Winning grassroots gold at Mudgee Rugby Festival

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Queensland rugby going broke. Melbourne struggling to find players. The ARU hemming and hawing over requests for the Force to bring in replacements for their staggering injury toll. The Waratahs losing ugly.

And all four provinces out of the five on the Super 14 table.

It seems that there’s nothing but bad news in rugby at the moment, so how about a good news story for a change?

Well, I’ve got one for you. Here’s the gist of it.

The Mudgee Wombats play in the Central West competition which is part of NSW Country. Years ago they were part of the Blowes Cup competition which is the premier comp in Central West, but these days they play in the Presidents Cup which is the second division comp for one team clubs.

I remember Mudgee well, you see, because when I was a young colt with the Orange City Rugby Club, I polished my repertoire of rugby songs and drinking games many times on the long bus trip between Orange and Mudgee, with a whistlestop at the Goolma pub en route.

The Mudgee bus trip was the longest on the calendar, sometimes clocking up around 4-5 hours, once we stopped at Goolma, Wellington, Molong and finally Orange.

The time wasn’t wasted either, because as a colt surrounded by grizzled veterans, you had little choice but to soak up the songs, stories and legends.

This was rugby’s equivalent of the songlines, a verbal tradition where the lifeblood and history of a people is handed down from generation to generation.

That generation of amateurs were rugby tragics and back then plenty of good players could still be found in the bush. Wallabies David Codey and James Grant both played for the Wallabies from Orange City, David Carter lined up for Quirindi, Steve Merrick played for Singleton and the NSW Country team played all the major touring sides.

To digress even further (I haven’t forgotten the Mudgee Wombats, don’t worry), I remember in 1988 NSW Country played the All Blacks at Singleton and scored a pushover try when Country hooker Damien Grant called an “all-in” scrum move close to the All Blacks line.

As the ball was fed, every Country back piled into the scrum and pushed, driving the All Blacks into their own in-goal where they bemusedly conceded a try to Country no.8 Albert Model.

Not surprisingly, the 15-man pushover was the brainchild of master-coach Daryl Haberecht, who also engineered the famous up-the-jumper try.

Yes, yes, we’re getting to Mudgee, but the point I’m trying to make is that country rugby was a different animal back then. Rugby was a pastime, not a living, so most young blokes played their rugby in their hometowns. There wasn’t much need to move to Sydney or Brisbane unless you were going to university.

The spread of talent, whilst still stronger in the cities, was much more even across all rugby communities. And the governing Unions were slightly less blinkered about their flagship teams, because there was no money in it.

Fast forward to today, and just about any player with any talent at all goes straight to the big city. They’re spotted out of school anyway, so their local clubs, who probably taught them their rugby, don’t even see them, except on the ABC on a Saturday afternoon.

What’s left is a smaller talent pool, which is whittled away even further by the bewildering array of pastimes available to young people. In the amateur days in winter, you played either union, league or soccer, and if you didn’t play, you turned up and watched. It wasn’t a matter of forcing anyone to do anything, it’s just that there was nothing else to do.

No longer.

Rugby battles against not only the other football codes, but against skateboarding, rock-climbing, mountain-biking, gyms, spin classes, and all of the above repeated virtually on Wii, not to mention the blur of a million video games, DVD’s and cable channels. For lots of kids these days, it’s easier to just hunker down on the couch.

Unfortunately, it’s also easier for lots of their parents, too.

Fair enough Logan, you say. But for goodness sake, stop crapping on and get to the point. What the hell’s this all got to do with a good news story around Mudgee Rugby Club?

Well, here’s the thing.

The easy path for most of these clubs to go down is sit back and moan about the good old days as they go down the tubes. Slow but sure.

Out Mudgee way though, a few of the hardcore got together recently and said, “Sorry, but this is just not good enough. Rugby deserves better. Rugby people deserve better. And all the kids who play rugby deserve a chance to see what this “rugby camaraderie” is that their Dads keep banging on about.”

So they’ve started up the Mudgee Grassroots Rugby Festival to be held on March 27th, 2010, which, in its first year, is shaping up to be the biggest rugby event west of the Great Divide since, well, probably ever.

It all started when Mudgee Rugby Club got their Golden Oldies back together to add some spice to the rugby on a Saturday afternoon. The rugby took on a distinctly family air – kids played in the morning, bigger kids and grown up kids played in the afternoon, and old dads played somewhere in between. Even some of the mums played, and those that didn’t just enjoyed being a part of it all.

