Few people have been born into a life steeped in sport quite like Lucky Nirere.
Her mother Fortunate Irankunda was in the midst of a 13-year career in the Uganda front-row when she became pregnant and as Nirere says “I went wherever she was going”.
Fortunate’s passion for rugby was duly passed on to her daughter, who was just two when she first played tag rugby. By the time she started primary school, aged four, she had begun coaching the sport and teaching her peers how to do the same.
Nirere’s impressive early life came to the attention of a wider audience in 2015 as it ensured she won a competition to travel to England for the Rugby World Cup and present the match ball at five matches – including Australia’s tense Pool A victory over Wales at Twickenham.
“It was really a big audience in the stadium, so I was kind of nervous,” she admitted. “And also, during the interviews and before the [kick-off] I was really nervous.”
Bridging the gap
But Nirere’s story did not stop there. In the three-and-a-half years since she travelled to London she has continued to educate tag rugby coaches around Uganda while playing, coaching and refereeing the sport herself too.
Now 12 years old, she has worked with more than 50 coaches, all of whom are still involved with the sport through a network of community clubs that have been set up in the African country.
Nirere hopes that her work, and that of the Tag Rugby Trust, in Uganda can help bridge the gap between tag rugby and its full-contact equivalent, giving young girls both the skills and confidence to advance to sevens and 15s.
“Tag rugby is a simple game. It is played by all ages, both male and female,” Nirere said as she explained what drives her passion for the sport.
“If you play tag rugby obviously you are going to be able to advance to the real rugby.
“So, in Uganda we are building up a game and we are encouraging girls because in most cases girls fear to go for the real contact rugby.
“So, we are putting up a game that will advance them slowly by slowly, using tactics of rugby but still in the version of tag rugby. So, tag rugby is just a simple game and it helps us advance slowly by slowly to the real contact rugby.
“We’re hoping girls get this courage of ‘I can do it’ so they can play contact rugby in the future.”
Those coaches who Nirere and her colleagues educate are also expected to immerse themselves in the game to such an extent that they will one day be able to pass on what they have learned.
Reservoir of knowledge
It is hoped, ultimately, that a reservoir of rugby knowledge can be filled so that the growth of the sport in Uganda becomes self-perpetuating.
“As we coach we also expect people to learn the game,” Nirere said. “To learn also how to coach it because educators train people to become coaches.
“We want to make a pool of coaches all over the country, who are able to play tag rugby, coach it, ref it so they can advance every time.”
Through her work, Nirere has gained an acute sense of the two major issues that face women’s rugby in Uganda – finance and support.
A 2016 poverty assessment stated that although the situation has improved since 2006, almost one in five Ugandans live below the poverty line meaning that sport falls well down the list when it comes to what families are able to spend money on.
There is also a stigma attached to women playing rugby meaning that many parents are also reluctant to allow their children to play the sport because of the reputation it has.
“Some parents maybe can’t afford money for school fees,” Nirere said.
“Whenever we have to travel somewhere as a team those parents are like ‘I really can’t afford that’. So, one of the challenges or barriers is finances.
“And also, that lack of support. You know in most cases when you tell a parent that their child is going to play tag rugby, the first thing in their mind is the rugby of hold, put down and they’re already scared to take their girls there.”
Nirere is determined to do what she can to change those negative perceptions and help as many women and girls as she can to pick up an oval ball.
As she does so she will draw motivation from her mum, who she describes as her “role model”.
“She coaches me, she inspires me,” Nirere added.
“She has also formed her own academy for other young children, and through her is why I’m here and she has coached me how to play, ref and do various things in tag rugby.”
One day she might also emulate Fortunate and pull on the Lady Cranes jersey.
“I’d really be very proud to do that,” Nirere said and you suspect that her mother would be delighted too.