From the time I was a young kid going to Shute Shield matches versus Manly there was always one constant. Whether I was there to watch my brothers, play myself or in a coaching capacity with or against the Marlins, it was as sure as the Norfolk pines stood tall that you would come across Russell Mackie – Rusty.
Whether he was playing, running the touch line, managing any number of teams or all three in the one day, the lean ginger-bearded warrior in his signature “red” shorts was synonymous with a day at the village green – and any other field where the Marlins were playing for that matter.
For a young bloke growing up north of Parramatta, you always looked forward to a match day (and night) down at Manly. With speeches over the road at the old club, win, lose or draw Rusty was going to enjoy a beer and the camaraderie of the occasion with you post-match.
It did not matter who you were or where you came from he treated all the same.
Fortunately for me, those fleeting catch ups a couple of times each year became more frequent in 2003. After a challenging season in 2002, I was tasked to coach the Marlins along with my brother Mick.
With the first training session fast approaching I asked the club who I should call about getting some training gear down to Keirle Park.
“Give Rusty a call,” they said.
When Rusty answered the phone that first time it was pretty simple: “Welcome to Manly, Billy, what time are you starting? I’ll see you there.”
When I set foot on Keirle Park for that first time as a Marlin, myself and son Benn were met immediately by Rusty along with his brother-in-arms Hughie Thompson, hands full of water bottles, shoulders packed with training gear and one sentence – “How can I help you?”
Starting at a new club can be daunting. But I knew that night I had someone special to assist me. A sense of calm came over me in his presence. It was comfortable. There was a sense of unspoken trust and understanding between us that fostered and developed over time into a special bond that lasted 18 years.
Rusty and Hughie were solid gold on that sideline. They loved the locals, they loved the guys from outside and they looked after my son Benn like one of their own.
Rusty was loyal, strong-willed, passionate about success and certainly had strong opinions. But one thing never changed: he was club first.
If you told him something that was for his ears only, he would just look at you, put his hand on your shoulder and say “It’s in the vault, Billy.”
A bit of success meant that I moved around to all parts of the rugby world over the next 12 years but we kept a simple closeness. Each couple of months I’d give him a call from wherever I was in the world. Sometimes he answered, sometimes he called back a week or two later. But somehow hearing his voice and knowing that he was still punching through his regular yearly rugby routines with the Marlins made you feel that the world was on an even keel.
When I returned to the Marlins in 2017 I was concerned about how to fit Rusty (and Hughie) back into the first grade management team. It was 12 years since I’d left and lots had changed. He was a little older, the knees were close to gone but he was still up at sunrise on Saturday morning with the red shorts tied tight. And I knew if I was going to have any success at Manly again, I wanted Rusty and Hughie in my corner.
He didn’t care for title, hierarchy or what role he was given. He said one simple thing: “You get on with it, Billy, and we will support you in any way you want.”
There’s a special place in this world for people who are loyal. It’s a rare quality, found in only the best of us. Across our 18 year relationship, I don’t think I ever saw Rusty in anything other than Manly Marlins-issued kit.
One Anzac Day my wife saw Rusty at the Dawn Service dressed in a suit. “Look how smart Rusty looks in that suit, big change from the pale pink red shorts,” she said.
As he turned around to say hello, you’d be sure to see a Manly Marlin on his breast pocket. Even in his Anzac best, he had the club at heart, representing it with pride.
Others will tell you many more stories about Rusty than I can but a couple of recent ones remain with me.
One day I asked him whether he could arrange to have our match jerseys available to train in at Manly Oval for a special purpose.
The jerseys unfortunately weren’t available but Rusty didn’t take no for an answer and arrived at training with 23 jerseys.
He had dug through his garage and found 23 different Manly Marlins jerseys. They ranged from old cotton classics from the 1970s right through the “Blues” era and into the modern silkies the Marlins wear today. The collection should hang in a museum.
I was worried we would wreck them in training but he just said “go for your life”. To see the fun the players got out of his gesture running around in the old gear brought a smile to his face and mine, in a quiet word he told me it “warmed his heart”.
In 2018 we took the players on a pre-season training camp to Bathurst. It was 8.30pm on a Friday night and I offered to take the other coaches and Rusty out for a meal.
Nothing was open in town except the reliable old Chinese restaurant. After a bit of pleading from Rusty they kept the door open for the four of us. Rusty was having such a great time he kept convincing the waitress to keep the place open, “just four more beers and we will go.” He must have used that one at least three times.
Of course, he refused to let me pay, it was his treat. On the walk home he said something that nearly brought a tear to my eye. He said: “That was one of the best nights I’ve had boys. A good feed, a few beers and talking all things Manly rugby with you blokes, life doesn’t get any better.”
From an empty restaurant on a pre-season rugby camp Rusty found his Nirvana.
In this modern age of professionalism and technology in sport you hear the word “culture” bandied around endlessly. Modern team-building gurus are brought in from around the world to inspire and unify teams. The words “resilience”, “commitment”, “work ethic” and “care” are bandied around like confetti. In more cases than not, they are empty words on a post it note that make teams feel good about themselves.
Rusty was everything that players and teams need to be and didn’t need a textbook on culture to find out. He cared little for technology and spent all his time working and doing something for others, not wasting time on superficial things or caring for what others thought.
Resilience? Try 700-plus rugby matches, thousands of training sessions rain, hail or shine. Endless days building and battling on with injuries and health issues that would cruel most and doing all of it so somebody else didn’t have to.
Commitment and work ethic? Try beating Rusty to the ground on a Saturday morning to wipe that first bit of dew off the steel seats in the front row. Set your alarm – you’d need to be there before 6am.
And when that final whistle goes in first grade, don’t be too quick to head inside for a beer at the club, there’s four corner posts and four goal post pads that Rusty and Hughie will be packing up at Manly Oval, Emu Park or any other ground the Marlins play at.
He’ll be back down at Keirle Park on Sunday, too, because somebody has to unpack those cars full of gear and have them ready for Monday night training.
Care? Well he used to say to me that Manly Rugby was like his family. I think anyone who knew him knows that he gave you everything from the bottom of his heart. Nothing that you needed he couldn’t provide if it was even remotely possible.
For a guy who was “old school” and some might think almost a relic of the past, Rusty was in many ways the embodiment of what modern coaches and team building gurus around the world spend countless hours trying to get their players and teams to be.
He was and remains the embodiment of the ability to “connect to a cause greater than yourself.”
Rusty, you only had one CAUSE – it was the Manly Marlins and no-one could have given more to it than you did mate.
Every time I drive or walk by, I’ll see you on the sideline in your kit, think of you preparing the players pre-match and singing “Boom Boom” in the rooms after the match.
Rest in peace mate. You deserve it.
Brian “Billy” Melrose