As a result of all the fun they were having, publican Mark Dalton and another Mudgee stalwart Trent Robertson came up with the idea of holding a massive rugby tournament where rugby people of all ages could come together and simply celebrate rugby.

As Dalton says “We didn’t have much more of a focus than that in the early stages, but once we started it up, people just got on board and it grew from there”.

Teams from all over the district started to register for the day, and now they’re coming from all over the state – Sydney included.

There are almost 70 teams playing in age groups from under 7’s right through to Golden Oldies, with the showpiece of the event to be a match between a Mudgee Grassroots Rugby Festival Invitation XV and the celebrity Silver Foxes outfit who will go on their fifth tour to country NSW, having already played matches for charity at Bungendore, Orange, Pokolbin and Griffith.

Dalton says that Mudgee were like a lot of clubs in the bush who struggled to get assistance from state and national unions, but luckily his brother Tim Dalton, a former Waratahs front-rower, knew who to call.

“I rang Tim and he gave Dick Harry a ring to see if he could help get a few Wallabies along. One thing led to another and we ended up getting the Silver Foxes on board which has given us a massive boost.

“The town is really excited at the calibre of the players who are coming up, although I don’t know if Tim is too excited, given that the Silver Foxes have drafted him to play in their front row!”

Says Richard Harry, former Wallaby prop and president of the Silver Foxes: “We’re really excited about Mudgee. It’s just the sort of thing that we love, getting back to the basics of rugby, and enjoying the company of rugby people. The timing was just right too, given that we’ve all had six months to recover after our Griffith game, so the boys are fit and raring to go!”

“It’s probably one of the best lineups we’ve had for ages and we’ve got some tremendous support from sponsors like Man Investments, Lion Nathan and Girvan Waugh, as well as kit suppliers Kukri who have donated all our playing gear which looks tremendous.”

“We’ve got fifteen Wallabies coming up as well as some good young stars and a few experienced club players. There’s a bit of a logjam in the backrow, with Tim Gavin, Scott Gourley, David Wilson and David Carter all looking for spots so that will be interesting!”

“George Gregan and Andrew Blades are sharing the coaching duties, and we’ve also managed to finally convert league star Bradley Clyde, who will be filling in for Tim Horan at inside-centre after Tim was ruled out with family commitments”.

“Clydey hasn’t played much rugby, but we’re pretty confident that he’ll make a few busts and his offload should be good quality. We’ll give him a bit of coaching over a few beers on Friday night and he’ll be fine!”.

For the record, the Silver Foxes contingent of internationals in full is Richard Harry, John Langford, Warwick Waugh, David Wilson, Tim Gavin, Scott Gourley, David Carter, Sam Payne, Tim Wallace, Joe Roff, Bradley Clyde, Jason Little, Tim Kelaher and James Grant, as well as Blades and Gregan on the clipboard.

Dalton is predictably over the moon at the response to the weekend which also includes Wallabies coach Robbie Deans flying in for the day, and rugby nut and poet Peter Fenton speaking that night.

He says it proves that grassroots rugby is as strong as ever. “Rugby people love to get together, and what we’ve tried to do is give them a reason to do it. Obviously it’s great that we’ve got so many teams to come along, but they’re the ones making the effort to get here and be a part of it. All we’ve done is just provide the event that gives rugby people a chance to come together and celebrate what rugby is all about”.

For the rugby populace, it not only proves the strength of grassroots rugby, but it also proves that magical things happen when you stop looking for someone else to fix the problem, and start taking care of it yourself.

As for all you rugby tragics out there reading this, there’s only one thing left to do. Get up to Mudgee on the weekend of March 27th and be a part of it all. If you’ve got a team to take with you, so much the better, but at the very least, take a mate or two, watch the greats and the not-so-greats, and remember what rugby is all about.

All the information you need for the 2010 Mudgee Grassroots Rugby Festival can be found at
here
.

Photo via
Grassroots Rugby Festival website
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Andrew Logan has played rugby for over 25 years. A contributor to The Roar since its inception, he also writes for Inside Rugby magazine, and Super Rugby and international match day programs. A regular panellist on ABC Grandstand discussing rugby and other sports, Andrew has appeared on ABC's The Drum and also Sky Sportsline. He has convened and managed several touring sides including the Australian Rugby Sevens team on the IRB circuit, and the Australian Barbarians XV.
Phillip Hughes has tragically passed away. RIP Phil, and The Roar's thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.

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