‘My mate Growdy’: Behind-the-scenes memories of the late, great Greg Growden

Nov 17, 2020
Greg Growden lost his battle with cancer on Saturday night. Source: ESPN/Twitter.

Lovers of rugby – and there are many more of them after the Wallabies beat the All Blacks at Suncorp last week – were shattered by the news at the weekend that the doyen of rugby writers, Greg Growden of The Sydney Morning Herald, had passed away after his third bout with of an aggressive form of cancer.

Growdy, as he was affectionately known, was only 60 but so long had he dominated the news media on all matters rugby that if anyone had told me he was 80, I’d have believed them. In fact, it probably came as a shock to many, given how knowledgeably he wrote about some of the more complex aspects of the code, that he never played a game of rugby in his life. And that’s because he grew up in Coleambally, a small locality in the Riverina district of southern New South Wales, where just about everything is oriented towards Victoria, except its government. So, Growdy grew up playing AFL or, as it was called, Aussie Rules.

Although, as a colleague on Herald’s sports section, we had many discussions in the dead of night about rugby and rugby players, they are not the reasons why I remember him so fondly.

It was the extraneous issues that set him apart, especially the cheekiness hidden below his superficial Aussie-ness. “Maaaaate,” was invariably how he greeted you, with a subtext of “got any good stories for me”. And those stories were never about the latest news of Campo (David Campese) or Burkie (Matt Burke) or Ealesey (John Eales) because he would have been miles ahead of you in the game, in the pursuit of the facts and issues that fill up a broadsheet sports page.

No, what Growdy was after were the titbits that you might have hoovered up in a bar somewhere which he could slip into his particular pride and joy, the weekly rugby gossip column entitled ‘Ruck and Maul’. And the nice thing about Growdy, was that he never lost his sense of perspective, that is, the sharp distinction between fact and fiction.

Fact, to Growdy, was what he wrote seven days a week to convey to his vast readership what they needed to know about the world of rugby. Fiction was what he wrote, when the mood took him, about what his vast readership might like to snigger over when the game was over and the tall stories begin to circulate over a schooey or ten.

What I am saying, in a roundabout sort of way, was that when he came to write ‘Ruck and Maul’, he didn’t have any particular reservation about the veracity of what went into the column. And my small (unofficial) part in his career, I suppose, was to suggest items that might, er, ‘lift’ his story above the commonplace.

For example, he was wrapping up a week of after-glow in the Wallabies camp following a rare triumph over the Men in Black when ‘Ruck and Maul’ made reference to the after-match celebrations in the Australian dressing room. Fatefully, he asked me how could he give the story more “life”. The suggestion I made could only be described as borderline tasteless but to my amazement, he was elated and printed it.

His amazement ranneth over, you could say, when he reported back the following Monday that the item had engendered more comments than any he had ever written in the life of the column. So, what does that say about rugby fans, or Growdy, or me, for that matter?

It had passed my attention while working on Herald Sport, that Growdy was also a cricket writer. His fellow cricket writer at the time was a lovely man called Phil Wilkins who was, it transpired, a little naïve. Perhaps gullible. One evening, when we were bored, I suppose, Growdy and I got our heads together and wrote what purported to be the early draft of an autobiography of the-then sports editor.

Judiciously, Growdy sidled over to Phil and whispered that someone had purloined an excerpt of the said autobiography and would he like to see it. Of course. of course. Never underestimate the attraction of defamation, even to hard-nosed journos, because Phil’s face lit up when he read this disgraceful trash. And to think that a tiny portion of the cover price that everyone pays to buy a copy of their favourite news outlet covers the cost of this sort of activity. Like we’d never graduated from short pants!

Growdy was also interested in the cultural context of sport – although rugby was considered by the ‘elite’ to be their chosen form of football – but he was nothing if not a democrat, egalitarian to a fault. No champers and cold chicken for him; his annual event was the ‘dog’s eyes’ competition (meat pies to the uninitiated) wherein his clones, acolytes, stooges, etc, would report in weekly on the quality of meat pies sold on the various grounds around Sydney. (I nearly won once with a particularly salivating review of those on sale at Woollahra Oval in glitzy harbourside Sydney.)

But my lasting memory of Growdy has nothing to do with rugby, tasteful pies or tasteless scuttlebutt. It was to do with snakes, the enemy of all decent God-fearing humans since Adam and Eve packed down in the Garden of Eden.

I had returned to work one Monday, still quivering from shock after an encounter with a very angry tiger snake in my backyard. On unburdening myself to Growdy, it was then that I learned about his growing up at Coleambally. “I hate the bastards,” he growled, and then proceeded to give me a bite-by-bite description of his childhood.

To those unfamiliar with Coleambally, it is (or, maybe, was) an area of intense rice cultivation, replete with Asian-style inundated padi fields, each bordered with parapets along which the farmer moves to husband his crop until it is ready for harvesting. And those parapets were, as Growdy said, infested with tiger snakes that seem to love water.

He and an equally irresponsible mate used to entertain themselves by riding their pushbikes at speed along the dry parapets trying to run over and kill as many tiger snakes as they could manage. (Bet they never told their parents!) Until one day.

He never quite knew how it happened, but his mate ran over one particular reptile but failed to kill it. Instead, the brute became entangled in the spokes of his front wheel and on every rotation lunged at the child with deadly intent on its mind. What a choice; to pedal faster and therefore bring the reptile to bear every quarter-second, or pedal slower and guarantee a lethal bite, or leap off the bike altogether into the padi and take your chances with whatever might be lying wait there. Growdy never told me how it ended.

Now he’s gone. And while these memories will remain warm with me, I wonder whether there’ll be another journo like him again. “Maaaate,” I’m going to miss you.

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