Hosting an inter-schools sporting tournament gives pupils the chance to pit their sporting prowess against a wide peer group, while bringing successful schools some serious silverware. For the host school, however, come many challenges, as those who stage these events can testify.
Over four decades of experience ensure that the lacrosse tournament at St Swithuns School, Winchester runs smoothly. Held on the second Saturday in October, the tournament sees around 30 teams and 500 players gathering to play 120 15-minute matches on six pitches. The school plays lacrosse in the autumn, winter and spring terms and, during Justine Mackenzie’s current spell as Director of Sport, the tournament has never been affected by bad weather.
For Justine, however, other elements can be more difficult to predict. “Because this is a long-standing tournament, we are able to start preparations around six weeks in advance,’ she explains. ‘Organising the draw is always the biggest logistical challenge, and having a team not show up is the worst thing that can go wrong in my experience – this results in having to adjust the draw and umpire schedule.
‘Other major considerations include liaising with the lettings department to make sure that the required facilities are free – and ensuring that there are enough staff to manage transport, parking, first aid and umpiring.”
The tournament is aimed at senior teams, with most schools entering a first and second squad and some also entering third and fourth teams. “The amount of teams entering means that we can create three tournament sections for both first and second teams, working in a round-robin fashion,” Justine explains.
“During the morning sessions teams are seeded according to their results and organised into premier, division one and division two sections for the afternoon sessions. Trophies are awarded to the winners of each section and medals are handed out to the winning players.”
Organisation isn’t limited to the on-field action, either. The school PTA runs a tea and coffee tent with all proceeds benefitting the school’s chosen charity. An outside first-aid service is also onsite for the tournament, with a treatment van and vehicle ready to take injured players to hospital if needed.
Further north at Pocklington School, in Yorkshire’s East Riding, former Yorkshire County Cricket Club captain David Byas presides over annual tournaments in rugby, girls’ and boys’ hockey, athletics, tennis and cricket. The school’s three cricket squares are used to stage its three-school standard team tournament and seven-school six-a-side tournament, with other sports facilities including seven rugby pitches and two full-size Astroturf pitches.
The sevens rugby tournament can involve upwards of a dozen teams and, as such, requires outside referees – the sourcing of whom is becoming challenging, David reveals. The smaller hockey and cricket tournaments, meanwhile, are officiated from within.
“All sports have their respective risk assessments carried out and we have our own nurses onsite who also cover all the boarding houses and all onsite sporting events throughout the year. In terms of food, we support the cricket but not the rugby or hockey tournaments – we find that schools like to bring their own packed lunches.”
Football is played with particular poignancy at Oakham School, where April saw the seventh annual Tom Grant Festival of Football. The event is staged in memory of Old Oakhamian Tom Grant, a former 1st XI football captain who died tragically young at the age of 19 in 2006. While not inter-school, the festival is played between the school’s various houses and involves both boys and girls, with each of 12 houses fielding both junior and senior teams.
The festival has become a fixture on one afternoon at the start of the summer term. Teams are 11-a-side, with matches played seven minutes each way – boys on full-size pitches, girls on slightly smaller pitches across, making for ten pitches in total.
Director of Sport Iain Simpson explains: “The idea came from the school – we knew football was something close to Tom’s heart – and we have liaised with the family all the way through, with the family having attended in the past. Over 200 children took part this year, when the winners of the Tom Grant Trophy were Tom’s old house, Haywoods.”
Added poignancy comes via the awarding of a fair play award. “That has a far higher premium in this festival than in inter-school competitions,” Iain explains. “It is an overall award, with the referees observing the games throughout the tournament for players accepting failure or victory and showing respect for their opponents.”
Oakham’s combined rugby sevens and netball tournament, meanwhile, has been held on the first Sunday in March for 15 years. Fifty squads of ten, from as far north as Yorkshire and down to London and the Home Counties, gather to do battle on eight rugby pitches and seven netball courts.
Iain begins preparations in the last week of September, arranging hire of the marquee in which participants will be fed as well as the two-person paramedic crew and their vehicle. Invitations are sent out in October with the deadline for receipt in mid November.
Around 75-80% of schools come annually and, once all entrants are known, the draw is put together. On the day, every team is redrawn for the afternoon, so that they have afternoon matches irrespective of their performance in the morning.
Iain says: “At lunchtime, the 500 children have burgers and hot dogs in the marquee and the best part of 1,000 parents have Sunday roast with wine in the dining hall. It is probably our caterers’ busiest day of the year, given that they will also be providing breakfast, lunch and supper for our boarders, a total of 2,500 meals.”
Iain is up with the lark. “My day starts at 6am, the first matches are at 10.30am and it’s all done by 5pm. We have been honoured to have the likes of Stuart Broad, Martin Johnson and Austin Healey at the end-of-day presentations.
‘Parking is a major logistic: we use six car parks with a team of 25 marshals guiding drivers to the car parks. On that particular Sunday I use 85-90 school staff across scoring, refereeing and marshalling.”
The extra level of competitiveness brought by tournaments certainly ensures that participants are exposed to character-forming challenges. The tournaments’ organisers must, similarly, be on their mettle both before and during the event – but with thorough preparation, all involved can achieve the results they want.