“Wake up Growdy, wake up! It’s half-time, and we’re back on.”
He certainly wasn’t the only one nearly dozing off on set, and all could be forgiven. It was 2am AEST on a Sunday morning in February of 2013, and as part of its live Six Nations coverage ESPN Australia/New Zealand was doing a pre-game, half-time and post-match show to accompany their broadcast of the northern hemisphere’s premier rugby championship.
Our newly signed ESPN rugby expert – the late Greg Growden – had just pulled down the curtain on more than 25 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media, and now formed a lively panel with Wallabies legend Matt Burke and veteran broadcaster Russell Barwick. The guys did very well to keep it engaging for diehard fans at a ludicrous hour, often doing double-headers that would take them through to daylight when they would back up for Sunday morning family duties.
No such programming would ever be entertained these days at that hour, and to think there ever was now seems prehistoric. But it was the way it worked back then, and Growdy never missed a beat when Barwick would throw to him for some analysis, quite often finding a few one-liners that would spark the panel into life after the pizza had gone cold and the caffeine hadn’t done the job across the first half.
They were so-called old school professionals just doing their thing, but this next stint for Growdy with ESPN was to be a lot more in touch with the digital age. He knew it had well and truly come, and he was looking to embrace it as best he could while staying true to writing the way he was renowned – keeping the highest of rugby administrators and coaches on their toes, and delivering some of the biggest scoops ever from the corridors of power.
It was that brutal honesty and abrasive narrative that made Growdy an easy hire for ESPN as we started our own journey of localisation with the ESPNscrum Australian edition in 2013, and who better when we needed impact. We sold him the dream to help transform ESPNscrum into a platform that served Australian and New Zealand rugby fans with a new alternative, and he delivered all the way on that journey through to the ESPN Australian edition and beyond.
Some thought Greg might have been past his best by the time he landed with ESPN, but we knew that was far from the case and those doubters were put in their place when he became the most called-upon pundit during one of the biggest stories in Australian rugby in 2014. It was the saga that would eventually lead to the removal of Ewen McKenzie as Wallabies coach less than one year out from Rugby World Cup 2015, and Growdy was at the forefront. Suddenly some of the bigger media players came sniffing for his signature again, but we shook hands and he remained loyal to the ESPN cause throughout the 2015 tournament and well beyond. Loyalty was big thing to him.
Exclusives with some of the biggest names and most influential figures were all commonplace, and once in mid-2015 we decided to roll two cameras during a one-on-one interview with Wallabies coach Michael Cheika just in case it turned out to be really good. Yet again he delivered, and it came out so well ESPN made a one-hour special called “Cheika’s Wallabies” preceding the Rugby World Cup – the only program of its kind in Australia ahead of that tournament.
It was also at Rugby World Cup 2015 that Greg showed his other great trait of passing wisdom to the next generation, and his work with Sam Bruce across that tournament made for the perfect marriage of antipodean coverage alongside ramped-up efforts from the ESPN London office. The old fella and the young buck plying their craft together, squeezing into under-sized hire cars to travel across the UK and deliver some of their best takes in tandem.
Love him or loathe him, people always looked forward to reading or hearing what Growdy had to say because his sources – who he affectionately referred to as his “snouts” – were usually right around the same trough where his subjects were rolling. Not naming them was a style that didn’t always grate so well with some of the more traditional media types, but the audience always wanted it and he knew how to keep delivering it by keeping the names all very close to his chest.
Some of Greg’s finest work for ESPN actually came when he went beyond the realms of rugby and helped launch the espn.com.au edition in March 2016 to a broader local audience. Stepping back to relive personal tales of growing up in South Australia resonated strongly with the new AFL audience we were looking to capture, and his innate ability to find and write about the real characters across any sport has always struck a chord far and wide.
Greg Growden has left an indelible mark across the Australian media landscape, and all of us who worked with him at ESPN are forever grateful for his contribution. Always willing, always insightful and always ready to go no matter how cold the pizza might have become. Thank you for the memories big fella, you kept them honest and showed many others how to keep your craft rolling.