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INTERVIEW: Elie Mutabazi on how APR volleyball ended six-year title jinx

Coach Elie Mutabazi, speaking here during the interview with The New Times this week, is also considered as one of the best players APR volleyball club has ever produced. Photo: Olivier Mugwiza

APR men’s volleyball club clinched the 2019/20 national volleyball league championship on Saturday, October 31, after powering through the playoffs unbeaten.

The stunning triumph marked the end of a six-year jinx for the army side, having last won the league title in 2014. It was the eighth championship in the club’s history.

 

And, thanks to their league title, APR will represent the country at the 2021 CAVB Men’s African Club Championships.

 

This week, Weekend Sport’s Damas Sikubwabo caught up with the club’s head coach, Elie Mutabazi, to discuss the team’s prominence that has in the past faded, possible strategies for better performance as well as plans for the upcoming continental volleyball season.

 

Excerpts:

You won the league title with APR in your first season as head coach, what secret did you use?

There was no particular secret. It is an outcome of a lot of training and working closely with the players. We also added three new players – Pacific Iradukunda, Alex Rwanyonga and Theoneste Rwahama – to the team, and they added strength to the squad we had.

After 6 years without lifting the league trophy, everyone at the club was hungry for success again and I was well aware of that when I took over as head coach.

Many people may mistakenly think that I lack coaching experience and that guiding APR to the league title was by luck. It is wrong. I have been in coaching for a while, I even coached in France where I was the head coach of a youth team Sco d’Angers and I assisted the players to rise through the ranks from younger age brackets to professional levels.

So when I was given APR, I knew what was expected of me and, as its former player, I also knew the club’s values.

Going 6 years without winning a major trophy, what do you think was the cause?

The first thing we did was to change the mentality of the players because all players of our team are still young. I often told them that being young does not justify settling for less.

Once the player understood why we do what we do and why they are at APR, it was easy to draw the best out of everybody – both in training and during games. There was no more comfort zone for them, and obviously the consistent reminding from me and my assistant coach, Mathieu Rwanyonga, worked. The oldest member of the squad was 26-year old.

During the six years of league title wait, I would say that the club did not really exhaust all the possibilities to win.

APR volleyball club players celebrate after beating UTB to win their first league title on Saturday, October 31 at Amahoro Indoor Stadium. / Photo: File

After clinching the league trophy, what next?

We are going to take an off-season break, then starting preparing for next season. The target is to retain the league title, and reaching the semi-finals of the African Club Championships.

Defying the odds to claim the local championship for the first time since 2014, could this be the starting point for APR to dominate again like it used to?

It is very possible, and it will of course depend on many things. We have to able to maintain our best players and do necessary reinforcements to stay competitive.

There also has to be a clear plan of what we want to achieve, and involve players at the centre of it. Without a common goal and understanding, teamwork is very difficult.

Your current contract with the team is nearing end. Do you plan to extend it?

The contract actually ended with the season, so technically I am out of job now. But, yes, I plan to extend it and soon discussions with the management of the club will start. If all goes well, I will just another one-year deal with option for extension.

If there comes a team that gives you a better deal, would you consider it?

No. Right now I am not interested in hearing to new offers. I joined APR as a player in 1997 when I was a student and I have since been part of the club, there is something that I want to achieve here and I do not feel like I have accomplished it yet.

There is a harvest I want to contribute in regard to sharing knowledge and experience with the current group here, and hopefully turn them into [future] legends of the club – and the national team – like myself.

What legacy do you want to leave as APR head coach?

APR was once a force to reckon with in the region, and the biggest volleyball franchise on scene, I want to lead back the club to that status – and probably take it to another level.

APR skipper Venuste Gatsinzi with the trophy and cheque for Rwf1 million cash prize after stunning UTB to win the league title last month. / Photo: Courtesy

By the time I leave APR, let’s say after 10 years, I must have led the club to seven league titles at least and also be a consistent feature in semi-finals of the African Club Championships.

You will represent the nation in continental volleyball next season. How much does it mean for APR?

It means a lot to me and to APR as a team that has not competed in the African championships for half-a-decade now. With that also comes a responsibility to prepare well and improve in the squad in different aspects so we can represent well the country.

In the past, we rarely made it inside the top ten. Now the target will be the last four, and we know we will have to work hard for it. So good preparation is very important.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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