By Paul Montague
A PERSONAL ODE.
Winter’s grassy equivalent to summer’s freshly-mown;
Awakening an earthly sense all our own;
Dirty like dung, not lethal, just brown;
Call yourself a Rugby player? Not ‘til you’ve hit it face down.
Ah, mud. The thing a sports-mad boy’s memories are made from. The mortal enemy of Mum and the nice, new washing machine. Skin almost scrubbed bare trying to remove the final stubborn greeny-brown marks from bony kneecaps. Bare feet- never shoes, no way; with street or schoolmates in the front or back garden, on the street berm or down the local park. Rugby and mud. Like weetbix and milk, bacon and eggs, steak and chips. Inseparable.
Mud and slush.
I never rose to any heights as a wing or fullback in two years of playing high school Rugby in 1985 and ‘86 in Form five and six (or contemporarily, Years 11 and 12). By far the best performance I ever turned in was at fullback in the pouring rain playing against Northcote College near the end of the ‘85 season. The match was played on a mudheap. I’m convinced this made me play like a warrior for once. I don’t recall spilling a single high kick or awkward pass and made every kick to touch a safe one in that game. I remember the coach Jim Stuart saying he wished I could play that way every week. When I think about that comment now I’m sure that the mud slowed down the play enough for me that day to look good, allied to the fact I felt like I was participating in a more authentic kind of battle than if it had been on a hard, dry surface.
Even more fun than mud was slush. This being when it hosed down enough for the rain to combine with the mud to form a big, inviting pool of muddy -looking water just perfect for a good slide into, a-la Hamish McDonald in the ‘water-polo’ test of 1975 on Eden Park. This incident I often looked to emulate at home on the bit of lawn just in front of the carport after many a heavy downpour. The delight and satisfaction in performing this long, saturating and spray-filled slide outweighed the inevitable wrath of the old man at seeing part of his lawn being turned into a churned-up mess.
A famous muddy match.
If the All Blacks-Scotland test here in 1975 was the most famous ‘wet’ match, then surely the most prominent ‘mud’ encounter would have been the match on Athletic Park, Wellington between the British Isles (the Lions) and the NZ Juniors in July, 1977.
The mud was so cloying and all-encompassing that day that the players became unidentifiable from not only their jersey numbers, but by their faces also- picture the archetypal comedy scenario of a person who has just worn a custard pie and wiped bits away from their eyes in order to see; the players in that match were more or less extracting the mud that way even before halftime.
In his book ‘Lions 77’ Keith Quinn opined that the state of the ground was ‘so mired and foul-smelling that nothing truly constructive could be performed on it’. Bob Howitt writing in the 1977 DB Rugby Annual slammed it as ‘a farcical mudbath’ and related comments from the Lions captain of the players’ hair being matted completely through with the thick mud and of it blocking up their noses and mouths. In fact, you have to think the situation with the hair would have been exacerbated by it being the 1970s, when having a longer mane was most definitely in vogue. For the record the Lions triumphed 19-9 that day, though it’s doubtful many can recall the scoreline with any great clarity; whereas the mud will almost certainly never be forgotten.
No mud in sight just isn’t Rugby old boy.
Plenty of the earthly stuff is why I get a kick out of watching Heartland Rugby on the box. Because aside from the fact it’s quite uplifting to see that balding, middle-aged, paunchy props still score tries, I love seeing games played out in the mud. It would seem inherently unnatural somehow if all the grounds were all-weather kinds with not a skerrick of the brown stuff anywhere.
Remember that thrilling and highly-skilful performance the All Blacks put on in drubbing the Wallabies 43-6 on Athletic Park in 1996? That encounter played out on a muddy and sodden pitch that beforehand looked like a perfect fit for a you-kick-and-I-catch game of ten-man rugby. Why do so many of us (trust me, it’s loads) remember that match so fondly? Well, yes of course because we dealt to a traditional foe in a brilliant and quite unexpected fashion, but quite possibly also because the conditions contributed to a latent kind of nostalgia in us in our need for mud as a means to enhance our enjoyment of the national game. Or am I just being a tad silly and delusional here?
Mud made it into the title of famous All Black and later Race-relations conciliator Chris Laidlaw’s hard-hitting autobiography on Rugby’s changing face. It was published in 1973 and called ‘Mud in Your Eye’.
Mud also appeared in the guise of ‘Mud and Glory’; a very worthwhile and revealing documentary series on memorable matches and players from the game some years back on television. They could have named that show ‘Glory Days’ or something rather similar, but somehow it just wouldn’t have sounded nearly as good without that great word in the title.
And there you have it. My tribute to Mud. We would certainly be the poorer without it, don’t you reckon?
Footnote: There was a thought-provoking column by Scotty ‘Sumo’ Stevenson in the NZ Herald today (July 29) on the inherent and rather sickening face of racism in our Rugby. Read it before you bother reading anything else sports-related. It’s extremely well-written and researched. Cheers Sumo.