Weekend Read: Hawk Thorp carries flag for bold men of Ross

By Paul Daffey

Hawthorn’s Mitch Thorp is known to have a swagger. Even in these injury-stricken times, when he’s battling mishaps that will keep him out for the rest of the season, he’s known to have confidence, a certain way about him, like a bronco rider who rides his luck.

Thorp’s home town, Ross in Tasmania, is the bronco home of the Apple Isle; its rodeo is one of the largest in the southern states. But it’s in producing footballers that the town packs a kick. Two of the most colourful — and exquisitely skilled — VFL players of the 1970s, Brent Crosswell and Craig Davis, are cousins from the Ross region. Mitch Thorp is their nephew. You can see where he gets his boldness from.

The town of Ross is a gorgeous former coach stop between Hobart and Launceston. The most prominent early buildings occupy the four corners of the main crossroad: pub, town hall, former jail and Catholic church. The nearby sandstone bridge, built by convicts in 1836, is the third oldest bridge still standing in Australia. To a mainlander, Ross has the feel of an old English village. You half-expect Dick Whittington to pop out and stick up a carload of Japanese tourists.

A day spent tracing Ross’s footy spirit starts just off the crossroads, where Darrell Crosswell, Brent’s Dad, lives alone. Just after the Second World War, Darrell played at the Ross footy club with his brothers Kevin, who goes by the nickname Starkie, and Neville. A few years later Darrell and Starkie transferred to the Launceston Football Club to play in Northern Tasmania’s strongest competition with their cousin Lance Crosswell. Darrell and Lance (known as Squatter) were later named in Launceston’s team of the century. When Darrell went to Melbourne for his honeymoon he had a practice match with Carlton and impressed enough to be asked to stay. He told the Blues he had to get back to his butcher shop in Tasmania.

Now 83, Darrell is short for a former centre half-back, but he has an upright bearing. His pencil-thin moustache suggests a touch of style, and he’s loath to tell the mainland journalist too much about his footy career. “Make it a bit low key,” he says. “Build up young Thorp.”

Darrell also is reluctant to trumpet his son Brent’s footy career but his admiration is clear. Of the half-dozen photos on the shelf above his television, the only footy pic is one of Brent in a navy jumper with a big V.

Darrell admits that “nearly all the Crosswells could play”, but footy was never given any more prominence than heading into the scrub with a gun and a dog. “The Crosswells are bush people,” he says. Lance’s Squatter nickname was derived from his rabbit-catching forays. When Mitch Thorp returns to Ross, it’s a reflection of his bloodlines that he grabs the family’s black Labrador and his fishing rod and heads to the Macquarie River to catch eels.

After an interview that winds up not long after it started, Darrell Crosswell offers that he’s considering taking his gun into the bush the next day to go hunting—if his sore back allows. In the meantime, he’s going to have a few beers and watch that night’s AFL footy on the television. “Go and see Bob,” he says. “He likes talking about this stuff.”

Bob “Boofa” Davis is the father of Craig and the grandfather of Sydney’s 2005 premiership star Nick. When he greets you at his modest home on the outskirts of Ross, it’s with an openness that’s almost startling. Boofa likes people. He also likes footy, but it wasn’t always that way. He began playing the game only when he returned from the war in 1946, aged 23. In no time he was the best follower in the Tasmanian Midlands.

Boofa stopped playing footy in 1950 only to be lured out of retirement halfway through the next season by Darrell Crosswell, his brother-in-law, to play at Launceston. The pair played in Launceston’s 1951 premiership team. Darrell won the best-and-fairest award in 1951 and Boofa won it the next year. The Ross connection has served the Launceston footy club very well.

At 86, Boofa lives alone in the house that he paid for by selling rabbit pelts when he returned from war. His living room features a couple of chairs around a table and an old armchair in front of a telly. Framed posters of the 2000 Collingwood team and Sydney’s 2005 team hang on his wall. Boofa used to go to Melbourne and Sydney to see Nick play but now he contents himself with watching from his armchair. “I’m too old to go skipping about,” he says. “I’m retired.”

