(CNN) – The world of rugby sevens is inhabited by giants, but one small African nation will be making its debut at this weekend’s World Cup in San Francisco.
They may not boast the heritage of New Zealand or the seasoned stars of South Africa, but Uganda’s Cranes are on the rise.
“At the moment it’s the sport everyone’s talking about,” Uganda sevens star Solomon Okia tells CNN, having topped the scoring charts in the Dubai leg of the 2017-18 World Series. “Everywhere we go it’s, ‘Rugby sevens, rugby sevens.’
“I think we are breaking away from other sports in Uganda.”
Uganda has won the last two Africa Cup Sevens, ensuring qualification for July’s global showpiece. It also appeared at a fourth Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast in April, finishing third in Pool D .
“It was always our dream to represent Uganda at the highest level,” says Okia, who believes they can produce a shock and go as far as the World Cup semifinals in San Francisco. “I think it will be something quite awesome.”
Uganda was only recognized as a rugby nation by the sport’s governing body — now called World Rugby — in 1997, about half a century after the game was introduced to the East African nation by British colonists.
The last two years have brought considerable progress.
Team captain Eric Kasiita told CNN the Cranes’ debut on the Sevens World Series Circuit in December 2016 had “really opened up big doors and windows for the young players back at home.”
“They now see that there’s a clear pathway to greater things,” said head coach Tolbert Onyango.
It’s a view shared by Legends Rugby Club director Daniel Kaggwa who watches the development of players coming through the ranks firsthand.
“We’re seeing a generation of younger children playing rugby, both from local schools and international schools,” Kaggwa tells CNN.
“I think the future is very bright for Ugandan rugby.”
Okia, an electric attacking force able to run 100 meters in 10.58 seconds, first got involved in the game playing tag rugby.
“I used to do athletics so a friend of mine said, ‘Come and join me,'” he explains. “I thought to myself, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot.’ And all of a sudden it felt good. It was so easy for me. I threw myself into the sport.”
Uganda is not yet a core nation on the World Series — meaning the Cranes only competed in the first two legs in 2017-18 — but that hasn’t stopped Okia and his teammates impressing.
The 21-year-old crossed the line eight times in six matches in Dubai, putting him right up there with Sevens stalwarts Seabelo Senatla of South Africa and England’s Dan Norton, the game’s all-time record try scorer.
Uganda wasn’t likely to upset any of the top-tier nations, but it did beat Russia 17-12 for a first ever victory at that stage, with Okia scoring twice.
He was promptly branded a “One to Watch” for the Cape Town Sevens a week later, and he didn’t disappoint.
This time the Cranes beat Russia 28-19, with Okia and teammate Lawrence Sebuliba scoring two apiece.
Okia describes being named top try scorer and the victory over Russia as the personal highlights of his career to date.
But, equally, it’s the simple things like pulling on the red and yellow jersey of the Cranes that Okia treasures.
“Oh it feels so, so, so amazing. It is the most beautiful thing,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of good moments but it’s also the times we’ve shared together as Team Uganda, playing soccer and trying to enjoy ourselves.”
Andrew Owor, president of the Uganda Rugby Union, estimates there are “in excess of 22,000 players at the different levels” nationwide.
In 2009, they sent a squad to the women’s Sevens World Cup in Dubai — the first team ever to represent Uganda at a senior World Cup competition in any sport.
The talent is there, he says. The thing to tackle if they’re to maintain their place among the game’s elite is a lack of sufficient funding.
“There’s a need for investment, a need for proper assistance, a proper structure,” Okia stresses.
“That’s all we need at the moment to put ourselves higher, above the level we’re playing at now.”
Owor says rugby is recognized by the Ugandan government as “one of the top six national sports that require funding.”
And the current crop are doing what they can to inspire the next generation, traveling to the far reaches of the country to “build rugby up and push it higher.”
But many of the players are not yet able to play the game all year round. Indeed, Okia says his life hasn’t changed all that much.
“I would say there’s a bit of a stigma; it’s sometimes taken that sport is an interference to academic life,” says Owor. “And yet, in our view, it’s the exact opposite. For you to be educated, you need have sport to get a well-rounded education.
“That, I think, is something to highlight to the governments and ministers.”
After all, it’s not just the Sevens World Cup on the horizon.
Rugby Sevens is now a fully fledged part of the Olympic program, and reigning champion Fiji has proved you don’t have to be a big nation to achieve great things.
“Ah, it would be an all-new level,” says Okia, admitting the exploits of Ben Ryan’s team at Rio 2016 inspire them.
Fiji has won two of the past three World Series titles in addition to the country’s first ever Olympic gold. Despite all that success, Fiji was the team that went the extra mile to welcome Uganda onto the circuit.
“Fiji tried to ease us into the sport,” Okia recalls. “They were like, ‘Ah, you’re Team Uganda, Uganda come on!’ They tried to make us feel at home, you know.
“They said it’s a big stage, but you can make it if you believe in yourselves.”
The Cranes have come a long way already.
“First I thought, ‘If I get to play the Commonwealth Games, that would be amazing,” says Okia. “I reached the Commonwealth Games and was thinking, ‘Maybe we’ll make the World Cup.’
“Now we’ve made that, the Olympics would be the biggest dream of all. It’s the level everyone aspires to play at, and it would be something that would change a lot of people’s lives.”