If there is any event in Central Otago that sparks a sense of sepia-toned nostalgia it is the Millers Flat Tournament. Generations of children have suffered the odd skinned knee to take part in a tournament which has followed the same formula for more than a century. Now it needs to be future-proofed. Jared Morgan reports.

The memories of every primary school sports tournament you ever took part in come flooding back full force as as soon as you arrive at the Millers Flat Tournament.

Even to an adult, this event is impressive in scope and scale and its legacy runs deep.

It is believed to be one of the oldest primary school-age rugby and netball tournaments in New Zealand and now well into its second century, the commercial realities of staging such a tournament means a sponsor would be welcome.

Millers Flat Tournament game day co-ordinator Scott Perkins said that sponsorship would come with naming rights thrusting the tournament squarely into the 2020s.

It is a way of helping ensure the event continues.

Organised and mobilised . . . Millers Flat Tournament game day co-ordinator Scott Perkins. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON

On Saturday, the resident Millers Flat population of about 200 swelled tenfold to up to 2000 as teams, coaches, and supporters from across Otago and Southland converged on the Teviot Valley for what is, along with the Millers Flat Rodeo, one of the two biggest events on its calendar.

From the Millers Flat Athletic Sports Ground to the Millers Flat School grounds and the town’s netball courts on the other side of Teviot Rd, the town was a hive of activity with games taking place simultaneously.

The tournament consists of rapid-fire rugby sevens and netball games, which fielded club and some school teams, and started some time after 1902 and before 1910.

It ran uninterrupted through both world wars, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, and the ebbs and flows in the fortunes of the rural community that hosts it.

Millers Flat Athletic Sports Ground president Forbes Knight said the tournament hosted up to 170 teams at its peak between circa 1958 and 1970.

It took another pandemic Covid-19 restrictions on gatherings last year made hosting the tournament impossible.

Mr Perkins said this year’s event, the main fundraiser for the Millers Flat School, had attracted 70-plus rugby teams and about 40 netball teams from Central and South Otago, Dunedin, Gore and wider Southland.

“It’s a big thing for Millers Flat.”

The scale of the school parent-teacher association-run event meant parents at the 28-pupil school and the wider community were all called upon to ensure the day ran smoothly.

Funds were raised from team entry fees and the catering.

Grill masters . . . Manning the BBQ at the Millers Flat Tournament are Eli McLellan, Daniel Bath and Johnny McIntosh all of Millers Flat. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON

It meant teams got to play other sides they would not normally encounter on the field or court, he said.

The rugby teams ranged from “Rippas” (under-7s) through to under-13s, while the netball teams spanned years 5 to 8.

Mr Perkins said the event helped keep Millers Flat on the map.

“A lot of people don’t even come to Millers Flat because its over the [Millers Flat “blue”] bridge.”

The tournament’s long history also ensured it was remembered and participation had been intergenerational for much of its history, Mr Perkins said.

“A lot people came as kids so there’s a bit of a legacy to it, too.”

That legacy was best illustrated by Wakari School principal Chris Smith, of Dunedin, who was at the tournament with his Kaikorai Valley Rugby Club under-9 team “Demons”.

The team had perhaps the best set-up of any, stationed at his and wife Anna Smith’s crib, which opened directly on to the domain.

Mr Smith, who was principal at Millers Flat School from 2009 to 2013, said he, his wife and children still had a strong connection the community and had bought the holiday home in March.

“It’s just one of those places you grow to love.”