As published in the Moreland and Melbourne Leader, June 2010
A fair-dinkum sport, born and bred in Victoria, has fallen on tough times.
YOU just know you could have been a contender at something.
Cheese rolling, elephant polo, doubles tennis . . . Well, we can easily talk the talk but who can be done risking life and limb, maintaining costly elephants or going places where the footy ain’t even on the box?
Fear not – the desire to regale your offspring with impressive tales of sporting triumph might yet be fulfilled.
If you can handle Melbourne’s inner suburbs and a measly $17 rego, there are just 80 players left standing between you and the World Trugo Title.
The mysterious origin of sports commonly sparks debate and about the only agreed aspect of the hazy trugo story is that it owes greatly to the boredom and enthusiasm of Newport railway yard workers in the 1920s.
It is said that trugo’s inventor, Thomas Grieves, was fascinated by how far rubber buffer washers (used in connecting trains) rolled on their side.
For the uninitiated, trugo is an unlikely fusion of croquet, wood chopping, lawn bowls and Australian Rules football.
Played on a bowls-like green, the objective is to thump a 4cm thick rubber ring through a set of goals 27 metres away.
True to its roots, the distance and width of the goals reflect the old ‘‘red rattler’’ train carriages and the rail gauge while wooden mallets (shorter and squarer than the croquet variety) have replaced sledgehammers.
Generally played in teams of eight, a game comprises 24 shots per player, taken in sets of four.
From the gritty workshop, trugo found more pleasant surroundings in Yarraville Gardens through the 1930s, leading to the first club being formed in 1937.
A ‘‘Battle of the Sexes’’ took place a couple years later when the men of Yarraville flogged the newly formed ladies section 149-80. It was duly noted that ‘‘the ladies entertained the gents at afternoon tea and a very enjoyable afternoon was spent’’.
Perhaps the ladies begged to differ!
Moving beyond the fleeting enthusiasm typical of localized sports or the games we invent as kids, trugo spread across Melbourne’s blue collar ’burbs, enjoying a boom period between World War II and the mid-60s.
The therapeutic ‘‘thwack!’’ and the gratifying goals proved inherently addictive qualities and after 80-odd years trugo is no fly-by-night gimmick or concocted TV affair.
Remarkably, despite our renowned sporting obsession, trugo is arguably the only game we have invented that has not been derived from another sport (i.e. Australian Rules and touch football).
Facing away from the target, the mallet is swung in a wood-chopping motion at the wheel placed between one’s legs.
The advent of the tunneling style turned the sport on its head in the 1950s. The original, more ladylike sideswiping action (more like a golf putt), is now essentially the domain of female players.
Striking the wheel with gusto minimises deviations so determining goals can sometimes be tricky (clipping the post is a miss).
The one source of discord is the occasional lapse in concentration, or otherwise, of the catcher, who besides dexterously scooping up their opponent’s wheel in a heavy duty bag, judges and keeps score.
Although leading players habitually score in the 20s, a possible or perfect score proves as elusive as a hole-in-one. Incredibly, John McMahon performed the feat three games in a row and by weight of his 20.32 average over the 2000 interclub season, also won the World Cup (don’t worry, players are in on the joke). The difficulty of a possible is evidenced by McMahon having not scored a 24 in nine years since. Nowadays with unrolled courts, the feat is nearer to impossible; in fact none were recorded last season.
McMahon’s club Yarraville was once a power but has suffered a lengthy premiership drought, while Brunswick has overtaken Sandridge as the game’s force.
Sadly, trugo’s decline has reached crisis point. The Footscray club, formed shortly after Yarraville, closed early 2009. Eight others have folded in recent years and just half a dozen remain. Avenues to increase numbers seem to have been exhausted. Media coverage in print, radio and television has been to little avail, nor has the website, newspaper advertisements, leaflet drops, door knocks or exhibition games delivered players faster than attrition rates. That the game never really travelled beyond Victoria’s borders has also stifled growth.
How long has trugo got left?
‘‘100 years!’’ laughs McMahon. ‘‘I’m an optimist. They said the game was dying when I started 18 years ago and it’s still going. I’m not going to let it die as long as I’m still around’’.
Now 79, McMahon thankfully has the energy to drive regular demonstrations and social days for school and work groups. If nothing else, at least more are aware of what might be lost.
Perhaps trugo is going, if not gone, but a revival is not totally out of the question. Lawn bowls overcame a similar scenario, albeit nowhere near as dire, by adapting to the demands of the 21st century. Perhaps a typically quirky Aussie movie is what’s required to catapult trugo to prominence; say Crackerjack meets Spotswood.
No one can deny trugo’s role in participants’ lives over many years. As we seek local comfort in times of global stress, trugo ’ s unique heritage, inclusiveness, sociability and oddness are threads by which it clings to life, and by which new audiences may be found.
Before it’s too late, strike a goal for a uniquely Australian slice of culture where the possible is improbable, but not for want of trying.