Zimbabwe 2019 – Two go on Safari
Zimbabwe 2019 – Toto were right!
David Yates and I received the invitation from the Zimbabwe Referee’s Society in late March giving us all of 4 weeks to organise a trip involving 3 flights and 16 hours’ worth of travelling! After some hurried searches on Sky Scanner and encounters with numerous needles in places you don’t want them, it was suddenly 6am on Saturday 27th April and David’s shiny Jaguar rolled up to collect me en route to Manchester Airport.
We were to fly from Manchester to Amsterdam, then down to Nairobi and finally arrive in Harare at 01:00 on Sunday 28th April. Upon arrival we were met with the quietest, most deserted airport I have ever set foot in which ultimately meant once we’d paid our $55 each for a visa we walked straight through security and were greeted by 6 very enthusiastic members of the Zimbabwe Referees Society. We were then transported to our accommodation for the week at the New Ambassador Hotel in downtown Harare which was interestingly positioned right across the road from the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe which was watchfully patrolled by a number of heavily armed soldiers!
After a decent lie in and a quick walk around the area surrounding the hotel we were collected by our hosts and taken to the Prince Edward School which was the venue for the week’s rugby action in the Dairibord Schools Rugby Festival. The school itself is one of, if not the, most famous schools in Zimbabwe which can boast Graeme Hick, Dave Houghton & Duncan Fletcher (all international cricketers) and Nick Price (Winner of The Open in 1994) amongst its alumni. Upon arrival there was a fitness session being led by Lance Dhlakama (former Natal Sharks & Zimbabwe 7s), however I took the approach that my skin complexion wouldn’t take kindly to the intense sunshine so I quickly retreated into the shade to observe the goings on! After the session concluded we all enjoyed a fantastic braai with some quality food which allowed David and me to introduce ourselves and meet our colleagues for the week.
Monday morning came and with the promise of a 7:15 pick up we awoke at 6:30 for breakfast and a quick shower before boarding the bus and arriving at Prince Edward. The structure of the tournament meant that Monday, Wednesday and Friday would be mainly 2nd XV, U16 and Girls matches, whereas Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday was the main competition with all the top schools from Zimbabwe competing together with a few guest teams from other southern African countries. Appointments were issued and I was delegated a Girls U18 match on the main Jubilee field which passed off well, albeit with a comedy fall from yours truly when running across the cricket square portion of the pitch after my studs failed me. The rest of the day was spend observing local referees and offering any support or guidance that was needed.
Kieron with two of his fellow referees and David Yates with Paul Gosho from Zimbabwe, Eugene Daniels from South Africa and David Mulunga from Zambia
On the Tuesday the appointments were issued and I was given the task of taking charge of the last match on the Jubilee field between Prince Edward and Hillcrest, two of the powerhouses of Zimbabwean schools rugby. As kick off approached the crowds began to gather and it was estimated that there was 3,000 people in the stands and surrounding the pitch come the whistle being blown. The match itself was fast paced and involved some of the quickest players I have refereed and was an excellent demonstration of loose, free flowing rugby. Ultimately Prince Edward came out on top 24-17 (we all know the 1st rule of exchanges!) and my day’s work was completed.
Wednesday was spent “shadow refereeing” with some of the younger members of the Zimbabwe Referees Society and this experience was very rewarding and humbling to see the effort and enjoyment that these young men and women put in and get out of refereeing. A rough estimate on my part had the number of “junior” referees at 30 and I can honestly say that every single one of them showed huge improvements as the week went on. I was especially struck by a conversation with a young lady called Kudze who plays rugby and is a member of the Zimbabwean Rugby Academy, however she had also decided to do some refereeing as she wanted to understand the game through the eyes of the referee.
Thursday brought another “big” day and I took charge of a match between Kyle College and St Johns, once again 2 of the famous rugby schools. St Johns can boast “The Beast” Tendai Mtawarira as a former student of their School so I was expecting a physical encounter and I wasn’t disappointed! Kyle ultimately came out on top in a match that could have gone either way, but once again the free flowing style was a breath of fresh air on an otherwise scorching hot day. We were also privileged on Thursday lunchtime to be invited to dine with the Headmaster of Prince Edward School and his wife which was a very nice touch and he himself was a very charming man who loved his sports.
News came through late on Thursday evening that David and myself would have the Friday as a rest day and we would be heading out on a game drive in the afternoon at Thetford Game Reserve, approximately 30km outside of Harare. We made our way to Prince Edward School on Friday morning to assume a watching brief of the goings on and at lunchtime we travelled with the Secretary of the Zimbabwe Referees Society to his gorgeous home where his wife, Irma, had prepared for us some lunch consisting of fantastically succulent boerwurst and accompanying salad and breads. Craig has English parents however he grew up in South Africa and actually played in the same school side as Joel Stransky at Maritzburg College. After lunch we headed out to the game reserve and spent what I can only describe as the most breathtaking afternoon of my life observing some of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen, the highlight of which was when David and I were able to stroke a white rhino that was happily munching on some food. My words cannot fully explain the experience, but I would urge anyone to partake in a similar activity if the opportunity ever arose.
Saturday morning came and I had been appointed to referee Eaglesvale vs St Georges College at 12:40 (a pale white Englishman in the midday African sun I hear you say!), as well as being AR1 on the final match of the festival – Prince Edward vs Churchill College – which I was reliably informed prior to the match is the biggest rivalry in Zimbabwean schoolboy rugby. My match came and it was being live streamed via YouTube to a global audience – no pressure there then! In the end the match was a little one-sided but I did still find the time to put 3 players in the sin bin after a mass brawl broke out from nowhere! Following the match I had a few hours to rehydrate and eat prior to meeting with my fellow officials for the final match – Talent who was to referee (and had met 4 of our members a few weeks previously at the Lisbon Youth Rugby Festival) and Vince who was AR2 and from the Kenyan Rugby Referees Society. As kick off drew closer the crowds flocked to the Jubilee field and the atmosphere was absolutely electric by the time the teams made their way on to the field via huge tunnels made by hundreds of pumped up pupils of the respective schools. The match itself was brutal and it was clear from the outset that there were huge amounts of pride at stake. Half time came with the score standing at 21-3 to Churchill and on the balance of play no arguments could be had. It is a cliché, but as officials we were fully aware that Prince Edward were undoubtedly going to come flying out of the blocks in the 2nd half in the hope of turning around the deficit but we could not have expected just how much the momentum would swing in the 2nd half as Prince Edward gradually clawed their way back in to contention and the noise of the crowd got louder and louder to the extent that the comms kit we were using was on maximum volume and we still struggled to hear one another. By the time the final whistle had blown the score stood at Prince Edward 31 vs 28 Churchill and the comeback had been completed. The PA then announced that the crowd had been measured at 8,000 people which only goes to show how important and integral Zimbabwean schoolboy rugby is to the country as a whole. I had never previously seen such passion and intensity over such a long period and the commitment of all involved in the Referee Society was great to see.
To say that this was the trip of a lifetime would be an understatement. Right from setting foot off the plane to taking off the following Sunday we were treated like royalty and had the most amazing experiences imaginable. I can honestly say that I have made friends for life and I will be doing everything in my power to ensure that we maintain our relationship with our colleagues in Zimbabwe so that these invitations continue to come on an annual basis which will allow more of our members to enjoy the experience. I must also thank MADREFs on behalf of both David and myself for selecting us to represent the Society on this trip.
I have included some photos of our trip and for those of you who it may interest the following link will take you to the stream of the final day of the Festival where my match is the first match on the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tHYG_4WQsE) and the final match between Prince Edward and Churchill can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKw-KG1hxNo