Regina Lunyolo has risen through the ranks of Ugandan rugby since a chance meeting with former Cranes star Brian Tabaruka at a swimming pool 16 years ago.
Lunyolo, who was a university student at the time, assumed Tabaruka and his companion were heading for a swimming lesson but her interest was piqued by the pair’s branded kit bags.
On closer inspection it transpired that the two men played for MTN Heathens, arguably the biggest men’s rugby club in Uganda, and impressed, Lunyolo was suddenly drawn to the game.
In the final year of her degree and looking for something to do after university aside from job hunting, Lunyolo asked Tabaruka whether the Heathens had a women’s team.
He told her that a group of women trained at the same ground as the Heathens, so a few weeks later, Lunyolo arrived at Kyadondo Rugby Club to take the first step on a journey that has transformed her life.
“It was on the fifth of January 2004, I was like ‘OK, let me just give it a shot’,” she told World Rugby.
“I found a couple of girls playing, running around. I stopped by and asked the coach [James Park] ‘is it OK for me to join?’ He was like fine, you’re welcome.
“That’s how I started playing rugby.”
Empowering Ugandan women
Less than 14 months later, Lunyolo lined up at scrum-half as Uganda’s Lady Cranes made their test debut with a 92-0 win over Rwanda in Kigali.
She continued to play until 2012 – returning to action after the birth of each of her six children – when she became a team manager for a local women’s club.
Lunyolo, who also earned a Level 2 refereeing qualification, became the Lady Cranes Sevens team manager in 2017, a role she held until she was elected to the Uganda Rugby Board two years later.
“I could not keep both positions,” Lunyolo said. “But I also wanted to create room for another person to come in and lead. Another female to come in and lead.
“If I was to say ‘Oh, I have to remain the team manager and then I’m a Board member’, for me, it doesn’t work because it means you are not bringing someone along with you.”
That desire to empower other Ugandan women to follow in her footsteps is evident in the manner in which Lunyolo has grasped another opportunity that came her way in 2019.
On the eve of International Women’s Day, she was announced as one of 14 recipients of this year’s World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship.
The scholarship has provided opportunities that she could only previously have dreamed of. In August, she flew to Fiji to take part in the Oceania Rugby Women’s Leadership Workshop before continuing her trip to New Zealand.
On her experience in Nadi, Lunyolo said: “It was one of those rare moments when you’re sitting in a safe space with like-minded people and you’re discussing the issues concerning the sport that you all love. It was life-changing.”
Lunyolo is determined, moreover, to make sure that it is not only her life that is changed by the scholarship. She intends to bring her countrywomen with her.
“The onus is on each and every one of us (scholarship recipients) to get out there and inspire more girls to play rugby,” she explained.
“But in so doing we have to create a safe environment for them to be able to achieve, to develop their full potential. And that goes for all of us to tap into our different skill sets and abilities to be able to get them to understand that rugby is more than a sport.
“It builds character, it’s been doing so since 1886 and it still continues to do so. So even as we live we have to live knowing that more girls are looking up to us as role models, as ambassadors of the game on and off the field.”
Connecting sports women
Lunyolo’s bid to empower the next generation of female leaders in Ugandan sport began in November 2017 when she launched a YouTube show, Sports Women Connect.
On the programme, which is at the end of its second series, Lunyolo interviews key female figures from a range of sports.
“Looking around me I realised as women in leadership we don’t have a platform where we just sit down one on one and have a conversation just concerning the challenges we go through, how we overcome them, and how this conversation can help propel another girl in a different part of the world,” she said.
“So I just thought why don’t I start up something that maybe, just maybe, may inspire a girl or two to join rugby or join sport in general.”
Guests over the past 26 episodes include Lady Cranes captain Winnie Atyang and one of World Rugby's 'Unstoppables' in it's ‘Try And Stop Us’ campaign Lucky Nirere.
“Winnie Atyang, when I first got her on the show, she was a bit unsure whether she could speak up,” Lunyolo said.
“But after the show she’s been called on different panel discussions because of this show, she’s been invited to different TV stations to hear her story because she has such a powerful, intense story about overcoming barriers to make it in life, and using rugby as a tool to do that.
“She now understands the power of telling her story, of being a role model, of being an ambassador, of leading on and off of the field.”
Lunyolo’s interactions with fellow female leaders, whether that be on her YouTube show or during her trip to Fiji and New Zealand, have helped her overcome one of the biggest challenges facing women in sport.
As one of only two women on the nine-member Uganda Rugby Board, Lunyolo found it difficult to have an impact on her male colleagues.
“Sometimes you feel like you don’t belong where you are because the men will be talking, they’ll be talking, sometimes it feels like they aren’t hearing you,” she explained.
“You feel like you have to go a long way to say something and yet in your head you know it’s the right thing but sometimes, because they’re so overpowering, you feel like I’ll let them speak and I’ll speak at the end. If they allow me to speak at the end.
“But with the interactions I’ve had with other ladies it helped me to understand that if it’s my time to speak up, I’ll speak up.
“As long as it’s the right thing I’ll speak up and then I’ll speak about the values of rugby and put those first and say ‘OK, if it’s the right thing I’ll say it’s the right thing’.”