ajio, a goal defender, who plays for the local Prisons Netball Club, has a great sense of positioning and is often seen executing timely ball interceptions to win her team possession.
The 34-year-old has played for Uganda since 2007, and has previous experience battling it out on the world stage, having been a part of the 2015 Netball World Cup in Sydney, Australia.
Drajole is vital to the She Cranes because of her outstanding shooting skills that have catapulted her onto the world stage. Goal shooter for the She Cranes, she is a fierce competitor out on the court.
Drajole, who plies her trade with Sunshine Coast Lightning club in the Australian Suncorp Super Netball League has a wealth of experience and captained her side to a sixth place finish at the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
As to their preparations for the World cup, Ajio, said: “We are at 95 per cent now. But we hope to be at our maximum next week, when every movement is well co-ordinated. We feel confident and ready.”
Racheal Nanyonga, a senior player said, “We are good to go since we have been preparing for some time. All our teammates are in good shape.”
Coach Kiwanuka, said their biggest threats are Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, England and South Africa. “We are prepared for all of them even though we play England in the first game. South Africa has been beating us recently.”
“England is ranked among the top five in the world. We travelled to England last December to play them in the International Netball Friendly Series and they won all the matches. In the first series, the goal difference was just four,” Ajio said.
What are the chances of Uganda winning the 2019 World Cup? Kiwanuka sounded confident, saying: “We could win the World Cup. However, support to the team has been inadequate.”
The team’s success has not come without challenges — like late disbursement of funds by government to cater for allowances, residential training and participation in international friendlies, and lack of international training facilities.
Ever since She Cranes qualified for the 2015 Netball World Cup, after an absence of over 39 years, their performance and rankings have improved every year.
Kiwanuka attributes the team’s success to improved speed. “We did not know the style, speed and strength of our opponents then. We have since learnt a lot from our competitors and it has helped us improve our game.”
“What keeps us going is passion, commitment, resilience and being humble. And we never give up whatever the situation,” said She Cranes manager Jocelyn Uchanda.