A family affair

St John’s Easter Rugby Festival is a huge occasion for the whole community.

St John’s Easter Rugby Festival has grown into one of the most prestigious schoolboy rugby events in the country. What started out as an independent ‘rugby experiment’ in 1996, has become a popular annual fixture on the school rugby calender, mainly because of the diversity of top and developing schools that partake each year.

St John’s, who have a rich rugby tradition that dates back 72 years, used to participate in the Saints Rugby Festival hosted by St Stithians College. As their attendance at this festival was irregular, St John’s initiated their own festival to give their boys the opportunity of playing against strong rugby schools, for development reasons.

‘We wanted our boys to be playing regular top level rugby against the best schools in the country,’ says St John’s head of rugby Adrian Norris. ‘Therefore, at our festival teams play three other teams that they wouldn’t normally face during the year.’

The St John’s rugby board decides which 12 schools will take part. This year, the likes of Affies, Paul Roos, St John’s Harare, Helpmekaar and Outeniqua have been invited.

‘We like to rotate the schools that come here,’ says Norris. ‘We can’t always get the ones we want, but we still manage to get a good variety. We also have invitational sides, like the Lions and FNB Invitational teams, which give boys from unknown schools opportunities to play against the best in the country.

‘The festival isn’t structured as a competition, so there’s no final and no winner. Our main focus is on the boys playing against boys they wouldn’t normally face during the season.’

Norris says the festival is well supported by the public and covered on TV by SuperSport.

‘Between 15 000 and 20 000 people come through the gate over the three days. There is a huge family environment and this creates a special experience. Old boys associations come and support their schools and the pupils travel to support their peers. The general public who enjoy schoolboy rugby also attend.

‘SuperSport has covered the festival live before, but now FNB Classic Clashes, a schoolboy rugby programme, will cover the festival over six episodes. This is great for the boys.’

Norris says the event is a huge occasion for the whole community, with FNB also providing plenty of support.

‘All the locals help out, from the guy standing behind the bar or braai, to parents and staff who get involved in making the festival a community event. FNB has been a great sponsor of the festival, from a financial point of view, and with the expertise they provide before and after the festival.’

Rugby has made major strides at St John’s over the years and many Springboks have played at the festival, including Owen Nkumane, who became the school’s first Bok in 1998, their centenary year. ‘Springboks such as Jaque Fourie, Gürthro Steenkamp, Pierre Spies, Bob Skinstad and Schalk Brits have all featured at the festival, as well as Proteas batsman Herschelle Gibbs,’ says Norris.

While St John’s 1st XV haven’t won as many matches as they would have liked in recent years, Norris remains positive.

‘We try to compete against the top level schools, like Paarl Boys and Paul Roos. One year we played against Grey College and only lost by five points. So we do compete well, but there are times the results don’t go our way.

‘This year the boys in our matric year combined with our U17s should make a competitive side.’

Festival schedule

Thursday, 1 April
09:45 – FNB XV vs Pretoria Boys’
11:00 – St John’s (Jo’burg) vs St John’s (Harare)
12:15 – Lions XV vs Outeniqua
13:30 – Affies vs Nelspruit
14:45 – Helpmekaar vs Paarl Boys’
16:00 – Jeppe vs Paul Roos

Saturday, 3 April
09:45 – Lions XV vs Paul Roos
11:00 – Helpmekaar vs FNB XV
12:15 – Jeppe vs St John’s (Harare)
13:30 – Opening ceremony
13:45 – Pretoria Boys’ vs Outeniqua
15:00 – St John’s (Jo’burg) vs Affies
16:15 – Paarl Boys’ vs Nelspruit

Monday, 5 April
09:45  – Nelspruit vs Helpmekaar
11:00  – Lions XV vs St John’s (Harare)
12:15  – St John’s (Jo’burg) vs FNB XV
13:30 – Jeppe vs Paarl Boys’
14:45 – Pretoria Boys’ vs Paul Roos
16:00 – Outeniqua vs Affies

By Gareth Duncan

– This article first appeared in SA Rugby magazine