At 72, you might think Dennis Collard is a little old for a poster boy, but his credentials for the role are actually improving every year.
After rattling up more than 1000 games for Box Hill in Melbourne, his enduring thirst for the game means he’s the perfect fit for the club’s ‘Unquenchables’, an over 35s team which plays in the thriving Victorian Masters competition.
“Look, I’ve lost some speed, but I can still tackle a bit,” says Collard, who plays on the wing in fraying headgear he perhaps first started wearing in his junior days at Burwood High School.
“I’ll continue to play until I feel I’m no longer competitive.”
That day looks to be well into the future, judging by the covering tackle he just laid on a back rower perhaps three decades his junior, but it isn’t only the physical outlet that keeps the former Victoria and Australian under 18 rep from retiring.
“Playing rugby in Victoria, you end up playing with and against people from all different nations in the world; Argentinians, French, Japanese, the Home Nations,” he says.
“There’s a great sense of camaraderie and I always have a fantastic time.”
While he attributes some of his longevity to staying out of the ‘nasty stuff’ in the forwards, Collard looks in better shape than many of his Unquenchable teammates as the players clap each other off the field after taking on home team Maroondah.
These matches on a chilly June afternoon at Griff Hunt Reserve in north-east Melbourne are near the mid point of the season’s 12-round competition, and the scene tells you that Masters rugby is no longer about a few old blokes turning up on spec to sweat a bit and then swill beers on the sideline.
The car park is overflowing out on to busy Lyons Road, families picnic around the on-field ‘action’ and a group of kids on the second pitch start a game of touch - which inevitably turns to full contact - and then reluctantly back to touch after the intervention of one player’s mum.
During the last of the Masters fixtures, much younger men start to arrive with kitbags slung over their shoulders, and then a whole bus load from Bendigo join the considerable crowd on the sideline.
These are the Fighting Miners, who have just travelled two-and-a-half hours from central Victoria for their Rugby Victoria Championship fixture against Maroondah’s first grade team.
Both clubs only have one senior team, and the venue would be much more sparsely populated without the Vic Masters roadshow, something the organisation’s president Brendon Matthews confirms is no accident.
“These games at Maroondah today, for example, are being played before the club’s senior (first grade) fixture,” says the 42-year-old, who represents Powerhouse ‘Cardies’, a reference to their penchant for post-match cardigan wearing.
“So us coming here actually gives them much-needed funds across the bar that allows them to grow and support their new junior teams.
“We liaise with the clubs too, talking to them about when they can actually benefit from having us there, rather than cramming too many fixtures into one day.
“It allows the club to make a real festival, gala-day type event out of it.
“Bendigo also won’t be able to hang around that long after the match today with their drive home, so us being here helps the club to still have a profitable day.”
When Ian Barker resurrected Vic Masters in 2015 there were grumbles from some administrators that the concept would remove the ’sausage sizzlers’ at the state’s clubs, but the group has given so much back to the community since, that they’ve won over their most ardent critics.
Outside of their regular competition which involves close to 300 registered players, they stage the annual Wannabes v Old Blacks curtain raiser at AAMI Park prior to a Super Rugby match, the 30-team Rugbyfest (which this season hosted a National Rugby Championship game) and raise funds for charitable causes including the Maciu Vosa Fund, Wheels for George and Beyond Blue.
Almost $4000 was raised for Wheels for George during October’s victorious tour to the Australian Masters Games in Adelaide, and the team were sponsored by Donate for Life, a partnership facilitated by player Terry Saxon whose granddaughter Layla recently underwent a life-saving liver transplant.
The physical benefits of staying active beyond the age of 35 are obvious, but the group has also become much more attuned to the mental health of their members after the tragic suicide of Southern Districts player Mike Ellis in May at the age of 37.
“We lost a player this season, which was incredibly hard, but it’s taught us a lot about mental health and the importance of talking and being able to say that you’re not OK,” says Matthews.
“I had to announce to the players that we’d lost Mike, and suddenly I had all these people reaching out to help.
“The president of the Chargers (Melbourne’s gay rugby club) was reaching out and saying; ‘some of our players want to help’.
“One guy reached out with a five-point plan of things we need to do, and that’s what started the ‘Tight Five’, five guys within our group who come from the mental health profession.”
One of the driving forces behind this initiative is Chris Swaine, who credits playing for Box Hill Rugby Club with pulling him out of a period of life-threatening depression.
“I work in a very intense industry and I was doing a lot of FIFO (fly in, fly out) work all around the world in mining and gas, and the pressure of everything led to a pretty serious breakdown,” says the 44-year-old.
“I had a serious bout of depression which led to a suicide attempt and part of my recovery included 12 sessions of bilateral ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), because I was in a really bad place, and cognitive behavioural therapies.
“After six to nine months I came out of that, and I was really looking for something to belong to and be a part of, outside of work.
“I’ve always been a rugby player, and I went to Box Hill to play for the Unquenchables.
“I found after a couple of weeks I got my mojo back and it got me back into a place where I was comfortable with getting back to work, and I was able to rebuild my life.”
Swaine believes men are getting better at putting aside the stigma associated with asking for help, but often still need encouragement to take that first step.
“The theory of the Tight Five is that we can be those ‘go to’ people,” he says.
