The group is called True Sports and its mission is for its members to step down from their sport or rock star pedestals and tell insightful stories – stories that reveal their humanity – and to entertain the punters with “a fair bit of Australian rock and songs from the ’70s and ’80s”.
A portion of the ticket sales for the group’s May 28 show at the Saraton Theatre will be donated to the Gotcha4Life Foundation, which says its “vision is zero suicides, simple as that”.
Drummer and Talkin’ Sport radio host Gavin Robertson, sometimes called ‘Skipper’ by his bandmates, says the days of “where you were taught to run away from failure and anything that was going wrong [have passed]. Today it’s a different world and we open up and we talk about our problems, and we share and we care. We open up and are honest about our lives and our ups and downs.”
The group – cricketers Mike Whitney, Richard Chee Quee and Gavin ‘Robbo’ Roberston; rugby league players Mark ‘Spudd’ Carroll and Eric ‘Guru’ Grothe; and musician/producer Steve Balbi – formed out of the ashes of Robertson’s former group Six and Out.
It was early 2019, Robertson says, and Six and Out’s shows had to be cancelled when band member Brett Lee went “overseas, doing commentary and a couple of other things”. Six and Out’s lead singer, Richard Chee Quee, had broken the news in a phone call.
“So, I went over to [Richard’s place] and we talked Six and Out stories for about two or three hours; and I knew that he really missed music. I said, ‘You know what? I reckon we could create a band, you and me, and I reckon Mike Whitney would love to be in a band with us, and Eric Grothe and Mark Carroll. All we need now is a bass player.’
“So, we spent about five weeks searching around for a rugby league or a cricket person who plays bass guitar … and we couldn’t find anybody.”
Meanwhile, Robertson had written a song with Steve Balbi for the Fox cricket channel. “I had to go over to his place to sign some paperwork,” Robertson says. “Steve asked, ‘What have you been doing?’ When I told him, he said ‘You know how much I like cricket Robbo? Geez, I’d love to be in that band.’ And I was absolutely blown away that a Noiseworks legend would want to be in a band with three Australian cricketers and two Australian rugby league players.”
But tragedy arrived four days after the group’s first rehearsal in March 2019. “We were, literally, pumped. Even in the car park on the first night after we learned seven songs, we were doing high fives and [were] really excited at the possibilities. But then I got rushed into hospital with a brain tumour.”
Eight months later the idea to form True Sports was rebirthed. “It was amazing, because all of those boys came to my house, to sit out the back and just see how I was … over a cup of tea. Next minute there were acoustic guitars. That was the day where we decided to keep going.”
Even the pandemic wasn’t enough to put the idea to bed. The group finally played its first show in June 2021, to 300 willing punters at the Richmond Club in Hawkesbury; but then another lockdown put the show on hold again.
“That first show was a positive experience for everybody involved,” says Robertson. “We told stories about our successes and funny things that happened in our careers, and people loved it. Then we put on a live rock show and, [afterwards], spent about an hour and a half with the fans.”
When asked if there was a particularly memorable story from that first show, Robertson answers by re-emphasising that he “can’t believe I’m playing with Steve Balbi from Noiseworks”. But it was one of Balbi’s stories “that we didn’t even know about”, which showed a way back to normalcy for those who have lost their way, that cut through.
“Steve gets a call from Kevin Borich and all of a sudden he’s a 16-year-old kid leaving school, going to play in New Zealand with Kevin Borich. [But], you know, heroin was available, and he told the whole story about what happened to him with heroin.
“It’s an unbelievable story; how he broke away from it and created this amazing life. He just blew the crowd away; like, the crowd was just in shock. So that was a genuine surprise, because we didn’t know. I thought, ‘Wow, the depth of our stories is pretty amazing.’”
A Noiseworks song, Touch, was among the songs the group had learnt, and three days before the first show, Robertson saw a video of Balbi on Youtube, playing the song with an acoustic guitar.
“But it’s not the Noiseworks version; it’s just Steve and an acoustic guitar. I said to the boys, can everyone have a listen to this? So, we made a decision that night: in three days-time, let’s stop at the eighth song, introduce Steve and tell [the audience] how he wrote this song.
“So, he’s seated, [lit by] one light with an acoustic guitar singing, ‘reach out and touch somebody’, while all of us got together on two mics, arm in arm, and sang the harmony in the chorus. That was a standing ovation when he finished … there were moments that we didn’t know about, but all of a sudden they just happened.”
Iconic Australian cricketer Shane Warne’s recent passing was a particularly raw experience for Robertson; however, his grief fuelled the creation of a song that might just find its way on to the airwaves between now and the Saraton show.
“I didn’t sleep for about the first three days. Then on the third night I was out the front of my house and, basically, I just began writing some stuff about Shane … and then I fell asleep on the lounge. I woke up next morning and realised that I’d written a poem. I was driving to Sydney the next day for the radio show and I dropped into Steve’s house.
“He said to me, ‘Jesus, you know, you look tired, Robbo.’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and I told him why. It blew me away, that Steve was reading the poem. He said, ‘Look, mate, we should look at this and spend a few hours on it. I think this could be a really good song.’”
Eight hours later, an acoustic demo of the song was completed – but why was Shane Warne’s death so painful for Robertson?
“He is a classic example of somebody who is not overly concerned about what’s happening to him,” says Robertson. “He was always someone that was like, ‘Give me the ball.’ In 1998, in India, we [Australia] were getting smashed in the second test. Warnie went for none for 149 and I was two for 161; but he wasn’t down on himself or not wanting to bowl. I remember walking off at teatime; he was like, ‘We just need one breakthrough in the last session, and that one breakthrough could become three or four wickets.’ That’s generally how he was all the time. He was never someone that was like, ‘Oh no, it’s going no good. I’m not in form, or it’s just not my day or whatever. He was always, ‘Oh, well, gimme the ball, give me a chance.’
But, in the end, it’s the supportive team spirit that powers True Sports. Bilby, Robertson says, appreciates that, “‘You guys bring that team part of sport into a band situation very well.’ So, one of the primary things when we are speaking is that we really open up the true stories about our lives, and the funny stories.
“And the other thing? We really love to play music and, you know, have a good time with the crowd … and then we’re getting to meet people who are interested in sports and music and the stories.
“Hanging out with the fans at the end, you know, we have interesting catch-ups with people … and it’s so good to meet those people.
“We’ve worked it out so we can do 12 big shows a year. And for half of those shows, we’ll get out to the country areas, because so many of our sports talent [and sports fans] actually come from country areas.”
Tickets for the Saturday May 28 show are available through the Saraton Theatre’s website.