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Legend Q&A: Russell Bawden

In this latest instalment in a series of Legend Q&As from the Rugby League Week archives, we look back at the career of Storm premiership winner and Queensland Origin forward Russell Bawden.

Russell Bawden was always the life of the party at Melbourne – but young players at the Storm were never sure how to take him.

"Ben Roarty and I used to have this initiation for new blokes," Bawden recalls.

"After the first trial of the year, we would run into the showers and sit there naked, with nothing but a beer between our legs. 

"Then we called the rookies in to shower with us, one by one.

"They were intimidated... probably terrified at the thought of seeing us nude.

"Eventually they would usually come in, but wearing their undies... and avoiding any eye contact."

Bawden now works as a mine supervisor in Mackay and has cleaned up his once wicked ways.

"I work from Noon to 9pm and try to be in bed by 10 – I've settled down a little," he says with a wink.

Russell Bawden

How does a boy from Mt Isa end up playing for the Broncos?

I think it was a little bit by mistake. The Broncos had a talent scout in the area, Phil Cullen. He came to watch my team, Town Leagues Club, but it was to check out another player. Then Wayne Bennett and (Broncos head scout) Cyril Connell came to town and met with dad and I. I was very intimidated to have the great Wayne Bennett sitting in front of me. But I think he thought I was someone else. He asked 'Aren't u the kid who played Queensland under 19s'. I wasn't... but he signed me anyway.

So you moved to the big city?

I was 18, didn't drink, gamble, go out or mix with girls. The Broncos put me in with two other bush boys They didn't start drinking beer in the morning – they began with rum. They were a BAD influence on me (laughs).

And you played just two games for the Broncos?

Yes, I was too busy having a good time. Once at the old Regatta Hotel, I stripped all my clothes off and ran across the road to these wet tiles and tried to slide naked across them. I missed, ended up on the road and got a terrible rash. The publican didn't like it too much and told Wayne. So Wayne decided I should go play for the London Broncos. He was worried about my drinking – and sent me to a country which had a pub on every corner!

Did you enjoy England?

It was a little more laid back – you could have a drink and still train so I fitted in well. And I went to church every Sunday. Not the kind of church you are thinking of, though. It was an old woolshed where Kiwis and Aussies would drink all afternoon. Our coach Tony Rea didn't like it – he even scheduled training in the middle of 'church'... but we usually still managed to get a few drinks in.

How did you get from there to Melbourne?

Terry Matterson, who was with me at London, persuaded (Storm CEO) Chris Johns to take a punt on me. But I was lucky they didn't cut me the week I arrived. It happened to be Melbourne Cup week and somehow I got nude at the track. I never did any harm, but I did drink a little too much and lose my clothes a bit.

Russell Bawden gets an offload away for Melbourne in 2000.
Russell Bawden gets an offload away for Melbourne in 2000. ©NRL Photos

What are your memories of the Storm's grand final win in 1999?

I wanted it so bad that I swore off the grog for three months – and anyone who knows me knows what a massive sacrifice that was. And my mates didn't help. At the pub, they would dip their fingers in beer and smear it on my lips. I tried not to lick it... not easy. The week itself just goes so quickly, but it was great.

And the game itself?

The stats men used to love me because I never used to worry them much with what I did on the field. It was unlimited interchange and (coach) Chris Anderson just wanted me to make an impact from the bench. I made one break as we charged home in the second half... I was pretty chuffed about that. I won a comp – I couldn't believe it. I still feel I've been kissed on the arse by a fairy.

The next year, you played Origin?

Yes, it took me the best part of 10 years, but I finally won Wayne Bennett's acceptance. That was probably the highlight of Origin for me – to win Wayne over despite my bad boy ways. I think I got just three minutes in my debut, but my parents were there and I was happy to be a part of it. I never thought I would get to that stage.

You didn't have a lot of luck in Origin, though, did you?

Three games, three losses. My missus has five brothers and they all rub it in – they reckon I'm the only bloke in Queensland history to play three games and lose them all. But hey, I got there, and I had fun doing it.

You could even have gone a step further?

After Origin, a little birdie told me I was shadow player for Australia for the ANZAC Test against the Kiwis. The selectors went for Chris McKenna instead at the last minute though. It would have been great, but it never happened...

Russell Bawden in action for Queensland in 2001.
Russell Bawden in action for Queensland in 2001. ©NRL Photos

Eventually things went sour for you at Melbourne?

Mark Murray took over as coach. He didn't like blokes having a good time – so he and I didn't get on. He dropped me to Brisbane club footy a few weeks after Origin. But he did recall me so I could play my 100th game for the Storm, for which I was very grateful. But after that, he pushed me out.

Where did you go?

Manly wanted me and I was tempted, but I decided to go back to London. I thought this was my last chance to get flown around the world by someone for free. They even flew my parents over for free... who else would do that but a footy club? I enjoyed two seasons back there before going to France.

You must have enjoyed the French ways?

They were over the top... even for me! We were sponsored by a vineyard – there were wine tastings everywhere! The team bus used to stop for lunch on the way to games... red wine and cheese. I told the coach it had to stop, which was a big step for me. The French never did things by halves – we had a barbecue one day and they just took a whole cow and spit roasted it over a fire. Tasted good though...

You must have seen some funny things on the field there?

Oh, they are mad. In one game, a scrum went down, and a player ran around and did a flying drop kick to the head of the guy opposite him. Another time, this grandmother was yelling abuse from the grandstand. I'm not sure what she was saying but one of the players ran off the field and tried to belt her. We had to hold him back. They thought all this stuff was normal (laughs).

There'a a rumour you are banned from Storm reunions after a rowdy night a few years ago. Any truth to it?

I wasn't banned... I banned myself. I stayed away for a few years but now it's all good and I'm looking forward to catching up with the boys later this year.

I can't help but notice a lot of your stories involve alcohol. Do you ever wonder how good you could have been if you had stayed off the drink?

All the time. There's no doubt I would have been a better footballer. But I wouldn't have had the fun I had. I wish I could have met a younger version of myself now and sat myself down for a chat. Look, I loved it. I had fun and met many great people. My problem was I tried to have a drink with each and every one of them.

This article first appeared in Rugby League Week on May 23, 2012.