“We want to help people make that initial step, which is the hardest step, and then they can connect with the various organisations and professionals out there that can help.
“In a rugby analogy, we want to go in as a Tight Five and break down those barriers, so our people know they can actually get help.”
Swaine says the guidance of Ian Barker has shown the group how they can not only make a difference on the pitch, but off it, and their founder believes strongly in the ‘release’ of a regular Saturday afternoon outing.
“I’m really proud of what it’s become, it has helped a lot of gents, and some of them might not be around if it wasn’t for the mateship they’ve found here,” says Barker (45), a married father of three who plays for the Reservoir-based Barbarians.
“There’s guys going through divorces, or having job security problems, but they come here and can just forget about it for an afternoon.
“You’ve got doctors, road workers, lawyers - but they come in and they’re all the same - and the magic really happens during the week when they keep supporting each other.”
Middle age is often when partners who have been feeling the rugby-widow effect can look forward to getting their men back on a Saturday, but Barker says it’s all about balance, and also letting families know they’re welcome.
“My wife Justine loves me being involved,” he says.
“She saw what it did for me as a person - giving back to community - and seeing these gents come in with no friends at all and, within weeks, having hundreds of mates.”
Matthews, who filled in for Maroondah at Griff Hunt Reserve watched by wife Sophie and daughters Ayla (4) and Chloe (7), says it’s often the women in the players’ lives holding them accountable for maintaining their mateships.
“It’s a big time commitment, what we do, being away from family but often it’s our partners saying; ‘just go out and play, because I can see you’re stressed, I can see you need to get that man therapy,” he says.
“If I look at all my registered players, 20 per cent of them are actually registered by their wives or partners because some of the boys are too slack to do it themselves.
“When I’m checking numbers it will be their wife who will get back to me saying; ‘yeah, he’s playing’.
“Even at our age, our women are the oil in our machine.”
The president is also pushing for more regular appearances by women’s masters teams, which currently only play at marquee events like Rugbyfest.
“It’s a big focus when we’re running our events, keeping the women involved, and celebrating what they do,” he says.
“Next year success for us will be introducing women’s masters into three rounds of our comp, that’s a big focus.
“Draw those older players back in who can’t commit to a whole season.”
Vic Masters have taken the concept of Old Boys rugby and re-booted it, creating a more inclusive, generous and flexible organisation with an emphasis on being there for one another and giving back.
Roughly 40 per cent of players are involved either coaching or managing juniors, and about 10 members coach senior men’s and women’s teams.
Players who can’t commit for a whole season use the Rugby Xplorer app to facilitate a weekly membership, there’s a fully qualified medic at every event and the draw for each particular round is also designed around coaching commitments and to protect the more venerable players.
“The teams that have more over 45s will play each other and the clubs that are quite young will play each other,” says Matthews.
“We might run a day for over 45s, which brings a lot of the old players back to the club who may not have been involved for a long time.
“Also, if you can get those guys to come down and play once, 90 per cent of them will come back.”
While Barker has pulled back from the presidency this season to relax and enjoy playing, he is still heavily involved in the marquee events, and believes the game isn’t getting the most out of its former players.
“In my opinion, Rugby Australia is missing a major piece of the puzzle,” he says.
“One aspect is these guys wouldn’t be playing if it wasn’t for this but, from a business point of view, you can also create a longer client base.
“Take McDonald’s, for example, they have the meals for the kids, but then the meals for adults as well, so they’re covering both ends of the spectrum.
“If this model was to be put through Queensland and NSW, they would add around 20 per cent to their participation.
“It would bring so many people, who are at a point in their lives where they have money, back into the rugby community.”
Barker would also like to see Rugbyfest run as a Masters festival in Sydney in the lead up to the Bledisloe Cup every two years, in a similar format to Kowloon 10s in Hong Kong.
“They play and then have a huge gala dinner with a high profile guest speaker, like (former England captain) Martin Johnson,” he says.
“It’s a magical experience with all the guys lapping up the old stories, and that can be done by Rugby Australia, it’s so simple.
“My dream is for Vic Masters to play the Classic Wallabies at that event and, it’s getting there, but we need is a bit more buy in and a naming rights sponsor.”
While there’s a break in the on-field action over summer, the Masters are still looking out for one another through an initiative called Mana Men.
“We’re conscious that it’s the off season now, and we’re thinking of how we can keep the guys together while we’re not playing rugby,” says Matthews.
“Mana Men is a physical and a mental well-being program run by a couple of guys in our group who are personal trainers.”
The 2020 season will kick off in February with a match against the Australian Deaf Rugby team, who will travel down from Sydney, with the draw for regular ‘man therapy’ released soon after.
“It’s amazing the bond you have with someone at the bottom of a ruck,” says Matthews.
“At the end of the day rugby’s all about respect, and after we’ve gone out there and smashed into one another we can share a beer, have a yarn and talk through some things.
“That’s what I absolutely love.”
This group of ageing athletes are redefining the role of over 35s rugby, proving you can add value as you add years, all while providing a safety net for each other.
“I’m still on medication for depression, and I’m 10 years into my (post suicide) journey now, but I’ve become so much stronger through this collective,” says Chris Swaine.
“I describe it as, on a Saturday, filling up my cup of life.”
Visit vicmasters.com to connect with Vic Masters, and if this article has raised any concerns for you please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.