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Will Derby Day breathe new life into schoolboy rugby?

Trevor Makonyonga

THIS year heralds a new era for Zimbabwean schoolboy rugby, with two tournaments taking place around the same time.First, it is the traditional Dairibord Schools Rugby Festival and then the newly-introduced event, fancifully dubbed Derby Day, to be hosted by St John’s College at the beginning of May.

This, of course, means more rugby for schools in Zimbabwe — a welcome development to those long clamouring for more action at that level in this sport.
But herein lies what others see as a problem: what are the implications of this new baby, the Derby Day, on the uniquely structured Dairibord Festival, an iconic fixture on the country’s sporting calendar?

First to note is that as things stand, food-producing giant Dairibord has not yet renewed the contract for the famous Prince Edward-hosted tournament, which attracts big crowds on the main days and is considered one of the biggest tournaments of its kind in the world.

Rumour is rife that the organisers are currently in talks with a leading mobile telephone services provider to take over, if current contract renewal negotiations fall through.

But whatever the case maybe, it must be said that the Prince Edward festival has suffered a lot in the past few years in terms of organisational skills and quality of rugby.

Because of this, the country’s top rugby-playing schools, such as Falcon College and Peterhouse, have on occasions failed to turn up at Dairibord in recent years, opting, instead, to go on tour during that time.

Derby Day, pitting strength against strength as it does where only the best sides in Zimbabwean schoolboy rugby, kind of raises the stakes and somewhat brings back the good old days of quality competition between schools as used to be the case in the past.

The catch in the whole thing is that Prince Edward has been invited to play at Derby Day in the same week they will be hosting the Dairibord festival.
To the harshest critics of this new concept, Derby Day is nothing but an “elitist” event meant to break away from the rest, and further diminish the status of the Prince Edward jamboree.

On the face of it, it looks like a valid observation. Derby Day has simply brought together all the top private schools, and also slotted in the two competitive government ones — Prince Edward and Churchill.

But, to be fair, these are not the only schools that play rugby in Zimbabwe these days. A lot has changed. The onus is now on the organisers of the Prince Edward tournament to grab the opportunity and make sure that the lot that comes to this event, high-density and rural schools included, step up to preserve the integrity of this traditional tournament.

New events must not be suppressed. But it does not mean old ones must die because of the emergence of new ones.A working solution will be to get the Dairibord festival to focus solely on the co-ed and government schools.

Will Prince Edward abandon their own event to play exclusively at Derby Day, though? That would render Dairibord the lesser event.It might however mean more rugby, more competition between peer schools.

It must however be noted that quantity is not quality. Prince Edward, if they make the move, might have to cut on the schools that come through to their festival, to safeguard quality and better organisation.

Issues of the past, including failure to get side judges and ambulances at some matches, have to be dealt with. Even the constant changing of fixtures has to be looked into. Since Derby Day could certainly bring a well-oiled event, this could force the Prince Edward event to get more serious. Eventually, more rugby will definitely be welcome.

Accusations of elitism aside, the oldest rugby festival in the country will definitely not be affected by the new baby if the organisers up their game and draw decent match-ups. It means schools can then choose to participate in both festivals. The two festivals can take place concurrently perfectly well. What could be compromised are Friday and the Saturday at Dairibord, that is if Churchill and Prince Edward play at Derby Day on these days. The second teams will then have to prove their worth to spectators.

But, after examining all angles, you get the assuring feeling that the spark might just be back in Zimbabwean schoolboy rugby.The proposed fixtures for the inaugural Derby Day are as follows: Midlands Christian College v Christian Brothers College, Eaglesvale v Watershed, Heritage v Gateway, Hellenic v Hillcrest, Prince Edward v Churchill, Kyle College v Lomagundi, Peterhouse v Falcon, St John’s v St George’s.

Makonyonga is a freelance sports reporter. He produces a weekly podcast, The Chat.

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