In the archives that tell of the fairy-tale rugby league season of 1969, there exists what is surely one of the saddest and most touching of all the many sagas that make up the Australian sporting story-book. It is the tale of a father who through many increasingly difficult weeks made his painful way towards a hoped-for dream, and of his son, a high quality athlete and prolific scorer of rugby league tries tries. The father was Jack Cross of seaside Clovelly, the son, Paul Cross, a dashing wingman, sporting the gold and black of the old foundation club Balmain.
From Paul’s early days in kid’s football in the Souths Juniors, to his rise to the big league with Eastern Suburbs club and then on to Balmain, the pair were virtually inseparable. Jack Cross never missed a single match, even in 1968 when Paul’s working life took him to Canberra where he joined Queanbeyan Kangaroos club. Through that country period, Jack, head of distribution for the Sunday Daily and Sunday Telegraph in Sydney, would each Saturday night hop aboard the last plane south, ready to front up for the local Group 8/9 game the next day.
By the start of 1969, Paul was back in Sydney, having re-joined the Tigers. But by now a dark and unwelcome visitor had arrived on the scene when Jack Cross was diagnosed with what proved to be a brain tumour.
Meanwhile, that unfolding football year itself shone with bright promise. After a slowish start Paul struck a purple patch, scoring 10 tries in nine matches, his form seemingly good enough to secure his first grade spot forever. For each game the ailing Jack Cross was on hand – strong in spirit and providing positive expert support to his son, albeit with his speech now slurring as the tumour wore him down.
In the semi final against reigning premiers Souths at the famous old Sydney Cricket Ground, Paul hit the heights, scoring a quick-thinking, fleet footed try that took Balmain to the very edge of the grand final. But it was then that the long march of father and son towards their shared dream hit the wall. Just three days after Balmain’s win over Manly in the final, Balmain coach Leo Nosworthy, a hard, fair man, made one of the most difficult calls of his career and left Cross out of the 13 to play against Souths in the grand final. The coach pulled Paul aside to relay the news…. The news of which Paul’s parents, Rotha and Jack would hear on the radio at home.
On Grand Final Day 1969, featuring a now-legendary match which today has recognition as one of the great upsets of rugby league history, Paul Cross played in the preceding reserve grade grand final, which Balmain lost 10-6 against Manly. He then sat on the sidelines as a reserve for the Firsts…..but no call to the field ever came, and in the final great irony the winning Tigers’ try (to Syd William) came down what had been Paul Cross’s wing seven days before. At fulltime, Balmain fans urged the Balmain reserves to go out onto the field and join the heroes of the day.
Paul Cross declined: “”It was their day,” he said….”it wasn’t mine”
Paul called at Balmain League Club that night to congratulate his mates, before heading home to be with his parents.
Three weeks later Jack Cross underwent major brain surgery for removal of his tumour. He never regained consciousness after the long operation and died two days later, at 53……
“My father taught me the value of positive support and the value of family,” Paul said. “And to be there for the both the good times and times when things were not so good.
“His message was: Be encouraging and be true to yourself.”
Ian Cross is the co-author of Great Australian Sporting Stories out now