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The NRL is back from its COVID-19 hiatus, the AFL season is only a weekend away, but spare a thought for Australian sport’s oldest active world champion, who can’t even resume training just yet.
His name is John McMahon, he’s 90 years old and opponents call him ‘The Don of trugo’.
McMahon is trugo’s keenest competitor, its avuncular and beloved father figure and the lifeblood of Yarraville, the game’s oldest club.
Not many of the glitzier sports boast administrators so prudent and popular.
Still, after 29 years in the game he is not averse to joking about his sport’s ancient ranks of players.
“Geez, we’ve lost entire teams in my time. Every time, I think to myself, ‘bugger it, another one’s gone and I’m still here getting on my bloody knees and laying the courts’.
“Some of the others couldn’t get back up again if they did that. They’ve got crook knees, crook backs, crook everything.
“But it’s a good social outing for people who’d otherwise be alone. We’re always pushing for more players.”
Trugo no longer qualifies as a ‘secret sport’ these days, for it provides the backdrop to countless parties and events staged by the younger generation of inner west hipsters, much like barefoot bowls a decade ago.
But the game is antique, quirky, entirely provincial; the Victorian Trugo Association is the game’s only association and boasts just 100 competitive players.
Trugo was the 1920s invention of workers at the Newport railway workshops.
It combines elements of croquet, lawn bowls, golf and — so say trugo lifers — Australian Rules football, although even at heated moments between arch rivals, it remains a non-contact affair.
Players place a rubber ring (the ‘wheel’) on its end and use a wooden mallet to whack it towards a goal the width of a railway track, which is staked at the other end of the 27.5-metre playing surface; the latter distance derives from the length of a Melbourne ‘red rattler’ train carriage.
It is often said that a “true go” was the original catch cry for a goal, but nobody can be certain.
In trugo, McMahon is what’s known as a ‘tunneller’: he hits between his legs with his back to the goal.
‘Side-swipers’ approach the task from side on, more like croquet.
No matter which way you’re facing, scoring is much harder than it looks.
Trugo’s highest summit is the perfect score of 24 — a feat that eludes most mortals for their entire careers.
In his world title year of 2002 (although Trugo is only played in Melbourne, it follows the American convention of labelling its winners ‘world champions’), McMahon hit 24 on three occasions.
“It was an amazing time,” he says.
“You’re trying to relax, but everyone’s watching to see whether it will go in. They know you’re close and it’s so hard to get.”
Hopes remain high that trugo will be back in September, when the final rounds of the 2019-20 season will be completed, before rolling straight into the 2020-21 competition.
Technically, Yarraville could return to practice now, but the local council is keeping the club’s bathroom facilities locked until next week.
To put it bluntly, the demographic profile of Yarraville’s squad skews older than most clubs, and some bladders aren’t what they used to be.
Remarkably, McMahon is not trugo’s oldest player.
That would be Keith Berry of the South Melbourne Trugo Club, who is still tunnelling away at the age of 93.
Along with Port Melbourne and Sandridge, South now count as the silvertails of the league, an otherwise working-class concern.
For much of trugo’s history, participation was limited to players over the age of 65, although that requirement is now banished and generational change is afoot.
Snuffed out in 2009, the historic Footscray Trugo Club came roaring back to life three years ago thanks to a group of locals aged in their 30s and 40s.
They included Justin Mansfield, who held his 40th birthday party at the Yarraville Trugo Club and met McMahon.
Mansfield, now Footscray’s vice-president, says the game is the ideal way of maintaining a direct and meaningful link with his suburb’s working-class heritage, while fostering a sense of community and getting active.
“John was a key figure in helping us re-establish the club,” Mansfield says.
“He provided us with equipment and volunteered his time to help with events and open days.
“If you ask him for a hand, it takes him about half-a-second to agree. His energy and his enthusiasm for promoting trugo are boundless.
“His roots in trugo go back a lot further than anyone else’s. He’s so generous.
McMahon’s Yarraville and Mansfield’s Footscray are the two oldest clubs.
They say their rivalry is akin to football’s Carlton-Collingwood tradition, although the analogy breaks down when you try to pick the toffs: neither club takes itself too seriously.
“For John to have Footscray back in the league, it was about preserving trugo’s history and making sure the game survives and thrives,” Mansfield says.
“It’s a funny sport, in that there are only about 100 players, but people are very devoted to it. It’s an immense part of the lives of players, especially the older ones.
“So, for John to welcome a younger generation and help us get up and running was so generous.
“One of our younger team members made a good point earlier in the year. One of things he loves most about trugo is that you get to hang out with people you otherwise wouldn’t meet.
As we walk past shelves of trugo trophies and sit down for a coffee in the dining room of his Yarraville home, McMahon explains his beloved pastime’s gentle evolution.
“When I first joined in 1991, it was all men,” he says.
“My Dad got me involved. He’d played since he was 65. He was a railways man. He worked in the signal boxes at Yarraville. When you retired around here, that’s what you did.
“When I started, our afternoon tea was just raisin bread — not even toasted.
“Most of the players were pensioners, so they didn’t have much money and neither did the clubs.
“When the women’s teams died out and they joined us in mixed teams, the women said, ‘why don’t you make sandwiches?’ So now we have sandwiches and cream cakes every now and then.”
In the present age of uncertainty for community sports, trugo is lucky to have such a resourceful administrator (McMahon has been treasurer or secretary of the Yarraville club for 28 of his 29 years).
When he’s not playing, he busies himself with endless trugo errands and fundraising initiatives.
For a $100 donation, McMahon will open the Yarraville club for barbecues and functions, showing guests how to play as part of the deal.
In recent times, he’s hosted up to 40 of those per year.
He banks the money in term deposits and uses the interest to take members out for dinners.
Trugo is not without its political manoeuvring and skulduggery.
Yarraville has a second team, The Eagles, which McMahon and his late father played for until an unseemly power grab by a teammate in the early 1990s.
“The bloke was a pain in the neck, so Dad said, ‘that’s it, we’re moving to Yarraville.’ I had no option!” McMahon says, laughing at the memory of their ‘move’ … to the other end of the clubhouse.
Trugo remains a family affair for the McMahon clan: John’s daughter Cheryl Waldon was world champion in 2017 and his son Peter painted a trugo mural that hangs near Yarraville’s art deco Sun Theatre.
Until the season resumes, McMahon will maintain an unstinting commitment to his daily isolation training regime: 50 squeezes of a rubber ball with each hand, breathing exercises and standing press-ups against a door.
“At Yarraville we don’t stop — when the season ends we still train every week.
“Well, if it’s raining we don’t play. One bloke’s wife won’t let him play if it’s wet because she thinks he’ll get pneumonia.
“I got us team rain jackets, but she still won’t let him. But we’ll still go down for some sandwiches or a few party pies and it becomes a social function.”
McMahon remains a seriously good player, too — top 10 in the competition until coronavirus hit. But he still has one mountain to climb.
“Since I’ve been captain, we’ve never won the premiership,” he says with a hint of exasperation.
“I’ve won the pairs, I’ve won the singles, I’ve been the world champion, but I haven’t won the premiership.
“You know, I go down there to practice so often because I want to beat everybody else. I don’t want to be the worst in the team.
“If I hit badly, I still think ‘bugger it!’ and try to relax for the next one.
“I’ve got a competitive streak. I tell myself: ‘Just hit it straight!’
“When I play, I play to win.”