Boofa makes special mention that his son Steve was a good footballer, a talented centre half-forward, at Ross and several clubs in the north of the state. But it’s his stories about Craig, the younger son, that add an extra twinkle to his eyes. In 1973, when Craig was an 18-year-old in his first season at Carlton, Bob and his wife Bev chanced across a spot just outside Launceston where they could hear broadcasts from Melbourne. On Saturdays thereafter, Bob and Bev parked by the side of the road and listened to the footy on the car radio. “We sat there all day,” Boofa says.

The Ross recreation reserve is just near Boofa’s house. It is where Michael Holding, during his brief stint as a Tasmanian bowler, once sent down a short ball that shot over the wicketkeeper’s head and bounced just inside the fence. During a footy match at the oval in 2008, the umpires walked off because the club’s recruits from Hobart’s Risdon prison were too unruly.

Peter and Mandy Thorp, Mitch’s parents, scour the photos on the clubroom walls while waiting for the photographer to case out the ground. Peter is affable and burly. At 185 centimetres he’s short for a ruckman, but that didn’t stop him winning nine best-and-fairest awards in his 10 years at the Ross footy club. Mandy is bright and friendly. It’s noticeable that she and her husband share the talking. One is as comfortable as the other when chatting about family and footy.

Mandy grew up in Ross watching the local footy team play every Saturday. One of her antecedents, Keith Roberts, was the captain of the Tasmanian Football League team in 1929. His picture is on the Ross clubrooms wall, near the photo of Darrell Crosswell. Mandy’s grandmother was Pearl Crosswell.

Peter Thorp was a teenage ruckman in the senior team at North Hobart when he was shot in the lung during a hunting accident. When he was ready to play footy again, he joined a mate who was playing at Ross.

Peter and Mandy met at a footy-club function. Their wedding day coincided with the opening game of the 1987 season, against Woodsdale. Peter played the first half, as did his brother and his best man. At half-time the trio showered and dashed off to the Anglican church for the nuptials.

When Peter Thorp is asked whether he considered not playing on his wedding day, he says he would have been in trouble from his wife-to-be if he failed to pull on the boots. Mandy says: “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.” People throughout Tasmania still stir Peter about the fact that he got three votes from the umpires on his wedding day—for two quarters of footy.

Peter Thorp’s name is not the only one on the Ross honour board to be credited with multiple awards. Ken Harding, a rover in the 1960s and ’70s, won 11 best-and-fairest awards, and everyone in Ross says he could surely have played in Melbourne. As Thorp runs his eye down the honour board’s list of presidents, he says, “Land owner, land owner, land owner ….” Then he comes to T.R. Croswell, Ross president in the late 1940s, and C.G. Crosswell, president in the late ’60s. “The Crosswells are about the only ones up here who weren’t land-owners. They were butchers.”

Randall Crosswell, a ruck-rover, finished second in the club award in almost every year that Thorp won it, while Tom Croswell played at centre half-forward in those teams. “Tom was fiery,” Thorp says. On the night before this interview, Thorp and Tom watched the footy together on television.

Thorp manages a farm for a large land-owner just outside Ross. Away from work he likes to go fishing and hunting but most of his spare time is spent watching footy with his wife. Besides Mitch, the couple have Beau, 18, and Cody, 16, both of whom are chances to be drafted. Last year Peter and Mandy Thorp drove a thousand kilometres a week to take the younger boys to training in Launceston and matches throughout the state.

In talking footy to people in Ross, few seem to think it’s remarkable that Brent Crosswell played in two premierships at Carlton and two at North Melbourne, or that Craig Davis once kicked 87 goals in a season at Collingwood. They shrug and suggest there’s plenty more around Ross who could have made their mark in Victoria if only they’d crossed Bass Strait. If only they’d been so bold.

This story originally ran in the AFL Record in Round 15, 2009.

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