The Sunday Mail
THERE are four things that happened in junior rugby in April and early May that will have a bearing on the future of the sport.
First, the national Under-20 team qualified for the Junior World Trophy by retaining the Barthes Trophy with some outstanding displays.
The second was failure to stage the annual rugby festival, which, over the years, used to be sponsored by a leading dairy products company and a cotton concern, and was usually hosted by Prince Edward School.
Thirdly, Hartsfield in Bulawayo hosted a successful schools’ festival over the Easter holidays, which attracted a quality field and featured great performances.
Lastly, it was standing room only at the St John’s Derby Day Festival, which really came of age this year.
Its success could well signal the end of the Prince Edward festival, as we have known it over the years.
The Prince Edward festival was put on hold during Covid-19.
Event organisers initially indicated that it would return this year. However, it did not return, as planned.
This opened the door for the St John’s festival to establish itself as the go-to event for school sport during the first term holidays.
For decades, Prince Edward School was the meeting place of choice for learners for the event, as they spent the day watching different teams or just enjoying each other’s company.
The festival would often culminate in a major fixture on the famous Jubilee Field featuring PE Tigers against Falcon or Peterhouse or St George’s on a Saturday.
The festival also brought to the fore some great rugby talents and made names for schools such as Murewa High School and Mbare’s George Stark, who took part as rookies playing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
They subsequently earned themselves prime slots playing on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
This year, that hype finally found a new home.
The week-long Derby Day Festival — now supported and named after an edible oils manufacturer — featured football, hockey and rugby.
This year’s edition was easily the biggest it has ever been.
Fifteen schools from around the country — including Hillcrest (Mutare), Rydings (Karoi), Wise Owl and Watershed (Marondera), Lomagundi College (Chinhoyi), Christian Brothers College (Bulawayo), Falcon (Esigodini) and Kyle College (Masvingo) — took part
All the major rugby playing schools were present, except for Marondera’s Peterhouse.
Prince Edward and Churchill were on the draw and were the only Government schools there. Their pedigree pretty much invites itself to all things rugby.
Emerging teams like Wise Owl School and Kyle College also attended and made a significant mark at the event.
Parking slots were filled and people were parking along Rolf Avenue from mid-morning as the festival progressed.
It ended with a match between St George’s and the hosts — the titular derby on the final Saturday.
Prince Edward played the final match on Wednesday against St John’s.
The level of organisation and support for the event showed what can be achieved with the right level of application.
This leaves a huge question mark on the future of the Prince Edward event.
The organisers can now plan the events so they do not get into each other’s way, while rugby emerges the winner.
Given the backing and support on show at the Derby Day Festival, it will take a massive investment in capital and commitment to make the Prince Edward event the premier schools festival again.
However, the event should not be left to fade away. It remains very relevant and must be made vibrant again.
It will also benefit rugby to have more than one event at which talent is paraded.
The PE event could target emerging rugby powerhouses and build the next generation of players.
This would give some schools a chance to grow their game and showcase their talents to a wider audience.
Or one of the festivals could focus on the Under-16s and build future senior school stars.
This way, both festivals could still feature the same schools.
There is also the option of rotating the event in different cities each year?
Building on the appetite for the game shown at the Bulawayo festival, there is scope for hosting these events around the country.
It could be hosted in Gweru one year, then in Chinhoyi the other year, thereby spreading the game to different communities and encouraging schools in these areas to take up rugby.
It would also provide scouting opportunities for new players and rare talent.
Events like these festivals provide a perfect platform for the success shown by the team that will be playing at the Junior World Trophy in Kenya.
Building on them and making them even more attractive and inclusive is the key to a massive turnaround on the field of play for rugby.
■ Feedback: [email protected]