Brunswick team captain Andrew Stevens says Trugo is a sport for anyone.

The world champions in our back yard

Brunswick’s Trugo club dominates the sport – but it’s in a fight for survival

Words and pictures: Mark Phillips
Friday, November 26, 2021

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The world champions in our backyard

Brunswick team captain Andrew Stevens says Trugo is a sport for anyone.

The world champions in our backyard

Brunswick’s Trugo club dominates the sport – but it’s in a fight for survival

Brunswick’s Trugo club dominates the sport – but it’s in a fight for survival

Words and pictures:
Mark Phillips
Friday, November 26, 2021

A small park tucked away in the back streets of Brunswick is the last place you would expect to find a world champion sporting team.

But visit Temple Park every second Wednesday and that’s where you will find the best Trugo team in the world for the past three years.

Granted, the ‘world’ may only extend to Melbourne’s inner suburbs, but who are we to quibble about such things?

Not only has one of the two teams fielded from the Brunswick club dominated the Victorian Trugo Association, but one of its players, Sam Churchill, is the current champion individual player.

But despite ruling the roost of the competition, the Brunswick club – like Trugo overall – is in desperate need of new players to keep this unique sport alive.

The club has only about 30 members and wants to increase that to 100 by the middle of next year.

It’s an ambitious target, but essential for the club to survive, says Andrew Stevens, who is captain of the current reigning world champion team.

Yet, the Brunswick club is relatively healthy compared to some others around Melbourne which have an ageing membership and no growth at all.

The aim of the game is to whack the rubber ring between two posts 30 yards away.

Its name may sound Continental, but along with Australian Rules football, Trugo can claim to be one of only two truly home-grown sports that originated in Melbourne.

It began in the Newport rail yards in the 1920s, when workers would amuse themselves during their lunch break by using mallets to bash rubber buffers from the brakes of trains from one end of an empty carriage to another. If the ring was successfully hit between the open doors at the other end of the carriage, the players would yell out “true go!”.

The game is best described as the bastard child of croquet and lawn bowls. It is played on a grass court 30 yards in length (the same as an old railway carriage). Players in teams of up to eight have four shots in each round, hitting the rings with a heavy mallet, usually swung between their legs with their back to their target (known as “tunneling”), although hitting sideways (“sideswiping”) is also allowed for women.

They score one point if the ring goes between two short metal posts about a metre apart. If it misses, or hits one of the stumps, no point is recorded. A “catcher” stands with a canvas bag at the end of a broom stick to scoop up the rings when they reach the other end. Four misses are called a “Mary”.

This goes on for six rounds and the best score at the end wins the match.

Teams are mixed gender, although it is true to say that one of the two Brunswick teams currently has a dearth of women.

Trugo has been played in Temple Park on the west side of the Upfield railway line since at least the 1940s, when a group of locals who called themselves the Brunswick Old Pioneers used to play the sport near a long demolished rotunda.

They have occupied their current site, in the corner closest to Hodgson Street, for 55 years. Along the way, they have had some famous visitors, including the American author and TV host Anthony Bourdain, who popped in to film a segment for his No Reservations series in 2009.

In its heyday in the years immediately before and after World War Two, there were Trugo clubs all around Melbourne as far apart as Healesville and Prahran. In the inner northern suburbs, there were clubs at Brunswick, Coburg, Pascoe Vale, Preston and Reservoir. Even a quarter of a century ago there were still 13 clubs in Melbourne, but today there are only seven: Brunswick, Footscray, Yarraville, Port Melbourne, Sandridge, South Melbourne and Ascot Vale.

People have been predicting for a couple of decades that the sport would die out, but perhaps rumours of Trugo’s imminent demise are exaggerated. The Footscray club was revived a couple of years ago by a group of younger men who met regularly at a local pub, and Andrew Stevens is working hard to help Reservoir re-establish a club.

The rules were relaxed last decade to allow people aged under 65 to play, and the Brunswick club has gone through a period of generational change and is now led by a younger cohort.

Stevens would dearly love to create the same kind of vibe that has seen lawn bowls regain popularity as a social event for younger people, and to that end, the Brunswick club hosts an open day on the first Sunday of every month with a sausage sizzle, live music, a few beers and, of course, Trugo.

Stevens himself began playing the game out of curiosity almost a decade ago. He would often pass the Trugo club on his way from his home in Brunswick Road to a café or pub, and one day rang up club stalwart Gerald Strachan and was invited down for a hit.

He’s been there ever since, introducing friends and workmates to the game, and is now captain of one of the Brunswick teams (the other team is called Brunswick City). He says the great attraction of Trugo is its inclusivity to anyone no matter their age or sporting ability.

“It’s really something that anyone could come and do,” he says.

“It’s a sport for the rest of us who don’t conform to a certain fitness regime and was once described as golf without the walking. It’s competitive but friendly as well because you’re really just competing against yourself.”

“There’s no arguments or fights and you just try to play the best you can. If your opponent does better than you, good luck to them.”
Geoff Sheils

“There’s no arguments or fights and you just try to play the best you can. If your opponent does better than you, good luck to them.”
Geoff Sheils

Like all sporting activities, Trugo has been impacted by COVID-19, although the VTA was lucky that its season fell between the end of the second 2020 lockdown and the beginning of the 2021 lockdowns.

“It’s been tough going obviously with COVID, but even before that it was hard to get our name around the place because it’s intrinsically a foreign word,” says Stevens. “But bit by bit, people learn about it and tell someone else and it grows from there.”

Geoff Sheils took up Trugo 11 years ago when health issues forced him to retire from work and to find a less energetic sport than squash.

He’s since become a club veteran and a mentor to younger players, winning the VTA individual title eight years in a row and recording 14 perfect scores of 24 in his playing career.

Now aged 73, Sheils is custodian of a special mallet that was previously used by club legend ‘Cookie’, a well-worn and slightly heavier and wider weapon that he wields with ease.

“It’s a friendly game and we all get on well together,” he says.

“There’s no arguments or fights and you just try to play the best you can. If your opponent does better than you, good luck to them.”

Top left: Geoff Sheils cradles a worn mallet entrusted to him by club legend ‘Cookie’. Top right: some of the many champions pennants won by the Brunswick teams over the years which hang in the clubrooms, along with a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth II. Above: current individual champion Sam Churchill.

At the other end of the spectrum, one of the club’s youngest players is current VTA individual champion Sam Churchill, who clinched the title in a thrilling tie-breaker against a player from Footscray Gumnuts last year.

Both players ended with 23 points after their six rounds, but in the replay, Churchill pipped his rival by 22 to 21.

“It was a pretty intense match up,” Churchill says.

Churchill was invited along to the Brunswick club by Stevens three seasons ago and fell in love with the sport almost immediately. Later, at a family gathering, he discovered that his grandfather had played the game when he was a firefighter based in Newport in the 1960s.

“It’s a really good way to spend a Thursday arvo. It’s pretty chill, and I like the rituals around it and having lunch and a chat afterwards.”

Basic membership of the Brunswick club costs $25, or $50 to play in the VTA league. More information about the sport and open days is available on the club’s Facebook page

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