Pope gave Jets a lift
By HUGH KEARNEY
WAS it semi-divine intervention or did it have a more earthly explanation?
Local rugby league identity Tom Grace has claimed a blessing from the late Pope John Paul?II in 1980 was the reason his beleaguered Bilambil Jets won the Group 18 championship that year.
The Pontiff's death last Sunday has brought back memories of a special event 25 years ago which Tom claims changed the course of local rugby league history.
"The Jets had re-formed just two years earlier in 1978 and we didn't win a single game in first grade that year," Tom said.
"In 1979 we won just one game all year and we were really struggling against the bigger clubs.
"Our side was made up of all the rejects from the other clubs and we were surviving on chook raffles," he said.
"The club spirit was strong, but the board realised they had to do something to get more members to boost our coffers, and someone came up with the idea of asking some famous people to join the Jets."
Tom is not sure whose idea it was, but the two names which came to the top of the list were Pope John Paul?II and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
"We wanted to have both sides of the field covered, a dollar each way," Tom said.
"As the publicity officer it was up to me to write the letters, which I did, with the help of Father Hoade, inviting both of them to join up, and sure enough, in due course, we got replies.
"The Archbishop politely declined, but wished us all the best anyway while the Pope's secretary, a Monsignor Lanzoni, sent us a very encouraging letter.
"He said the Holy Father was pleased to receive our letter and had asked him to thank us," Tom said.
"He wrote, 'His Holiness has prayed for you and your friends and he sends his blessing'".
What happened after that is history.
After winning just one game in two seasons, the gutsy Bilambil Jets went on to record a memorable 1980 first grade major premiership, the club's first in 44 years.
"They say faith can move mountains, well it certainly moved Bilambil football club to a premiership, at least that's what we claim," Tom said.
"When the Pope's reply was conveyed to the committee it created a great feeling in the whole club. The committee was fired up, our supporters were like zealots, every match out in force cheering on the battling Jets as they knocked over their more-fancied opponents week after week."
Tom said the premiership battle was very close all season, with very few points separating the teams.
"One week you'd be in first, next week you'd be back in fifth, that's how close it was," he said.
The Jets earned their place in the semifinals with a knockout win over the biggest club of all, Seagulls.
Then one after the other they beat Byron Bay and Cudgen Hornets before beating Murwillumbah Old Boys 23-11 in a memorable grand final at Seagulls ground on Sunday, August 24.
"It was a fantastic game, and Old Boys put up a great fight, but Stan Damro led our boys to a convincing victory," Tom recalled.
According to the Daily News report of the match, written by long-time rugby league correspondent Tom Hogan, the Jets "pounded Old Boys out of the coveted Group 18 premiership in a thrill-a-minute match".
But was it all down to that inspirational letter from the Pontiff which made the difference that year?
A photograph in the Daily News the day before the big game gave up a clue. There, at the Jets' final training session on Thursday night was none other than the high priest of Australian rugby league, the great Jack Gibson.
Gibson or the Pope, that is the question.
Tom Grace is sticking to his story.